What Do You Want From Me?

New Yorker cartoon by Peter Steiner
Lyz Lenz cites Rebecca Solnit as having told her “Every story men love to tell is Pygmalion.” A trace hyperbolic, perhaps, but Lyz goes on to list some of the many novels and films that are essentially about men creating “the perfect woman”. And how everything goes askew after that.

I found this interesting because it runs counter to, or perhaps parallel to, the oft-stated belief that women select a male partner for his potential, what he might become (with her guidance), rather than who he already is. And then, when she has presumably maneuvered him into proposing a relationship with her (so it appears to be his decision and initiative), she gets to work to help him to realize that potential.

It might seem, then, that the difference between male and female idealism, when it comes to partnering, is that the male wants to build his perfect mate from scratch, while the female, perhaps more pragmatically, is prepared to work with what is already there. At least, that is the ideal once they each realize that the perfect partner, “ready made”, was just a dream.

These are of course stereotypes, but they raise a number of, I think, interesting questions:

  1. What accounts for these different ideals, the qualities sought in a mate?
  2. What are the implications of these differences in terms of the possibilities of having joyful, functional relationships, and what can one do, if anything, given those implications, to give one’s relationships the greatest chance of bringing happiness to both partners?
  3. Are the dynamics different in what we look for in an ideal friend, from what we look for in an ideal partner, and if so, how and why?

Books could be written on any of these subjects (and have been), but I wanted to look at these questions through the lens through which I have of late come to see the world: (1) That we are all doing our best, (2) that we have no free will and hence our behaviour is strictly the result of our biological and cultural conditioning, (3) that our species is currently suffering from massive, ubiquitous and debilitating trauma, and (4) that our current global civilization is in an accelerating state of inevitable collapse.

The components of this lens are, of course, highly debatable (and I have discussed my reasons for believing them previously, and often, on this blog). And these components are also interrelated, in complex ways. But for this essay, I’m going to take this sad state of affairs as a given, and try to explore how it might have contributed to the current unhappy state of many human relationships, and vice versa, and what that might mean for the fabric of our society as we try to cope with everything falling apart.

The obvious place to start this enquiry is with love — how it compels us, how it’s different for men vs women, what our expectations of it are, and how those expectations evolve (and generally lessen) over the life of a relationship.

It seems we have no choice about who we fall in love with (it’s our biological and cultural conditioning again). But somehow there seems to be some wiggle room to alert us to relationships where intuitively we sense it’s a bad idea, which can prevent us from falling in love when we otherwise probably would have. There’s also a lot of evidence that even when one or both partners knows a relationship is no longer what it once was, inertia tends to keep the couple together until something (often an affair) precipitates a formal separation.

I wrote about the dynamics of monogamous relationships 13 years ago in an article that argued that our civilization, and in particular its capitalist elements, conspire to control us (keep us all aligned, doing the same things, obedient, anxious, and placid) by creating a world of artificial scarcity, including a scarcity of love and compassion, that makes us fearful of being alone, even when the alternative is an unsatisfying or even abusive relationship.

This artificial scarcity is, I think, an essential component of the trauma cycle that is both a driver and a consequence of our wasteful overconsumption, overpopulation, and our insatiable desire for far more than we actually need:

In the 2011 article I also reviewed how our current ideal of lifelong monogamous partnership evolved, citing Laura Kipnis’ book Against Love:

The book argues that monogamy is unnatural and unhealthy, and possibly complicit in our emotional detachment from political life and our ecosystem as well. Laura sees monogamy as part of the cultural indoctrination that leads to wage slavery and mindless consumerism — it’s all about creating scarcity (in this case, scarcity of love and sex) to drive up the ‘value’ of both, and hence needlessly drive up the hunger, desperation and jealousy (and, alas, resultant domestic violence) of so many in their anguished search for them. And ultimately, it’s all about creating a ‘consumer’ populace that is (financially and emotionally) endlessly needy, unsatisfied, and wanting more.

When I wrote this, I blamed capitalist greed for this scarcity. I’ve become a bit more charitable since then, and I’d now say that scarcity was maintained to keep 8B apes, not evolutionarily meant to be obedient members of a vast amorphous and uncomfortable consumer culture, in line. We have, in short, been culturally conditioned to be needy, anxious, dissatisfied, uncertain, off-kilter, fearful, passive, dependent, and obedient, because otherwise we’d likely have killed most of each other off by now. (Primatologists assert that no other ape could ever be conditioned to put up with the restrictions we have come to accept as normal.)

When it comes to relationships, that neediness, dissatisfaction, fearfulness and dependence plays out in a (justifiably) perceived scarcity of romantic and sexual partners, with all the anxieties, jealousies, and envy that that entails. So what is our answer for dealing and coping with this? Perhaps the male answer is to build more “from scratch”, Pygmalion-style, while the female answer is to settle for less, and work harder to bring one, or a few, of the sad pool of male partner candidates “up to scratch”.

So we have male fantasies about robotic females and reprogrammed “bimbos” to cater to the man’s every wish (mostly: sexual availability, fidelity, and willingness to do most of the labour, both physical and emotional, in the relationship). And we have female fantasies about attentive, appreciative, competent, supportive, faithful, dependable, hard-working males who do their fair share of the domestic work, look relatively attractive and do occasionally adorable, unexpected things*.

The male ideal is actually less heartless and outrageous than it might at first appear. (But then, I’m a male, so I’m biased.) If there’s a perceived shortage of something, the conditioned male instinct, it would seem, is to build more of them. Hence the Pygmalion tendencies. If there were lots of very lifelike, utterly obedient female robots with very sophisticated programming, would men be satisfied, to the point of not wanting relationships with human females as much? I think it’s doubtful. If there were an abundance of androids and a scarcity of human females, men would probably continue to fret (and fight) over what was scarce. And (a great surprise to me), men actually want children more than women do. And based on surveys of male sexuality I’ve seen, I suspect that the novelty of high-tech non-human sex would wear off quickly — perhaps even faster than it would for women.

So I would argue that what men think/fantasize they would ideally like in a relationship with a woman, and what would actually make them happy, are two very different things.

I would hypothesize that this is in part because most men just aren’t particularly emotionally aware of what they really want. That is probably also due largely to differences in conditioning, but it doesn’t bode well for enduring relationships.

Do women know better what they really want from relationships with men? As with men, my guess is that most women think they know what they want (see list* of qualities above). Getting those things would likely go a long way to making them happy/happier in their relationships. There is, after all, an enormous inequity between what men and women, on average, put into a relationship, and what they get out of it.

But my sense is that that ain’t going to happen (things are the way they are for a reason, and IMO that’s all about our conditioning and not something that awareness of its “injustice” is going to change). The root cause of this inequity, and the unhappiness it produces, I think, is systemic, and goes back to the evolved social fabric of our civilization.

I think we have to go deeper than inherent male laziness (a laziness which I’m nevertheless quite willing to acknowledge) leading to what the above-linked song calls men’s “false incompetence” (as in: “When I do the [enter type of tedious work here] I can never do it as well as you do, dear”).

To do that, I think we have to go back to the very structure of our civilization culture. And that structure is atomized, with the tasks and responsibilities once jointly held by the community having been transferred to the nuclear family. Most of the drudgery of day-to-day life (the tasks of child-rearing, gathering and preparing foods, and ‘maintaining the nest’) was once done by the community collectively, ensuring that the workload was more evenly spread and had less duplicative work and lower resource needs per person than the ‘single family’ home requires.

Even in avian communities, where birds supposedly ‘mate for life’ (though they actually don’t), the whole community drops everything and assists in the work of feeding and caring for the young. In crow families, for example, the young stay with their parents for their second year of life and help with all aspects of child-rearing of their younger siblings. And un-partnered crows pitch in as well. Geese even have community baby-sitters.

cartoon by Will McPhail, from his website

But Kelly (who knows her feminist history) reminded me that even in many pre-civilization cultures where the community was actively involved in collective work, there were still apparently substantial inequalities, most of them reflected in the heavier burden on women in maintaining both the social fabric of the community and in maintaining and navigating personal and societal relationships (the aforementioned ’emotional labour’). When I asked her why she thought this inequality had arisen, she identified a possible more fundamental culprit: the concept of personal property.

Go back far enough in human history, back to when humans belonged to the land, rather than the other way around, and we are more likely to find something closer to true equality between men and women. Because as soon as we envisioned personal property — the ‘ownership’ of land, buildings, animals — we could envision one person or group owning another person or group — slavery. It was the ‘invention’ of slavery that enabled the idea of someone being the property of someone else, and hence made hierarchy and gender inequality possible and even politically ‘acceptable’.

But even if you look at the most apparently misogynistic wild primates — namely baboons and gorillas — you have to consider Robert Sapolski’s long-term study showing how one brutal patriarchal baboon tribe suddenly and completely transitioned to an enduring peaceful matriarchy when the circumstances allowed it (it happened when all the alpha males suddenly died of accidental poisoning). This study conclusively demonstrated that patriarchal primate behaviour is not inherent or biologically-driven. It is all cultural conditioning.

So — a recap before I return to the three questions posed at the outset of this essay:

  • The artificial creation of material and relational scarcities, which evolved as part of civilization (and especially capitalist) culture, is likely behind a lot of the social and emotional dysfunction we are living with today.
  • Thanks to this (probably accidental, unintentional) civilizational dysfunction, we have been culturally conditioned to be needy, anxious, dissatisfied, uncertain, off-kilter, fearful, passive, dependent, and obedient.
  • Because of the disconnection and trauma that this conditioning has produced in us, we often no longer know what we really want in our relationships, and when we think we know, and pursue that, we often find it wasn’t what we really wanted at all.
  • What we perhaps actually want are the kinds of interpersonal and communal relationships that were likely commonplace prior to our civilizations’ atomization of community and its invention of personal property.

There seems to be something at the very root of the human animal (and perhaps every animal) that aspires to be wild and free. And we know instinctively we are not, so we are unhappy, dissatisfied, longing for something but not knowing quite what it is. We are, I would assert, caged, constrained, by the cultural conditioning that will not let us be our authentic, wild, free selves. And our culture, with its artificially-created but massive scarcities, also renders us terrifyingly insecure. So we seek to be wild and free, but at the same time we seek to be safe and secure. That shouldn’t be too much to ask for, should it?

Most men, more than most women I think, seem to think that possessions (including the possession of wives and children, power, fame and wealth) will somehow fulfill that longing, fill that empty space. Most women, perhaps more pragmatically due to their cultural (and to some extent biological) conditioning, look to make the best of the situation they’ve been handed. Possession of things to many women is, it seems to me, often just a means to an end, and that end is frequently security. Thanks to millennia of cultural oppression, security is, for most women, I think, the ultimate and never-ending scarcity. Though a little wildness, a little freedom, a little joy for women would be nice, too! At least the freedom to not be treated as a possession, as ‘property’!

So that leads me to my tentative, and incomplete, answers to the three questions:

  1. Most men look ideally for a partner who will both allow them to be wild and free, their authentic animal selves, and also do most of the work to provide the essentials of a secure space for them to live and raise children. Most women, I think, look pragmatically for a partner who will help provide them a safe and secure place to live and perhaps raise a family, but also, ideally, give them the space and opportunity to be their authentic, wild and free selves as well. That’s a generalization, of course, and I think the lines between the two genders’ ideals are rapidly blurring. And I believe our conditioned fears, long-standing hatreds and unresolved anger, grief, and trauma also play heavily into what each of us seeks and wants in a partner.
  1. What this means, I would guess, is that what most males and most females are looking for in a romantic relationship aren’t substantively that different. Our priorities may differ depending on our gender and (even more) on our personal circumstances. And because our behaviour is conditioned, we’re more likely to be able to keep our relationship functional if we can at least appreciate why those priorities, ideals, and desires are often so different. Some of the happiest couples I know are those who live next door to each other rather than in the same home, and have separate bank accounts. And they seem both exceptionally self-aware and exceptionally aware of (and accepting of) each other’s conditioning, triggers and traumas.
  1. How are the dynamics, priorities, ideals and conditioning between friends different from those between romantic partners? Not that much, I suspect. Our expectations of friends are generally different from (and often lower than) our expectations of a romantic partner, but the same dynamics, priorities, ideals and conditioning are often in play. Perhaps not surprisingly, I would guess that most female friendships are deeper and more intense than male friendships. As for platonic male-female friendships, that would require a whole separate article.

Lyz’s article, mentioned at the top of this post, which got me thinking about all this, supports the thesis of her new book This American Ex-Wife — that many married women would be much happier and much better off in every respect getting divorced and living alone, including raising their children. She is particularly (and IMO justifiably) incensed at the efforts of American conservatives, having already severely restricted women’s access to safe abortions, to now start restricting women’s access to divorce, and particularly to no-fault divorce. It appears that many conservatives have never quite given up the idea that some people should inherently be the property of, and enslaved by, other people.

What is the cost, to all of us, when women have been so long and so severely oppressed by our ‘civilized’ society that they are compelled to seek security through their relationships, often with men who, due to their own trauma and emotional incapacity, offer them the absolute antithesis of security?

In Against Love, Laura Kipnis comments on this cost, describing what we want and hope for from love and relationship, and what we finally come to expect and settle for:

The most tragic form of loss is not the loss of security, but the loss of the ability to imagine how one’s life could be different.

And in a recent article, Lyz also weighs in on the cost of this ‘security’:

Rules and rigid definitions and codes of conduct are always supposedly done for [women’s] benefit. Get back inside the safety of the patriarchy… Too many women fall for it, because fear has been sewn into the female experience. We are taught to walk afraid through the world — with the knowledge that anything can and will happen to us if we are not protected.

But really, the safety being offered is a cage.

Posted in Collapse Watch, How the World Really Works, Illusion of the Separate Self and Free Will, Our Culture / Ourselves | 2 Comments


This is #27 in a series of month-end reflections on the state of the world, and other things that come to mind, as I walk, hike, and explore in my local community.

photo by Laitche at wikimedia, CC-BY-SA 4.0. Taken at Daisen Park, Osaka, Japan

Today I was watching a large flock of pigeons — perhaps 50 in all — flying furiously around the apartment towers outside my window. They flew non-stop for more than an hour, and formed, dissolved and reformed into as many as three separate groups before recombining. It was astonishing to watch — the beauty, the waves of movement, the patterns they made in the sky. There is no scientific agreement on why their conditioning causes them to do this, and so my tentative assessment (‘theories should be as simple as possible, but no simpler’) is that they do it strictly for pleasure. For the same reason, in other words, that we humans go for walks and runs, sometimes in groups.

What my brain, focused on the patterns of the birds’ flight, evidently surmised was that the entire flock, this ‘system’ of birds, was a single ‘thing’ in motion, a single organism. The word ‘flock’, after all, is singular. I began to ponder whether these birds, driven to do what they apparently do by their biological and cultural conditioning, thought of themselves as individuals, separate from other birds and other things, at all. My tentative conclusion is that they don’t think of themselves as either individuals or as a part of a flock, or something ‘larger’. I suspect the thought never arises. There is no need to conceive of either separation or apart-ness.

So if they don’t conceive of themselves as separate, are they? Or is our human insistence that there are fifty separate birds there just our own conceit, our way of making sense of our perceptions, based entirely on our own biological and cultural conditioning?

There are some philosophies and religions that assert that nothing is ‘really’ separate, though most of them have been so buried in incomprehensible ‘teachings’ that it is impossible to discern what they actually mean by that, if their practitioners even know themselves. Religious and philosophical beliefs, after all, are also just the result of our conditioning. They do not have to make sense, or even mean one thing, for millions of people to profess to believe in them, and to insist they share an understanding with other believers.

So, as I walk around the lake today, watching the birds, the people, and the dogs, trying to just notice the sensations and not let my brain attempt to interpret them, I ask myself: WTF does it mean to say nothing is actually separate from anything else?

The ducks on the lake seem to have gathered together in a few small corners of it, with most of them sleeping and making those lovely quiet chortling sounds. The dogs walking their people on the path nearby must be regulars — they pay no attention as they pass the ducks.

I look at one of the ducks and imagine: If I could zoom in really close I would see the individual cells, organs, and tissues that ‘make up’ the duck. Each cell is doing what it has been conditioned to do. Where is the duck now, as an individual? Is it an individual by virtue of the fact there is apparently a border between ‘duck’ and ‘not-duck’? Most of what appears to be the ‘duck’ parts are actually bacteria with their own non-duck DNA. And there’s a membrane, an ‘atmosphere’ outside the apparent ‘duck’ parts that is constantly exchanging ‘duck’ parts with non-duck parts as part of its respiratory, thermal regulation and other systems.

So now if I zoom in closer, at one molecule of one feather, I might see that it’s a barbule molecule. A barbule is like a small hook that waterfowl have thousands of on their feathers, to hold the feathers together to keep out wind and water. Ducks spend as much as 25% of their (biologically and culturally conditioned) lives preening their feathers to keep the barbules in order, and coating their feathers with a water-repellant oil they secrete and transfer from a gland at the base of their tails.

This one barbule molecule I’ve zoomed in on is a keratin protein molecule, one of many types of keratin molecules needed in the construction of various types of feathers (and also, BTW, in the construction of your fingernails). What role did the supposed separate, individual ‘duck’ play in this complex construction?

So now I zoom in on this single keratin molecule to see what it’s made up of. Such giant proteins as keratins are very complex, but they are largely composed, I learn, of “the amino acids serine, proline, valine, leucine, glutamate and aspartate”. When I zoom in on one of the amino acids in this particular feather protein I see that it is a serine amino acid (from the Latin word for silk). Its formula is C3H7NO3 but those elements are arranged in different ways for different purposes. For this feather, it’s the aminyl radical NH2 piece I’m looking at, and specifically the nitrogen atom.

Nitrogen atoms need to be ‘ripped apart’ to form amino acids, since nitrogen naturally forms a tight triple bond between two nitrogen atoms (the only tighter bond in nature is that of CO2 molecules, which makes the process of photosynthesis even more remarkable). When the nitrogen atoms are pried apart, they’re the essential ingredient in the fertilizers that keep half of humanity alive, as well as a key ingredient of Kevlar, dynamite, antibiotics (and most other drugs), caffeine, ammonia and superglue. Somehow or other, the DNA molecules in this apparent duck knew how to access and assemble it into the amino acids needed to make feathers that keep ducks alive. And of course nitrogen is also an essential component of DNA molecules themselves.

So now this particular nitrogen atom has seven protons, seven neutrons, and seven electrons. I’m now zooming in on one of these electrons, one of the two that is ‘shared’, kind of, with one of the hydrogen atoms in the radical part of the amino acid. I had always thought that this meant that these electrons circled both the nuclei that ‘shared’ them, but as I look closer I see that that isn’t correct at all. The electrons don’t ‘exist’ as such. They are ‘described’ by their wave function, and are neither particles nor waves. Their probability function might best be described as an “atmosphere” of potentiality around the nucleus. (Yeesh, my vision is getting ‘cloudy’ from all this zooming in.)

So although this electron isn’t a particle, what is it made up of? Well, it seems, no one knows. Although protons and neutrons have subcomponents, called quarks and gluons, and there are many other subatomic ‘particles’ either known or theorized, electrons are, scientists currently think, ‘elementary’ (you know, like elements were suppose to be ‘element-ary’). Some of these subcomponents are ‘virtual particles’, because, well, they aren’t ‘real’ particles (like the electrons that don’t really exist). And no one can agree on how many gluons there are in a nucleus, doing the, you know, job of keeping the nucleus together so it doesn’t erupt into spontaneous nuclear fission. They ‘know’ there are some gluons, but because they are ‘virtual’ they don’t know how many. Three, eight, and sixteen, are popular theories, but the number is apparently constantly changing because they ‘virtually’ appear and disappear. I am not making any of this up.

As for the quarks, they are “theoretical particles”. They have been “observed” only in respect of their properties, their behaviours. The behaviours observed consistently conform to the theoretical model, so scientists have declared that by virtue of that conformity, the ‘things’ exhibiting these behaviours “exist” and are “real”. Or, more accurately, they appear to be real. At least until some better explanation, some theory that more precisely explains the observed behaviours, is developed.

On top of this, all of these tiny particles, virtual particles, waves and ‘functions’ ‘fill’ only a tiny proportion of the space in any larger agglomeration. When you touch something ‘solid’ like a table with your hand, what makes it seem solid and impenetrable is the repulsion of the electrons (which don’t ‘really’ exist) in the (relatively vast) (probability) ‘field’ around the (tiny) nuclei in the table and your hand.

So back to the duck. Is the duck ‘separate’ from anything else? And if so, what makes it ‘separate’? Is it the human viewer’s conception of it as separate? Is it its ‘consciousness’ of itself as separate? What is this ‘consciousness’ anyway? What if there were evidence that the duck does not, and need not, conceive of itself as separate (or in fact conceive of ‘itself’ at all), to be a perfectly well-functioning duck (and ducks have been around thirty times longer than humans)? ‘It’ (or all of the things we conceive of as comprising ‘it’) just does what its (their) biological and cultural conditioning compel it (them) to do, given the circumstances of the moment. No conception of self or separation, and no ‘consciousness’, is required.

The ‘duck’, it seems to me therefore, is not an individual, it is a name, a label, that we put on our conception, our ‘idea’, of all those (possibly infinite) mysterious and possibly non-existent theoretical sub-components of what we have labeled. The ‘duck’ is not separate from anything else. In that sense, just like some of the components we ascribe to it, it is an ‘appearance’ that does not really exist.

And we’re no different from the duck. Nothing, I would suggest, is actually separate from anything else. We just concoct a model of reality in our brains that labels things as separate, and agree on that model with other humans, because that is what we’ve been conditioned to do. All of us, including the theoretical physicists. There is evidence that only humans invent such a complete fabrication to ‘represent’ reality; other creatures don’t, simply because there is no need to. The model of ‘reality’ is not needed for ‘everything’ to apparently function perfectly well.

One could say (and one current ‘theory of everything’ proposes) that the universe we perceive, and conceive, is just an infinite field of possibilities — a probability distribution. There is no need to explain why or how that’s so, but our human conditioning seems to drive us to try anyway.

So if that’s the case, then nothing is actually real, or unreal. Everything is just a ‘possible’ appearance out of, for want of a better word, nothing. Nothing more is needed. But as we’re conditioned to want to explain everything in terms of this model, we have, I would suggest, created the ultimate, flexible, building block of all reality — and that is stories. If nothing actually is real, then every attempt to ‘real-ize’ (understand) anything is a story. In a way, it is only our stories that ‘make’ everything real.

Stories are unique to humans, but that’s OK. And they’re complete fictions, unnecessary to and irrelevant to everything functioning just the way it apparently does, but that’s OK too. We can’t help ourselves. We’ve even invented storyboards in which to ‘locate’ all of our stories so they’re internally coherent in our model, and coherent to other humans. Those storyboards are what we call space and time. All of our ‘understanding’ is simply the pasting of stories into these storyboards to compulsively (as we’ve been conditioned) try to make sense of (ie to conceptualize) everything we perceive. Complete fictions, unnecessary to and irrelevant to everything functioning just the way it apparently does. And that’s OK. We humans can’t do otherwise. We’re not separate from anything else either, and what we call our ‘self’ is just another story, the ‘story of us’.

Whew. My head is spinning. Must have been sniffing too many gluons.

There is a little boy (what’s the deal with all these little kids pushing their own strollers?) who is asking his mother a million questions, most of them starting with “Why?”. When does this become an important question to a child? And, um, why?  To what extent is our conditioning (to have to make sense of things) biological, ie in our genes, rather than cultural, prompted by other (so-called) humans?

I feel badly for the boy, and his mother. She clearly finds all the questions tedious, but knows that if her child is unable to master the process of making-sense, conceptualizing, creating stories, constructing a fictional representation of reality that meshes with that of other humans, he will not be able to function in any human civilization.

This is the terrifying price of imagining one’s self separate. As soon as he’s conceived to be separate, he’s vulnerable, he’s ‘responsible’, and, worst of all, he — this supposedly separate thing — will one day die. And there is no ‘cure’ for this cruel story, because that’s all it is — a story. His life, and his death, are just stories, pasted into the conceptualized human-invented storyboards of space and time. They aren’t real. But damn, we’ve conditioned ourselves well to think they’re real!

What would ‘we’ be without our stories? Just part of the appearance of nothing as everything, inseparable? No different from all the apparent creatures not plagued with the dis-ease of ‘consciousness’ of ‘their’ separateness?

I watch the boy formulating his questions. “Why do ducks sleep in the daytime?” First there are sense-perceptions: The colours and movements and sounds and smells and feel of everything. Then there is the labeling: Lake, duck, quack. Then there is the story creation: Duck on lake quacking. Duck’s eyes are closed. Quacking means awake. Sleeping happens at night. Ergo “Why do ducks sleep in the daytime?” There is a desperation to the question. Something here doesn’t fit with the story he’s created. Everything has to be ‘fit’ into the story, to make the story ‘right’. Why? That’s his, and our, conditioning. There doesn’t need to be, and cannot be, any reason beyond that.

It’s been going on like this, I would surmise, for us poor illusory separate self-ish humans with our huge entangled brains, since the dawn of civilization.

But then, that’s just a story, too.

I wander off to the quieter, less scenic part of the lake. There is a crow, squawking at me from a tree above my head, though it is not squawking at ‘me’ particularly. There is no reason for it to recognize a separate ‘me’ in order for it to squawk. It is squawking at this intrusion into its equanimity. It’s an instinctive, conditioned response to unfamiliar movement. If it were a month from now, during nesting season for crows, it might well be dive-bombing me, a more urgent conditioned response. This squawking is more nuanced, quieter.

I flap my arms as ‘wings’ and make cawing noises. That’s my own conditioned response. I couldn’t have done anything else. There was no choice in the matter for me, any more than there was from the squawking crow. How would I characterize this response? Playful, curious, mimicking (badly)?

The crow isn’t buying it. It hunches down a bit, looking at me. Is it curious? Is it trying to ‘make sense’ of what I am doing? That would be the anthropocentric explanation. But I doubt that that is what is happening here. What we would call playfulness and curiosity is part of its conditioning — play and exploration are a means of maximizing pleasure and minimizing pain, the meta-level objective (apparently) for behaviour. Coincidentally perhaps, play and curiosity also teach it (condition it) to be able to respond to situations it might encounter later in life. It’s how crows, and humans, evolved. Why? There doesn’t have to be a reason, a story to explain it. It doesn’t have to ‘make sense’.

When, recently, I watched a crow repeatedly dropping a pebble in midair and then swooping down to catch it in its beak, I called that ‘play’. I explained it as being the result of dopamine being released into the crow’s body, producing a feeling of pleasure that conditioned the crow to repeat the behaviour. And my conditioned curiosity hence compelled me to watch intently and smile. If there is no ‘real’ separate crow, or separate anything, what is ‘conditioning’ really about? What is curiosity really about — mine, the crow’s, the little boy’s? What is evolution really about? Are all our answers to all these questions just more stories to try to make sense of what is apparently happening?

Now, as the story of me and the story of the crow have apparently diverged, and as I resume my walk around the lake, I wonder: What is left? If there is nothing separate, no ‘one’ deciding anything, just nothing appearing as everything and as everything apparently happening, just an infinite field of possibilities, for no reason or purpose — then what?

My tentative acceptance of this apparent purposeless and meaninglessness of everything, contrary to the fears of many (especially compatibilist) philosophers, does not reduce (the apparent) me to a state of dark nihilism. Quite the opposite, in fact — It seemingly frees me of the responsibility of and for my ‘self’ and my ‘story’, and of having to ‘do’ anything other than what my conditioning apparently drives me to do anyway. It frees (the apparent) me to just be — to simply witness this astonishing appearance, this incredible conjuring trick of everything out of nothing. That, perhaps, is as close an answer as could ever be found to the question I asked at the start of this post, before scurrying down an endless rabbit hole: What does it mean to say that nothing is separate?

At the far side of the lake, there is a bandshell for musical and theatre performances al fresco. I sit on one of the benches and stare out at the lake.

A man walks by with two cell phones, one held to each ear, as he turns his head to speak to one and then the other, making facial expressions that are presumably appropriate to each conversation.

Three teenaged girls pass by going the opposite way around the lake, laughing, one of them showing off some dance moves on the bandshell stage. The three are apparently laughing and poking fun at some guy named Chad (or perhaps Chad is a generic name for a male ‘type’ they are poking fun at — are ‘Chads’ still a thing?).

Two old men, one with a fishing rod, are standing near me, speaking in a language I do not know. But they are clearly grumbling, commiserating, gesticulating with their free hands, perhaps about the sorry state of the world, or at least their part of it.

A little girl marches by, her parents walking behind her. She is apparently twirling an imagined baton, as the parade leader.

A small dog with its leash in its mouth runs around the bandshell. Perhaps it is looking for the person who belongs on the other end of the leash, or perhaps it is just taking itself for a walk.

I look up, and the pigeons are soaring overhead, in aerial ballet. No one else appears to notice them, so perhaps they don’t really exist.

A million stories, playing themselves out.

What would we be without our stories?

Posted in Creative Works, Illusion of the Separate Self and Free Will, Month-End Reflections | 7 Comments

Wearable Homes, Revisited

midjourney AI’s imagining of a wearable home; my own prompt

One of my first posts, long-time reader Theresa recently reminded me, was about the idea of us collaboratively designing a ‘wearable home’, an outfit that would be useful to homeless people, migrants (including billions of soon-to-be collapse refugees), purposeful nomads, and anyone who cannot find a comfortable place, or does not want to live in one ‘indoor’ place. My post was sparked by some designs by Mary Mattingly, a NYC designer, who continues to promote and support the idea — building on the original vision of creating what might be described as human ‘cocoons’.

Here is the specification I came up with way back then after reviewing Mary’s work:

  • It would be comfortable and allow full freedom of movement in any weather conditions.
  • It would be, if not fashionable, at least not ridiculous-looking.
  • It would incorporate the portable communication, information and entertainment technologies that we now take for granted, built-in, without having to carry around bulky or heavy ‘peripherals’ (this may be more a ‘nice to have’ than a ‘need to have’).
  • It would allow us to see and function in the dark, using either built-in lighting or some other optical technology.
  • It would be either easy to clean or keep clean, or, like some new hospital curtains and garments, self-cleaning.
  • It would be comfortable enough to sleep in, ideally without the need for bedding, perhaps using some kind of inflatable inner lining.
  • It would be customizable both stylistically (we don’t all want to look the same) and functionally (e.g. temperature could be regulated to climate and personal preferences).
  • It would not replace the need for a place to store and cook food, but might obviate the need for every room in the modern ‘single family home’ except the kitchen and bathroom.

ChatGPT summarizes Mary’s ideas as follows:

The idea involves creating portable and wearable structures that function as a personal living space, allowing individuals to carry their shelter with them. The wearable home is a response to issues such as housing instability, environmental concerns, and the desire for personal autonomy.

Key features and concepts associated with Mary Mattingly’s wearable home include:

    • Mobile Shelter: The wearable home is designed to be a mobile and compact living space that individuals can wear or carry, providing a sense of home and security wherever they go. It is a response to the changing nature of living and the need for adaptable solutions.
    • Sustainable Design: Mattingly’s projects often incorporate sustainable and eco-friendly design principles. The wearable home concept may involve materials and technologies that minimize environmental impact, aligning with Mattingly’s broader focus on ecological and social issues.
    • Autonomy and Flexibility: The wearable home allows for a degree of autonomy and flexibility in living arrangements. It acknowledges the transient nature of contemporary life and provides a solution for those who may not have a fixed or permanent place of residence.

Since I wrote the original article, Vinay Gupta has invented a portable structure called a Hexayurt, which has apparently become a ‘thing’ at Burning Man festivals. Last year he introduced a one-personal foldable, transportable variant, and also began a project to develop a military-design garment called a woobie for use by, well, anyone looking for a piece of clothing you can live in regardless of the weather, which he hopes to eventually distribute to refugees and the homeless. You can buy one and try it on, from a link on his site (but minimum order is 10 woobies, so you’ll have to organize some others). He’s hoping buyers will work with the Chinese manufacturer to refine and expand the design.

There are of course all kinds of alternatives to Hexayurts if you’re looking for four (or six) walls and a roof that are inexpensive but more comfortable and durable than tents. The ‘glamping’ (=glamorous camping) community offers plenty of imaginative options. School buses and shipping containers have been converted into tiny homes, and many organizations now offer tiny home designs that are (more) affordable, and sometimes even transportable.

But what if we want to get back to absolute basics, and not have to add the complication of walls and roofs? Is there a ‘wearable home’ that works as well as the centuries-old ‘perfect house’ of the Ihalmiut peoples of the arctic? Sportwear companies and workwear companies have done some innovation, but their garments seem designed for temporary use addressing specific extreme weather challenges, not for all-weather, every-day use. And refugee organizations are too busy dealing with the immediate challenges of their case-loads to have time for innovating.

A Dutch designer has made a Sheltersuit, and a companion padded Shelterbag for homeless sleeping, but they’re pretty dreadful-looking — but they’ve made 12,500 of them, manufactured by 100 homeless people in the Netherlands. (There’s a similar organization in the US that makes something called the EMPWR coat.) The Australians developed the swag, their ‘backpack bed’ that includes a pad, a weatherproof cover or tarp, and insect netting — a (usually pole-less) 18″-high tent, sleeping bag and mattress, all in one. But it’s something that must be carried, rather than worn.

My sense is that, if we really want to find innovative solutions to the ‘wearable home’ challenge, we’d probably be best to look to existing indigenous, transient and homeless populations around the world, who have had to find solutions on their own. That’s how Farley Mowat learned about the Ihalmiuts’ ‘perfect house’.

That would mean that, before we rush to high-tech solutions, we might want to do a bit of cultural anthropology among peoples who’ve had no choice but to find ‘wearable homes’ of their own, or their communities’, invention. There’s a lot of hard research that would need to be done, looking humbly at what’s been tried, and why it has, or hasn’t, worked.

But it might be worth it. There could, one day in the not-too-distant future, be a couple of billion semi-nomadic customers looking for a way to make their lives more bearable. Looking for a wearable home — the ‘perfect house’.

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

No Choice But To Resist

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

Aurélien’s latest article is about moving past despair and hope and doing what needs to be done to actually make a positive difference, no matter how small or temporary, in spite of everything.

He starts on this cheerful note:

It’s like nothing I’ve ever experienced before: a sour, disillusioned, almost nihilistic attitude, that extends well beyond anger with our broken political class. In my observation, in several countries, people have mostly just given up. They are beyond anger, and most of all beyond hope. There is no belief in even the possibility of a turn for the better, and a pervasive sense that we are near the end, and that things are falling apart now quite quickly. As I’ve suggested on a number of occasions, this decline goes beyond just government, to encompass the private sector, the media, education, and just about anything else that requires a bit of organisation and a dash of competence. So as somebody put it to me this week: “everything is shit and nothing works.”

Well, yes. I have noticed this attitude and demeanour among those blessed with the time and inclination to think about their situation. That’s most of the people I tend to run into in my privileged life, but I suspect it’s not most people in the world — people who are just desperately and ceaselessly muddling through their awful, high-stress, impossibly-busy lives. I’ve been hearing this plaint since at least as far back as Derrick Jensen’s famous 2006 Orion article Beyond Hope.

The place beyond both hope and despair is not a place of acquiescence, Aurélien asserts. It is, rather, a place of resistance, marked by an insistence on refusing to go along with the outrages we see, even though that resistance is, as the Borg would say, futile. It’s about doing what Adam Gopnik calls “a thousand small sanities”. And it’s about that terrible word grace.

The lessons of history suggest that we cannot just give up. It is not in us not to resist. It is in our nature to resist, even when it is hopeless. We have no choice in the matter.

So then — How do we resist? I think the answer to this depends on our situation, our circumstances and our basic character. For some of us, Aurélien says, it starts with the simple realization that we cannot do this anymore. So there is what I have called a “walking away” (a term coined by Daniel Quinn) happening — a refusal to participate in activities that we know, deep down, are contributing to collapse or some other immediate outrage. A gradual dropping out from the systems that no longer serve us, if they ever did.

For others, more driven by a personal moral compass, resistance starts with the realization that, in spite of everything — including personal danger, public opprobrium, loss of friends etc — we are going to do this because it is the right thing to do.

Others may be driven by an insistence on always being able to face their children and grandchildren with pride about what they did to make their generations’ world better, or at least mitigate how quickly and drastically it became worse, in spite of everything.

No matter what drives us to resist, Aurélien says, it comes down to “a question of identifying what we can do that might actually be productive and helpful, and getting on with it, even if it’s not very glamorous”. He goes on:

We have to look around and see what we can do, and do it. I am personally convinced that the major political and economic structures of the West are past saving. To that degree, there is no point in “fighting” against something which is already falling apart. We need to look rather into our own lives, to resist what we can resist, to undermine what we can undermine, but most of all to create what we can create. Acting in ways not demanded by current neoliberal ideology, acting with kindness, understanding, and genuine tolerance, are a form of resistance in themselves. Giving money to a homeless person is an act of resistance in a way that writing a political blog isn’t.

This resistance he describes, finally, as a form of grace. This is a handy word, kind of like peace, or love, in that it’s pretty hard to argue against it. But what is grace, ultimately? The dictionary defines it as having to do with elegance, refinement, courtesy, goodwill, dignity, politeness, kindness, fairness, and honour, sometimes in the face of great challenges.

But all of this assumes we have some kind of choice over what we do and don’t do. And as you probably know, I don’t think we have any choice, control or free will over any of it. We are all doing our best, and that ‘best’ is entirely determined by our biological and cultural conditioning. Splashing paint on artworks, or kidnaping state governors, are certainly not my idea of a ‘best’ response to a perceived outrage, but I can accept that, with the ‘right’ conditioning, such a response might seem appropriate or even necessary.

So if one’s response to an outrage like the Nord Stream pipeline bombing, the Palestine genocide, our species’ collective response to the pandemic, or our leaders’ response to ecological collapse, is perceived to be either grace-ful and wise, or grace-less and foolish, it’s not as if there was any choice in the matter. Grace, perhaps, is in the eye of the beholder. I thought the valve-turners communicated their outrage, and demonstrated resistance, with consummate grace; others, clearly, did not.

We will do what we will do. There is a point, I think, when each of us reaches the point at which some outrage, as small as a personal insult or as large as civilization’s collapse, can no longer be tolerated and must be resisted. We have no choice as to when that point comes or what form our resistance takes.

For some, like Aurélien, our conditioning will likely lead us to consider, in our actions of resistance, the effectiveness, rationality and dangers of those actions, and to do things that are ultimately “productive and helpful”, though that, too, is a subjective assessment. For many others, their conditioning will likely provoke them to react emotionally, impulsively, and perhaps violently.

What that all adds up to — the cumulative effect of all of our conditioned actions and reactions in the face of any particular outrage, at each person’s ‘resistance’ point — cannot be predicted.

I suspect that, like the actions and reactions we are presently witnessing in response to current perceived outrages, they will not be particularly graceful. But they will be ‘our best’. Stay tuned.

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

Links of the Month: February 2024

no cats were harmed in the making of this Midjourney AI image; not my prompt

I think I have run out of outrage. I’m becoming immune to it, rather than inured. The outrage serves no purpose. I try to understand how humans can possibly believe the unfathomable things they espouse, or do the atrocious things they do. I want to understand, I think. We’re all doing our individual best, so how can we collectively have gone so wrong? I keep writing my best explanations of ‘how the world works’ the way it, bizarrely, does. I can understand and explain insane beliefs and behaviours, and I realize and understand the grinding precarity, the conditioning, the abject fear, hatred and trauma that underlies them. But where does that get anyone? So: The guy got so desperate he killed his family. Or threw himself in front of a train. Or launched a genocide. Or pushed the button to launch a nuclear arsenal. We can try to understand. But it doesn’t help. It’s not like any of us has free will to do anything different. It’s not as if any aspect of the predicament of collapse can be slowed or stopped. May the gods bless you if you believe otherwise; I can understand your believing that, too.

Still, it seems better, for no reason I can articulate, to understand. And then, having understood, and accepted, to go for a walk in the sun or the rain, to play with a cat or a dog or a baby, to eat raspberries and ice cream, to talk with the homeless person, or the stranger at the bus stop. To just stand still and look and smile and laugh and marvel at the staggering wonder of it all.


nothing unusual happening here, folks, move along please, just an ordinary day like any other; data from NOAA via climatereanalyzer.org

1.5º is so last year: “For the first time, the global temperature pushed past the internationally agreed upon warming threshold for an entire 12-month period, with February 2023 to January 2024, running 1.52ºC above preindustrial levels“.

Sabine talks about the hot models: No, not those hot models; the ones that suggest the pace and acceleration of climate collapse has been dramatically understated. She also points to new research showing how climate change denial is immensely profitable.

Will we find collapse so unbearable we’ll turn to hard drugs to escape?: We’re hearing more and more about new, cheap synthetic drugs that dull the pain and suffering for those trying to cope with abject poverty, suffering and trauma. Lots of canaries in the mine shaft already: Benzo-laced fentanyl and more recently nitazines and protonitazepyne in the west, crocodile and ‘spice’ in Russia, and now kush in Africa. Is this a preview of the future of collapse?


Mona’s bad hair day; image via Jezebel.com

Guatemala finally has a democratically elected government: After decades of brutal rule by right-wing military governments, and last-minute machinations by the losing side to get the judiciary to invalidate the results (sound familiar?), and to overthrow the elected government by coup (sound familiar?), the leftist government that won the recent elections has finally been sworn in. Sadly, in many Latin American countries, right-wing foreign interference remains the rule.

Pacific Time zone states ready to go it alone dumping daylight saving time: Fed up with years of federal government incapacity to simply allow states to stay on DT all year long, despite overwhelming support for the idea, the Pacific Time zone states have tentatively decided not to switch to DT at all this year (ie to stay on standard time all year), since that doesn’t require federal approval. Thanks to Kavana Tree Bressen for the link.

Am I Métis enough?: A woman embroiled in the controversy over the recognition of those with mixed First Nations and European ancestry tells her fascinating story.


New Yorker cartoon by Sofia Warren 

The coming war with China: The late John Pilger warned us before he died about the Empire’s desire for a war against China, and western journalists’ negligence in not reporting ‘inconvenient’ truths like the rise of Bandera naziism in Ukraine after the Maidan coup.

Biden’s pathetic environmental record: Despite his posturing and one signature law, Biden’s approvals of new offshore, arctic and fracking development (like the massive Willow development), public land oil auctions, funding new oil and gas power plants, fighting the youth climate lawsuit,  waste of money on fake “carbon capture” and “clean hydrogen” projects, and funding of international hydrocarbon projects, all put the lie to his claim to be serious about dealing with climate collapse. Food and Water Watch is keeping track of his litany of ecologically destructive activities, and notes that he has approved more new drilling projects in his term than “drill-baby-drill” Trump did.

Did the founders of the US constitution deliberately make democracy dysfunctional?: An interesting exploration about whether the privileged lawmakers of the day went out of their way to not allow too much democracy. Maybe those red hats should be restamped “MADA” — Make America dysfunctional again. The Supreme Court ‘originalists’ would seem to be onside.

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

Propaganda, Censorship, Misinformation and Disinformation: Short takes:


from the memebrary

Judge reverses $150k discrimination award: Fascinating case of two sides both trying to do their best, and getting the courts caught in the middle. A woman successfully sued a child advocacy organization for depriving her of access to her children, arguing the decision was racist. No, said the appeal judge to the lower tribunal — in your zeal to fight racism you’ve put the children at risk.

Free won’t: A delightful cartoon about free will. Would have been even better had the genders and ages portrayed been reversed. Thanks to Ian Petrie for the link.

Too much labour: A song by Paris Paloma about women being expected to do most of the work, both physical and emotional, in relationships. Thanks to Lyz Lenz for the link.

Classical K-Pop?: K-Pop producers often use symphony members to co-write and orchestrate their songs. Turning that around, Nahre Sol wonders what if you turned a K-Pop song into a classical composition?

That’s not how to tell me: Rebecca Watson debunks the five Love Languages.

Sorry, I’m not a member of that: A rambling talk by Hank Green about the ‘fracturing’ of the social media landscape, as more and more of us retreat from ‘open’ mega-platforms to smaller, more focused spaces.

Fossil fuel colonialism: Indrajit Samarajiva explains how colonialism can be understood as an attempt by those in cold climates with relatively little solar energy, to expropriate it from those in warmer climates.

This is how to do conversation: This long, funny, quirky, insider conversation of five (relatively) young people is unlike any I’ve ever had, or heard. It covers an enormous amount of ground, and in it the participants listen to and respect each other, and do a lot of ‘yes and…’ vibing off each other. I found it fascinating, inspiring, and a bit exhausting.

Tom Scott on AI: The veteran YouTuber explained (a year ago) why AI scares him. (Hint: It’s partly because ChatGPT gave him the code he needed to fix a problem that he couldn’t fix himself.)

Scientific papers deal with a flood of frauds: Ten thousand retractions last year, and that’s just the ones we know about. That’s what happens when you get enormous awards for being published, and when peer reviewers get sloppy. Thanks to Bob Lasciewicz for the link.

Wherever you go, there you are: Sheryl Crow’s new song gently spoofs woo-woo spirituality, including non-duality.


from the memebrary

From Indrajit Samarajiva, on the symbolism of Blinken’s plane being grounded:

If there’s ever a metaphor for the state of America, it’s the Secretary of State’s plane being unable to take off, and the staff having to scurry home on commercial. America’s entire government is in a real and symbolic shambles; they simply can’t hide the rot. The Secretary of War is bombing people from his hospital bed while the Secretary of Lying can’t get off the ground. Meanwhile the obviously senile President is on autopilot, the Boeing sort that flies the plane into the ground.

From artist Sergio Toporek in Beware of Images (thanks to John Whiting for the link):

Before you judge others or claim any absolute truth, consider that you can see less than 1% of the electromagnetic spectrum and hear less than 1% of the acoustic spectrum. Pigeons and butterflies can differentiate 10,000x as many discrete colours as humans. As you read this, you are traveling at 220 kilometres per second across the galaxy. 90% of the cells in your body carry their own microbial DNA and are not “you”. A person is not so much an individual human body as a super organism made up of diverse ecosystems, each teeming with microscopic creatures that are essential to our well-being. The atoms in your body are 99.9999999999999999% empty space and none of them are the ones you were born with, but they all originated in the belly of a star. Human beings have 46 chromosomes, 2 less than the common potato. And the variance between the genome of anthrax bacteria and that of cholera bacteria is much greater than the variance between the genome of humans and that of potatoes. The existence of the rainbow depends on the conical photoreceptors in your eyes to animals without cones, the rainbow does not exist. So you don’t just look at a rainbow, you create it.

From Caitlin Johnstone in More US-Driven Escalations:

To the managers of the US empire: Get out of the middle east. Just get the fuck out. Stop backing a genocide in Gaza, stop murdering people to shore up domination of world resources, and leave. Leave before you unleash something far worse than the nightmare you’ve already inflicted upon our species.

From (source unknown) on the Story of Me:

Everyone’s story has a chapter they don’t tell out loud.

Posted in Collapse Watch, How the World Really Works, Our Culture / Ourselves | 12 Comments

A Cornered Beast

Left:Blinken/Biden peace protesters; video from CBC; Right: Tucker Carlson, screen cap from Putin interview; Blinken and Carlson both frequently wear the same cornered ‘mask’ face, as do Biden and Trump and many other politicos and public figures

Watching the interview of Vladimir Putin by Tucker Carlson, I was struck by, among other things, Carlson’s trademark ‘look’ when he’s interviewing: It’s like a concerned but impenetrable stare and frown all in one. The guy’s been interviewing people forever, so presumably he’s cultivated this look deliberately. But why? My guess would be that it’s defensive: He’s used to being attacked and criticized, so this ‘mask’ is in place to prevent him revealing either his fear or his ignorance. He has to look strong.

And then I realized where I’d seen this look before: On the faces of Joe Biden, Donald Trump, and many, many of the other senior administrators of the Euro-American Empire. The look of a clueless, cornered beast, trying to look strong in the face of a horrific predicament. In the face, perhaps, of nagging doubts about the credibility of their entire worldview, as everything, increasingly obviously, is falling apart.

This might be the signature ‘look’ of collapse: “No, that can’t be right; it’s contrary to everything I’ve ever learned and believed. You must be mistaken.” It’s a look of denial, of resistance, of refusal, and of desperation.

It’s the look of a child who’s just been told there is no Santa Claus.

Here’s what I wrote to a friend who asked for my comments on the Putin interview:

I found everything Putin said in this interview to be both credible and consistent with my understanding of historical events. Which is much more than I can say about any of the recent pronouncements by Biden or Trump.

I’ve listened to Putin’s speeches before, in the few places we westerners are actually allowed to access them. He strikes me as a shrewd, knowledgeable and intelligent man. Of course he is playing to the ‘home crowd’, and has been carefully provided with talking points that show Russia and its government in a favourable light, but it’s pretty hard to refute his arguments.

I love the fact he has the courage and integrity to say “I don’t know”, and to refuse to answer questions about what he thinks might have motivated other people to do certain things, saying, quite politely, “ask them“.

I think it’s fascinating that western journalists say Carlson didn’t challenge Putin on anything he said. Perhaps that’s because Putin just told the truth and laid out the facts, so there was really nothing to challenge? Carlson asked him questions on a lot of diverse subjects, jumping all over the place from one to another (religion, China, AI, international trade, imprisoned journalists, etc), and Putin showed himself to be well-versed in, and articulate in, speaking about all of them. And the fact that western journalists complained that the first 45 minutes of the conversation was a “harangue” about the history of Eastern Europe says more about those journalists’ (including Carlson’s) utter ignorance of that history than it does about Putin.

He also made the important point that the diplomatic process mostly involves excruciatingly complex, delicate and time-consuming negotiations, and it’s naive to think anything will be accomplished, like in a Hollywood movie, by one leader picking up the phone and calling the other and saying “let’s end this”. The work of peace will happen, or it will not, based on what hundreds of people are negotiating behind the scenes. That is, as long as bozos like BoJo don’t fuck things up at the last minute.

The reason this interview will come as a shock to many in the west is that they desperately want to believe either Biden or Trump has it right in their assessment of world events, and Putin made it clear just how wilfully ignorant, deceived, deceitful, and/or in denial the two American ‘leaders’ really are, to anyone who actually listened to what he said.

Or they want to believe Tucker Carlson is right — in his claim that the real enemy of lovers of freedom and democracy everywhere is China, not Russia. And Putin patiently corrected Carlson on this as well, explaining that China has no motives for world domination or war, and why that’s the case. Watch Carlson when he explains this — the stare-frown is intensified. “OMG, what if he’s right?”

Unsurprisingly, western journalists screamed in unison “No, no, that isn’t right!” in their hatchet-job responses to the interview, led by the once-respectable Guardian and New Yorker.

That’s not to say Putin is all sweetness and light. There are always IMO alternatives to war, and in my view he didn’t try hard enough to avoid the one in Ukraine, for all the provocations he had to deal with. And clearly he doesn’t treat his domestic political opponents very well.

I don’t think Carlson is a very bright guy, but my opinion of him going forward will depend on whether he now does his homework on world history and stops China-bashing, or not. I’m not optimistic. Some people are inclined to investigate and learn when they hear credible ‘inconvenient’ facts, and others are not.

I think it’s increasingly dawning on the corporate-controlled western professional-managerial caste (PMC) which currently runs most western governments (regardless of who is actually elected or what their policies are), that the Euro-American Empire is collapsing, and that it has been an unmitigated failure. The PMC really thought that this Empire would win over and conquer the entire world, creating a unified, peaceful, efficient, global state that the PMC, which considers itself the smartest group in the world and the world’s inevitable leaders, would manage for everyone’s benefit.

The result of this dawning has been the usual response to any sudden unexpected terrible event — horror, disbelief, denial, anger, blame, grief, guilt, and shame. This is the same wrenching response I saw when some corporate leaders finally realized that our global ecology had been essentially destroyed on their watch, and that ecological collapse and some degree of runaway climate change is now inevitable*.

This sudden worldview-crashing realization is a sickening feeling, whether it applies to our political/economic systems or our ecological systems. These systems are all falling apart, and our convictions about their solidity were founded on false beliefs, and on wishful thinking.

We’re seeing, I think, the early stages of this worldview-crashing realization about how global politics actually works now. There’s denial and blame and anger (and propaganda and censorship) — directed towards everyone and anyone who didn’t fall in line and “get with the program” — Russia, China, Latin America, the Middle East, the Global South, and blacklisted local contrarians like Noam Chomsky.

What we’re finally seeing in the western media I think are the very first early glimpses of profound shame — these media have (sometimes knowingly) lied to western citizens for decades, in the belief that the end (One World under benign PMC rule) justified the means (overthrowing ‘unfriendly’ governments, censoring the truth, launching endless senseless wars, and spreading endless propaganda). And now they’re realizing that the end, which was never more than an ideological pipe-dream anyway, never justified those means.

I think it will take time for most of the PMC, and for the citizens who have long supported their unipolar neoliberal ideology, to cease denying and lashing out over this failure, to cease being defensive about it, and to start to actually accept it and act realistically and collaboratively with their declared “enemies”. Like all ideologically-blinded crusaders, they were doing their best with the best of idealistic intentions, and thought their ‘side’ was (inevitably) ‘winning’.

In the meantime, I think the clumsily-managed western Tweedledum/Tweedledee ‘leadership’ (the PMC) has been desperately doubling down on its failures and pretending they aren’t happening, and pressing on with their failed dream no matter what the cost, in the hope that somehow it will all turn out right. As Biden, in one of his more lucid moments, admitted about Yemen: The bombing is accomplishing nothing, but they intend to continue it anyways. When the only tool in your toolkit is a hammer…

When you think you’re in control, and suddenly you find you’re not, and suddenly you find you’re cornered, with no way out, that’s when you’re most dangerous. It’s at least a 50-50 bet, I think, that WW3 will occur before the PMC get to the ‘acceptance’ stage. It’s just too much defeat and disgrace for them to face.

This is where we are now, I think — in parallel stages of denial, outrage, and shame, about the collapse of our dysfunctional political/economic systems and the collapse of our ecological systems. We’ll soon see whether our political representatives (who actually represent their corporate donors, lobbyists and sponsors, not the voting public) have the sense to accept their failures, and start to work with their global counterparts to address the consequences of these failures.

Or whether, instead, like defeated, cornered beasts, they’ll just blow everything up in a defiant, final, fuck-it-all pique of excess — as their corporate counterparts seem to have decided to do with respect to accelerating climate and ecological collapse as we blow past 1.5ºC of warming.

We’re now “all in”, and the Great Mandala is spinning one last time. All that remains to do is to watch. One way or another, the world we thought we knew for the last century is soon going to end.

* I had the chance to witness this deer-in-the-headlights shock first hand when I was invited to attend a couple of candid behind-closed-doors presentations by climate scientists to senior corporate executives a number of years ago. The look on the executives’ faces was the same ‘cornered’ look I see on our western so-called-leaders’ faces when they speak about anything these days. How could they ever explain what they’ve allowed, and even contributed to, to their children?

Posted in Collapse Watch, How the World Really Works | 23 Comments

What Third Culture Kids Might Teach Us About Coping With Collapse

my own diagram of what Jim Kunstler calls “The Long Emergency” — a gradual multi-stage collapse over an extended period

My new adopted community of Coquitlam is an exceptionally ethnically and culturally diverse one. It also has a much larger proportion of kids in their teens and twenties than most of Greater Vancouver’s neighbourhoods. As a result, many (probably the majority) of the young people I meet and see here are what have been dubbed “Third Culture Kids” (TCKs).

Essentially a TCK is a person who was born into one culture but grew up immersed in a very different one. Most TCKs are first-generation immigrants to their adopted country, though some were born in their adopted country shortly after their parents immigrated here. What they all have in common is the challenge of having to manage with, and make sense of, two very different cultures. In some cases, they say that has resulted in them essentially creating a “third culture” that works with and bridges the culture of their parents (and their early childhood) and the culture of their adopted country.

Navigating the world successfully as a TCK, it seems to me, requires acquiring some exceptional skills, knowledge, and practices that most of us never have to worry about. This got me thinking about whether or not the singular capacities and competencies of TCKs might be especially useful to all of us as we face the accelerating collapse of our economic, political, social and ecological systems, and the civilization that depends on these systems.

My thoughts about this are based on a kind of theory of human nature that ‘explains’ collapse and our current predicament and our struggles dealing with it. This theory (subject to change) goes something like this:

  1. We humans thrived for much of our first million years in our tropical rainforest homes in trees. Just as during the previous 4 billion years of evolution, this was often a tumultuous period of mass extinctions, and most of the species that ever lived have disappeared. We have come close a number of times.
  2. At some point in our species’ middle evolution, some massive cosmic radiation bombardment and/or a previous enormous climate change (or some other cause we have yet to discover) destroyed our natural rainforest habitats, so the humans of the time found themselves ‘cast out’, in search of a new place to live.
  3. Over time, in our new, foreign, less hospitable savanna and coastal biomes, we evolved new mental capacities to deal with these new environments; otherwise we’d have gone extinct. One of those new capacities, enabled perhaps by the ‘entanglement’ of our brain circuitry, allowed us to imagine things and then make them real, something no other creature could do.
  4. That gave us the ability to develop abstract language, weaponry, agriculture, civilization, and other technologies. But a side effect of that entanglement was a terrible feeling of separateness and vulnerability to harm from ‘others’, that has made us, I would argue, all mentally ill. Instead of simply ‘being’ part of a larger whole (Gaia — the single ‘organism’ of all-life-on-Earth), we suddenly perceived ourselves to have separate ‘selves’ apart from everyone and everything else, and in control of and responsible for the survival of the bodies that ‘housed’ those selves.
  5. The resultant sense of vulnerability and helplessness must have been terrifying to humans with these newly-entangled brains. Suddenly instead of our behaviours being dominated by simple instinct, we became confused and conflicted about what we ‘should’ do, convinced we had free will and choice, and that actions harmful to our vulnerable selves could be attributed to sinful or evil or deranged intent of other selves. Hence we became driven largely by fear and hatred, and traumatized, trying to control what in fact is not in ‘our’ control at all. Our actions became disconnected from the rest of life on Earth, and often competitive, destructive, and dysfunctional for the planet as a whole. In this deranged disconnection, we massively overpopulated the planet, and created ‘civilizations’ chronically exhausted from overwork and rife with unprecedented scarcity, violence, precarity and stress. This has created a vicious and self-reinforcing cycle of (i) chronic stress and scarcity, (ii) trauma, (iii) violence and war, and (i) conditioned fear and hatred, that has lasted at least 10,000 years.
  6. The consequence of this vicious cycle has been the inadvertent destruction of our planet’s carrying capacity, to the point that our ecology, the economy, and the social and political structures that depend on them have been disturbed and desolated so profoundly that these systems are now in the accelerating stages of collapse. Everything is falling apart. I think we all sense that, even those of us who are in denial.

So that’s where I believe we are now. All perhaps attributable to dramatic changes in our species’ native habitat, and a consequent unfortunate evolutionary misstep.

All animals are, I would argue, conditioned by their biology and their culture to do what they do. Most of us humans have historically lived in highly homogeneous communities with little exposure to, or mixing with, other cultures (often even when many different cultures coexist in the same geographic spaces). That cultural homogeneity has, in past, made things simple for us (little diversity of opinion or ideas to have to process), and also made us somewhat xenophobic (we fear what we don’t know).

But more recently, our technologies are enabling us to become more ‘international‘. We travel ‘abroad’ more (except most Americans, it seems). We’re exposed to more, and more diverse, cultures. We’re trying, most of us, I think, to appreciate, integrate, and adapt to different cultures and a greater diversity of ways of thinking and being in the world.

TCKs are, I think, on the leading edge of that shift — by necessity, because they live it every moment of their lives.

So what does that mean for their capacity to cope with collapse? Are they so buffeted by the complexity and frictions in the world that they are more traumatized than the rest of us, unable to find a safe ‘home’, unable to ‘attach’, and so confounded by diversity that they cannot discover who their authentic selves are? Or does their exposure to diverse cultures actually give them more tools, methods and better capacity and competency for coping with collapse (and other forms of abrupt and radical change) than the rest of us?

Or to put it in starker terms — If TCKs are a part of the possibly two billion ‘collapse refugees’ we may well see in the coming decades, will they be able to show the rest of us the way?

My hope would be that their challenging experiences enable them to see the world with a kind of ‘binocular vision’. And I would hope that that vision might give them an advantage — the ability to perceive complex situations in a more complete and nuanced way than we ‘monocultural’ humans can, and to be more comfortable dealing with them, and with constant, never-ending change.

Part of my interest in this is our propensity to use propaganda, mis- and disinformation and censorship to disrupt this ‘binocular’ perception — the goal of these tools is, after all, to simplify and reduce the cognitive dissonance of today’s messy information and cultural landscape, to get us back to the ‘safe’ good old days when everyone in a community knew and believed more or less the same things. Can TCKs see past this ‘dumbing down’ deception? Or are they so overwhelmed that they might actually welcome it, despite its cost (of having to reject part of their worldview in order to ‘fit in’ and belong in their new adopted culture)? My sense is that it’s the former. They have, in my experience, excellent bullshit radar.

So I’ve been trying, politely, to talk about all this with TCKs that I know and meet.

You won’t be surprised to learn that my tentative answer to this question of TCKs’ competence and capacity to deal with change is “it’s complicated”. Cultural agility and adaptability vary enormously from person to person, based on a host of factors, beyond the cultural diversity they’ve been exposed to and had to adapt to.

As for all kids, it seems having parents with good relationship and communication skills makes a huge difference in their kids’ ability to cope with the changes they face. But while I’ve only spoken to a handful of TCKs, the ones I’ve spoken to mostly didn’t find their parents, and what their parents had taught and imbued in them, to be particularly helpful. In other words, their parents were a lot like modern parents everywhere — doing their best, but really struggling to find time and capacity to compass their kids when their own lives were already so hectic and bewildering. What Gabor Maté describes as the lack of essential secure attachment in early childhood (despite parents’ best efforts to provide it), seems to be just as much a problem for TCKs as other kids.

What did help TCKs, not surprisingly, was finding strong supportive relationships in their new community. I would have expected that doing that would require having some strong ‘social graces’ and an extroverted personality. But to my surprise, most of the TCKs I spoke to described themselves as introverted. Just as “community is born of necessity”, it would seem, so is the capacity to make new friends and social ‘circles’. If you have to do it to remain sane, you learn to do it.

Several of them described what might be called a kind of nostalgia for their birth country — when we’re young, we tend to see more of the good things and overlook the problems. And they especially missed the friends they’d left behind when they immigrated. New technologies enable some relationships to continue “long distance”, but, as one TCK told me, “It’s just not the same”.

When I interviewed some TCKs, I had been reading about the struggles of many new immigrants who were essentially sold a bill of goods when they came here. In particular many found that their professional credentials from their home country were simply not honoured here (that’s the largest source of unhappiness of new immigrants, according to several cultural organizations for ‘new Canadians’). That of course made life much more difficult for them, and for their TCKs. Many have actually given up, and returned to their home country or sought out another new country to live in.

I also learned about the outrage of some private “international colleges”, which charge foreign students exorbitant tuitions and then deliver substandard courses and programs that no employer would ever consider as constituting a real post-secondary education. These fraudsters are largely unregulated, and they are giving Canada (and probably other western nations) a horrible reputation for this abuse. No surprise that many TCKs who come here for university training end up returning home disappointed, and sometimes full of disgust, guilt and/or shame.

I think we’ve at least finally learned enough about the challenges of adapting to a new country and culture, that we’re no longer espousing the 250-year-old ‘melting pot‘ myth — the claim that we must enable new immigrants to be ‘assimilated’ as quickly as possible, and get them to largely forget the culture of their birth. It’s an unhealthy, arrogant ‘solution’ born of Empire mentality and evangelical Christian fanaticism, and it’s never worked. The horrific damage it’s done to indigenous populations everywhere might never be healed.

Here’s what ChatGPT had to say about the biggest challenges for TCKs, verbatim:

Third Culture Kids (TCKs) are individuals who have spent a significant part of their developmental years in a culture different from their parents’ culture and the culture of their passport country. This unique upbringing can present both advantages and challenges. Some of the biggest challenges for Third Culture Kids include:

    1. Identity Formation: TCKs often struggle with forming a stable and cohesive sense of identity. They may feel like they don’t completely belong to any single culture, leading to questions about who they are and where they fit in.
    2. Cultural Rootlessness: TCKs may lack a deep connection to any specific culture, as they have experienced multiple cultures during their formative years. This can lead to a feeling of rootlessness or a sense of not having a true home.
    3. Relationship Building: Building long-term relationships can be challenging for TCKs, as they may be accustomed to saying goodbye and adapting to new environments. This transience can affect their ability to form deep and lasting connections.
    4. Reentry Challenges: Returning to their passport country or settling in a new culture can be difficult for TCKs. They may experience reverse culture shock or struggle to adjust to a lifestyle that is different from what they have known.
    5. Educational Transitions: TCKs often move between educational systems, which can create challenges in terms of academic continuity and adapting to different teaching styles. They may also face issues related to the recognition of their qualifications.
    6. Language Dynamics: TCKs may be multilingual or have proficiency in different languages, but they may also face challenges in fully mastering any one language. This can affect communication and academic performance.
    7. Dual Loyalties: TCKs may feel torn between loyalty to their passport country and the cultures they have lived in. This can create internal conflicts when it comes to national identity and values.
    8. Emotional Resilience: Constantly adapting to new environments can require a high level of emotional resilience. TCKs may become adept at navigating change but may also face emotional exhaustion and a reluctance to form deep emotional attachments.

It’s important to note that while TCKs face unique challenges, they also often develop strengths such as adaptability, cross-cultural communication skills, and a global perspective, which can be valuable assets in various aspects of their lives.

Sounds about right. Dealing with unexpected illnesses and unfamiliar weather and climate might be added to the list.

What surprises me is that none of the TCKs I spoke with (most of whom are no longer ‘kids’) were daunted by these challenges, though some found them overwhelming at times. In fact I’d say without exception they are more thoughtful, more well-balanced, and mostly also happier than most of their non-TCK peers. Amazing what you can do if you have no choice.

As someone with an aversion to labels, I was quite pleased that the TCKs I spoke with don’t really ‘identify’ themselves with any particular nationality, either the one of their birth or the one they now call home, nor some hyphenated concatenation of the two.

Several mentioned that it took them a long time to actually ‘find their place’ in the new culture they found themselves in, and they found that frustrating. “I thought it would be easier”, one young woman told me, not blaming anyone or anything for that situation.

A couple of them told me, a bit shyly in one case, that they didn’t find the people of their adopted country (Canada or the US) to be terribly informed about history, geography, or world events; nor did they find them (us) to “read much” or be as curious about things as they had been brought up to be. From my life-long meetings with non-North Americans I can totally relate to that.

And I can likewise relate to the comment that we in North America have a lot to learn from other cultures about hospitality — not that we’re rude, we’re just kinda awkward about it, and we’re unfamiliar with simple rites (such as how to make an engaging invitation, and how to offer appropriate gifts to your host or guests) that make visits wonderfully pleasant.

This was not at all a scientific or representative survey or study of TCKs, and I’m always wary of generalizations. But I thought what they told me was interesting, and kind of reassuring.

My conversations got me thinking about the challenge of language — not only having to learn a new and unfamiliar one quickly, but the fact that, arguably our language determines and changes how we think and who we are. Learning a new language is more than translating; it’s understanding the entire way of thinking and of being that underlies the vocabulary, syntax, and nuance of different languages. And much (perhaps most) communication of meaning (thought and feeling) is communicated not by the words used but by the tone of voice, eye, face, and body ‘language’ that accompanies saying it. And the ‘rules’ for how that non-verbal communication is (and is not) done in each culture are as varied as the languages themselves.

If you’re a TCK, you not only have to learn the words, but also what gestures, voice tone, and type of eye contact are appropriate in the context of what you are saying. This is dizzyingly complex.

And as you learn a new language, it even changes the way you think. When I finally learned French, I was surprised to discover that I expressed myself (words and body language) much differently when I spoke in French compared to English, and found that some of the things I was trying to convey in French just didn’t make sense in that language, so my beliefs and ideas shifted. I learned the power and significance of a Gallic shrug, for one thing!

So much for the challenges, and advantages, of being a TCK. What does this mean for the ability of these extraordinary individuals to cope with the accelerating collapse of our economic, political, social and ecological systems?

To address that, I have to take a step back and reiterate how I think collapse is currently unfolding, and how I think it will unfold as it accelerates in the coming years and decades. The most important thing to keep in mind, I think, is that collapse is going to be slow and punctuated. Those who’ve studied history and systems theory remind us that collapse does not occur like in the Hollywood movies with Mad Max and the Zombie Apocalypse occurring and then being vanquished by the brave conquering hero, all in the space of two hours.

Instead, collapse is likely to occur in waves and over decades, like the multiple S curve pictured in the image at the top of this post. Heroics, panacea technologies, and dramatic cultural transformations are unlikely to occur or even be particularly useful. Our current accumulated knowledge and know-how is not going to be that important.

Instead, what will be most important is our capacity and competence to learn new things, and the collective capacity and competency of our adopted communities.

This is where the experiences and challenges faced by TCKs will, I think, give them an important advantage, and make them natural mentors for the rest of us as we cope — slowly, over decades — with radical change to our ways of living, thinking and being. They’ve had practice making dramatic cultural shifts, accommodating different ways of thinking, different beliefs and priorities, and different ways of doing things. Dealing with the sheer bewilderment of it all.

As economic, political, social and/or ecological collapse forces billions of us to migrate to new and unfamiliar environments (perhaps just as our pre-entangled-brain ancestors did hundreds of millennia ago), the capacity and competency to learn, and the collective capacities and competencies of our adopted new communities, will, I think, determine whether we will thrive or go extinct. How, for example, will we manage when imported goods, the private automobile, the shopping mall, and the corporate employer all vanish from the physical and economic landscape?

The ones we will have to look to are those who — because they were forced to — have already begun to acquire and practice these capacities and competencies. That includes not only TCKs, but also the many castes of our society that have long been abandoned and passed over in our horrifically unequal and unfair modern societies — what has been called the precariat or pretariat, who Aurélien has defined as the “ordinary people, mostly reasonably good, mostly reasonably honourable, trying to do their best in a world where power lies elsewhere”.

That will include people who have learned to make community in our broken inner cities and (in Europe) neglected, immigrant-filled suburbs. And in slums, in areas often not even recognized as legitimate parts of exploding cities, the world over. And of course, in the streets, unhoused. We have a lot to learn from those who are already dealing with full-on collapse, and have been doing so for a long time.

There is something satisfying about what this will mean for the utter redistribution of power that is inevitable as collapse intensifies. As Bob Dylan put it in his hopeful anthem The Times They Are a-Changin’:

Your old road is rapidly agin’;
Please get out of the new one if you can’t lend your hand
For the times they are a-changin’.
The line it is drawn; the curse it is cast. The slow one now will later be fast,
As the present now will later be past — The order is rapidly fadin’,
And the first one now will later be last, for the times they are a-changin’.

There are those who think they can cope with collapse by hiring a private army and hoarding wealth and barricading themselves inside their mansions. There are those who think there is only one ‘correct’ path to living a good life, and that their faith will be rewarded by the gods, as ‘sinners’ perish in collapse. There are those who think that education and being born into the right caste provide a guarantee of material success and security, and the right to be ‘leaders’ of any world order, even when everything they have ‘led’ us to so far is falling apart.

They are all in for a big surprise.

I think we will soon (in a few decades at the latest) find ourselves in a world where the communities that are thriving will be those whose members have been willing and able to set aside everything they believed and thought they knew, and set aside their sense of authority and what is ‘right’ and ‘wise’, and embrace uncertainty, and change, and the fact that there are no ‘one right’ answers, and learn everything that’s really important completely anew. The old rules, values, ‘knowledge’, privileges, faiths, myths, and hierarchies will simply no longer apply.

And I think that many in the vanguard of thriving post-collapse communities might well be Third Culture Kids, who are already learning, the hard way, what we will soon all have to learn to cope with collapse. Scary, uncomfortable, unpredictable, immensely difficult, frequently horrifying, and yet totally awesome. At my age, I’m afraid, I’m unlikely to see most of it unfold. But damn, I wish I could be there to witness, to play my part, and to cheer them on.

Thanks to my friend Siyavash Abdolrahimi for inspiring this article and for his help in thinking this article through. Any errors or misrepresentations are inadvertent and strictly mine.

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

Tiny Perfect Songs

hummingbird 4
my own photo

Every once in a while someone produces a song that is just a tiny perfect thing: Tight, poetic, with a flow, a clever story or message, no ‘lazy’ rhymes, a well-crafted melody, interesting harmonies and engaging instrumentation. Nothing clichéd. Nothing extraneous. Not a word or a note out of place.

These aren’t epic compositions or anthems. They probably will never appear on any GOAT best songs list. But they never get tired, because they’re so elegant and so smartly constructed. Even when there is repetition, there are slight variations to keep them fresh — an additional instrument introduced, a shift in key, a unique bridge, etc.

During my school years, I became a huge fan of Motown music. Much of it was formulaic, but much of its appeal to me was in the sheer professionalism and ‘tightness’ of these carefully-crafted songs. With a 3-minute maximum limit for radio play, your writing had to be spare.

I was a folk song fan, too, but I found a lot of folk music too repetitive and ‘three-chord banal’ — there just wasn’t enough ‘to’ most of it to keep you listening again and again. There were exceptions: The first ‘alt-folk’ song I can remember being entranced by was Kathy’s Song, by Simon and Garfunkel. It had all the elements of a ‘Tiny Perfect Song’ as defined above, and, as for many boomers, it became the first song I learned to play on the guitar.

Over the years there have been lots of others. It seems that women singer-songwriters, long held to a much higher standard than men before their music would be recorded and promoted, are particularly adept at producing Tiny Perfect Songs.

Here, as illustration, is a baker’s dozen of such songs, of the genre I have come to call World-Weary Women Singer-Songwriter (WWWSS) songs. I think they are all Tiny Perfect Songs. They can, each of them, show you something you may have never noticed before, something that can change the way you see the world, and your way of being in it.

Who Will Save Your Soul — 1995 — Jewel Kilcher
Unbreakable Heart — 1996 — Amy Sky
Understanding — 1991 — Everything But the Girl (Tracey Thorn)
Long Way — 2009 — Antje Duvekot
Rain — 2002 — Patty Griffin
So It Goes — 2006 — Chris Pureka
The Kind of Love You Never Recover From — 1990 — Christine Lavin
Broken Things — 2001 — Lucy Kaplansky
Almost — 1993 — Cheryl Wheeler
Untitled — 1997 — Wyrd Sisters
Alberta (is Her Name) — 2019 — Small Glories (Cara Luft)
The Sweater — 2019 — Shari Ulrich
Hummingbird — 2003 — Kris Delmhorst (I just discovered this amazing song this year, from an Apple Recommendations list; AI is good for something.)

If you’re interested in a video playlist of these songs, it’s here. Hope there’s an undiscovered gem in the list for you. It doesn’t get any better than this.

I am honoured to have been able to meet and befriend Shari Ulrich, who knows several of these amazing musicians and writers, and who selflessly organizes house and small-venue tours by singer-songwriters like these, as a labour of love.

Posted in Our Culture / Ourselves | 1 Comment

War, Peace, and Human Nature

Cartoon from Tom Gauld, seen on the memebrary.

Thousands of books have been written about why we go to war. I’ve been trying to explore whether my evolving understanding of basic human nature offers any insights on this subject, particularly as we seem more inclined to start wars than ever before, and as we now seem perilously close to nuclear annihilation provoked by this unfortunate propensity.

I should start by defining the term war. By war, I mean an organized outbreak of violence between two or more groups of people. That can be two groups taking up arms against each other (as in gang wars and ‘declared’ wars). Or it can be unilateral — an armed attack by one group on another. Or the two groups can be co-located geographically (as in ‘civil’ and ‘revolutionary’ wars). And it can be continuous or intermittent violence, with periods of formal or effective peace between confrontations.

There are a million theories about the ’causes’ of war, but most of them, foolishly IMO, attempt to find rational explanations for the outbreaks of violence. My sense is that groups of like-minded people don’t need a ‘reason’ to commit violent acts against others. They do so mostly for emotional reasons — because they hate or fear the other group. There may be ‘reasons’ for those emotions — the hated group has all the resources and wealth while the group preparing for war are suffering with nothing, or the hated group has been systematically abusing and oppressing the group preparing for war, or the hated group has an ideology that is incompatible with and threatening to the group preparing for war — but I would say it is the hatred and/or fear that actually drives them to commit acts of war. The ‘reasons’ are just the rationalizations, not the catalysts.

As with my other explorations of human behaviour, I started this one by considering how our behaviour differs from that of other animal species.

Most of the ‘parallels’ that have been drawn between non-human and human lethal behaviours can, I think, be put down to convenient anthropomorphism. There are mountains of evidence that other animals’ behaviour is instinctive, and not driven by hate or fear.

I subscribe to the scientific Gaia theory — that evolution has unfolded the way it has to enable the maximum possible amount of pleasure and least possible amount of pain for the greatest and most complex diversity of life possible. There is no ‘reason’ for that being so; it is simply the playing out of the rules of evolution that have produced the mix of life that is present today. Had the rules been different, the make-up of life on earth would be different.

War (as defined above) is inconsistent with that theory: It is painful, unpleasant (and not just for the combatants), destructive, and often reduces diversity. There are arguments to be made that a horrifically overpopulated species might ‘instinctively’ go to war to reduce its own numbers and bring its population back into balance with the resources that can sustain it, but that’s a convoluted and unnecessary complex explanation, I think.

All animals, most biologists agree, feel three fundamental emotions analogous to what we call fear, rage, and sadness. These are instinctive reactions to immediate events, and they help to protect the animals and ensure their survival. But, I would argue, these instinctive emotions are not judgemental — they do not ascribe reasons for the behaviour that prompted these reactions. The tiger is not ‘blamed’ for eating the enraged and terrified mother animal’s babies. The emotions the mother feels produce a fight, flight or freeze response for purely evolutionary reasons. The bereaved mother does not ‘hate’ the tiger for what it has done.

In fact, there is some evidence that, other than the human animal, all of earth’s creatures do not identify themselves as individuals separate or apart from the rest of life on earth at all, any more than our kidney identifies itself as somehow separate and independent from the rest of the body. So, after the initial instinctive rage and terror, the bereaved mother animal simply accepts the loss of her babies, without blaming or hating or plotting revenge on the tiger. Both she and the tiger are just part of the larger organism called Gaia, just as the phagocyte cells of the body that eat dying cells (to make room for healthy ones) are just part of the human organism like all the other cells and organs, doing what they do in such a way that balance is sustained. The mother’s rage, terror and bereavement, which serve an important short-term evolutionary purpose, quickly abate, and do not metastasize into sustained hatred, obsessive fear, or inconsolable grief.

We humans are different. We judge people’s motives. We hold grudges. We plot revenge and vendettas. We demand recompense, justice, punishment, apology. We wallow in our grief, ‘our’ loss, sometimes for a lifetime. We take things personally. And we pass along our judgements, our hatreds, our all-consuming fears, and our despair, in our conditioning of others, so they fester for generations. In doing so, the ‘personal’ trauma that has possessed us, which seems almost impossible to heal, gets propagated to others, infecting them with our trauma and infecting us with theirs. This, I believe, is the tinder necessary to fuel wars, and I think it is uniquely human.

I have argued elsewhere that I think it is likely that the evolution of humans’ sense of self, separation from ‘everything else’, mortality, and personal vulnerability, came about as an evolutionary misstep. These false senses, I would assert, are essential preconditions for taking things ‘personally’, and hence for the type of fear and hatred that must be conditioned in any creature in order for them to foment or participate in war.

Anthropological studies have suggested that human wars, while more frequent in recent millennia than previously, have been around as long as human civilizations. It is possible that civilizations and wars both stem from this evolutionary misstep that led our species to believe, falsely, that we are separate individuals with free will, choice, responsibility and accountability for our actions, and neither would have been possible without this profound and terrifying intellectual misunderstanding.

When we look at the supposed ’causes’ of wars — nationalistic and religious ‘pride’, scarcity and unequal access to essential resources and land, unaccountability, glory, revenge, racism/classism/caste-ism, misunderstandings, uncertainty and the perceived need for preemption, and ‘self-defence’ — they all trace back to a conditioned, self-perpetuating, pathological, traumatized and traumatizing fear or hatred of another group, usually for what that other group believes, or what it has purportedly done, or what we fear it might do in future to ‘our’ group.

In short, war is an acting out of our trauma. And that trauma, I believe, is a uniquely human aberration, which has arisen because we have come to falsely believe in our separation, our personal vulnerability, our free will and our responsibility for our actions.

There is no ‘cure’ for this. In a recent article Richard Heinberg describes the Warring States period in China, and how Taoism may have arisen in part out of frustration over endless war and the search for a peaceful way that is reconnected to nature and non-judgemental (“non-attached”). This suggests to me that the early Taoists may have understood instinctively that our judgements, personal hatreds and propensity for war represent a form of mental illness unique to humans, one that might be healed by seeking “the way” of being that is not conducive to hatred, fear, trauma, and war.

If only it were that simple. If only we could reverse the evolutionary error of the entanglement of the human brain, which gave rise to the illusion of self and separation, which produced the mental illness that drives us to create civilizations, invent astonishing technologies, hate and fear and traumatize each other, and, in so doing, destroy the basis for all life on our fragile little planet.

Or end it all in war.

Posted in Collapse Watch, How the World Really Works, Illusion of the Separate Self and Free Will, Our Culture / Ourselves | 4 Comments

Time For a Jubilee

The late David Graeber, in his book Debt, traced the history of indebtedness back to the days when money was first invented. Every dollar of money represents a dollar of debt, and finance is all about measuring who owes how much to whom and how it will be repaid.

He also explained that, historically, there have been times when debts rose to the level they could not be repaid. Bankruptcy rarely benefits anyone (except when corrupt lawmakers produce tax and usury laws that benefit their corporate donors), and expropriation of the asset borrowed against the debt is often not an option. Historically it has been much easier to just wipe the slate clean, declare a debt jubilee that erases the debt and the offsetting creditors’ claim, and go forward from there. David explained that this was often the most expedient way to deal with inequalities of income and wealth that were so egregious as to threaten to paralyze economic activity.

This is more or less what happened in 2008, when our incompetent banks had run up so many reckless high-risk loans that the system seized up — no one was willing to advance more money for fear of losing it, so the system was starved of “liquidity” and no financial business could be done. The massive government bail-out of the banks at taxpayer expense was essentially a debt jubilee — just for the reckless banks, not for indebted, underwater citizens.

Likewise, to some extent the large-scale writing of cheques by governments to struggling citizens during CoVid-19 was an ersatz form of debt jubilee. These payments dramatically reduced poverty levels in countries that deployed them, and they represented a substantial, across-the-board transfer of wealth to the poor, almost as if they had instituted, for a few brief months, a Guaranteed Annual Income.

Since no good deed goes unpunished, corporations, anxious to get their hands on this extra spending money in citizens’ hands, used their oligopoly power to ratchet up prices, creating the highest inflationary pressure on the economy in decades. Governments, not wanting to offend the wealthy corporate donors on which their jobs depended, falsely blamed the inflation instead on citizens’ reckless spending, and jacked up interest rates to punish them, essentially clawing back the money they had given out during CoVid-19 and giving it to the banks. Won’t make that mistake again.

The consequence of this is that poverty rates in the countries doing this (most of the countries in the ‘west’ — the American Empire nations), soared to record levels as the CoVid-19 ‘handouts’ ended and inflationary costs of everything soared. As the chart above shows, this has created unprecedented levels of poverty in the west, while enabling corporate profits to soar to record levels.

And of course, like everything else in our reeling economic system, this is unsustainable. As I’ve described before, despite a meaningless rising ‘GDP’, the real levels of income, net worth, and value of goods and services in our economy has been falling since the Reagan era, and never have so many been living in such precarity. Almost all ‘job creation’ has been in minimum-wage, dead-end jobs, which pay so little that many workers need to work two of them each week just to pay the rent. The houses may be bigger, and there may be a second car in the garage, but it’s all smoke and mirrors — the banks actually ‘own’ these assets, and the renters are drowning in unrepayable debts.

Economists like Michael Hudson and Steve Keen have, like David Graeber, argued that we need something like a debt jubilee now, to at least forestall a financial and economic collapse that will make 2008 (and 1929) look like a dress rehearsal. How might such a jubilee work?

David supported a simple formula for a jubilee, on the basis that doing something like this for billions of people in dozens of countries cannot be made too complicated or it just won’t work — the opponents would make political hay of its failure and the result would be disastrous. And the more complicated the formula, the more loopholes it creates for the rich and unscrupulous to exploit to undermine the entire project.

So David proposed a single, across-the-board $100,000 debt jubilee — anyone with debts would find them, up to a maximum of $100,000 per citizen, instantly forgiven. The banks would simply erase these debts — this ‘money’ — from both sides of their ledgers, and that would be the end of it. That would include education and health-care debts.

The evidence from the CoVid-19 experience was that citizens overwhelmingly used this money wisely; they used it to pay down debts and to acquire durable goods, and, until the cheques stopped and the cost of living soared, did not incur new debts. David believed that people, given the opportunity to reduce their debts to manageable levels, or even to zero, would jump at the chance and not go back into deep debt.

Beyond the embittered ultra-rich and privileged minority who believe citizens are basically ignorant, selfish and stupid and cannot be trusted to manage their own finances (you know, the Janet Yellen types who proclaim that high inflation is essential to prevent the lazy citizens from quitting their jobs), there are two groups who have some legitimate reasons for complaining about such a jubilee:

  1. There are many citizens who have never been able to buy a house or a car, or have chosen to rent and lease rather than buy because of their aversion to taking on debts — you can hardly blame them. They mostly live lives of precarity too, but since they have little or no debt, they would get nothing from a debt jubilee. And many seniors have sold their homes, paid off their mortgages, and are now renting to reduce the risk of loss of their home equity value when the overheated market collapses. They would not qualify for the jubilee because they made the wise decision to eliminate their debts when they could. And there are others who borrowed money from middle-class family members instead of from the bank, so they wouldn’t qualify for the jubilee since their debt is “off the books”.
  2. There are people who worry that, if there is one debt jubilee, that there will inevitably be another in the future. Some are concerned that people won’t take their debts ‘seriously’ if they expect they will be cancelled in the next jubilee. A more serious concern is that speculators will exploit jubilee opportunities to leverage themselves with assets mortgaged to the hilt, and then profit when the mortgages are forgiven in a jubilee. The corollary concern is that these speculators will, in ‘investing’ in these over-leveraged assets, drive up asset prices to the point that they become unaffordable, and stoke new rounds of high inflation. This has already become the case in overheated real estate markets in many desirable neighbourhoods around the world.

One way of addressing these concerns would be to have the jubilee apply only to the underwater portion of each citizen’s debts. So if your mortgage was $260,000 and the value of your home was $200,000, then only the $60,000 deficiency would be forgiven in the jubilee.

Another solution might be to supplement the jubilee with what might be called a one-time ‘precarity dividend’. This would be an additional jubilee amount of, say, $50,000, that would be made available to households with a combined net worth of less than $100,000. The idea would be that even if you are not technically underwater, managing when your net worth is so small that a sudden change in interest rates or underlying asset values would wipe you out, is horrifically difficult, so the $50,000 would serve as a ‘buffer’. To the extent you have debts beyond those eliminated by the jubilee, the ‘precarity dividend’ would come in the form of an additional reduction in those debts. Any additional amount would be funded by a wealth tax on the ultra-rich. Even those who are debt-free but still have a minimal net worth would qualify for this ‘dividend’.

This would eliminate most of the speculators from benefiting — they mostly keep their portfolios just above water, and their net worth would be too high to qualify for the ‘dividend’. And it would reward those who are poor but debt-free.

There are of course other ways of redistributing wealth from the rich to the poor when it reaches the obscene levels we see today. A wealth tax would be an obvious choice, though it would have to navigate tax cheats who use offshore accounts and other means of concealing or misstating their wealth. Anti-usury laws, which have been eroded over decades, would help enormously — simply making it a criminal offence to charge a rate of interest (including ‘fees’) that exceeds more than the government rate plus 5%, would dramatically reduce the cost of living for the poor and anyone who can’t afford to pay off their credit cards each month. A guaranteed annual income would likewise help enormously, and it has been overwhelmingly successful in the areas where it has been tried (mostly, unfortunately, for only limited trial periods).

We ‘should’ be doing all of these things, but we’re not, and there are (infuriating but largely insuperable) reasons why our systems have devolved to the point we don’t even try. A debt jubilee would at least be doing something. It would help a lot of people, people who need it most. And it’s been done before, throughout history and in various ways. I’m extremely pessimistic about any government implementing one voluntarily. But our economic system is teetering, and when we reach the stage where we have millions begging in the streets, and large-scale blockades against foreclosures, and breadlines a mile long, we will be forced, as we were in the 1930s nearly a century ago, to do something.

Posted in Collapse Watch, How the World Really Works | 1 Comment