Links of the Month: May 2021

For readers who only have time to peruse a few articles from the links below, the five I think are most important to read are *** highlighted. Just a caution that this month’s top five make for rather grim reading.


photo I took on the Bowen Island causeway last week

Six-thirty AM: a poem by Doug Anderson

And the black lines the trees made at sundown yesterday
in one direction now point the other, saying
see what you missed in your life that was there all the time.
I thought of people I knew in my young swagger,
whose names I can’t remember, who cared for me
and I didn’t care back (how the mind remembers these things
suddenly, in later years, when one can no longer run as fast
away from self-knowledge to some sensual excess).

And then there are colors between the colors
and different shades of them and that Japanese elm
is wild next to the red-leafed maple—who was it
that wrote her name in the book of poems she gave me
on whatever occasion? These things sting like the tape
the nurse yanks off the healed cut taking hair with it.

The fields are greening themselves without our help
and the willow is blossoming in its gold/green way.
This all happens whether we care or not and is not sad
if we don’t. Something like snow hanging on in May
is sorrowful, and a man with a few years left
saying to the crocus, I lived, I fell in love here.


COLLAPSE WATCH


image by Tadeusz Nalepa, via Umair Haque’s Eudaimonia

*** The Net Zero trap: Politicians, corporations and ‘think tanks’ keep putting off our reckoning with the unsustainability of our economy by assuming that some magical future technology with a ‘negative carbon footprint’ (like the pipe-dream of carbon sequestration, or geoengineering) will balance our current ruinous emissions levels and allow us to go on despoiling the planet and the atmosphere. Don’t fall for it, say three professors of systems and ecology. Only an immediate, drastic, global, sustained reduction in economic activity across the board could prevent 3ºC of temperature rise by 2100, and even 2ºC is guaranteed to lead to runaway climate change. And after three decades of political blather that has seen emissions continue to increase, that ain’t going to happen.

A goal is not a plan: Umair explains that Biden’s climate goals have no chance of being achieved because there is absolutely no plan to achieve them, just a continuing dependence on neoliberal capitalist market forces, voluntary actions, and new technologies, and a threadbare hope that will somehow be enough.


LIVING BETTER


photo “Home Schooling” by Ignacio Lanús

Forest gardens, the aboriginal permaculture: Before we had ‘catastrophic’ agriculture (heavy intervention monoculture planting, weeding, fertilizers, herbicides, pesticides, and irrigation) indigenous cultures on six continents used forest gardens, which require only a careful study of local ecology and strategic planting of locally-compatible food crops for a few years to produce forest-canopied gardens that sustain themselves indefinitely with no human maintenance. Thanks to Tree Bressen for the link.

*** The case for legalizing all drugs: Criminalization of drugs is a recent phenomenon, less than two centuries old. People use drugs to heal themselves physically and psychologically. Regulation of, and usage warnings on, drugs make perfect sense, but making them illegal makes no sense at all. The ‘war on drugs’, which never ends and wastes money that could be spent improving living conditions so there is less need for them, has never made any sense, except to shameless moralists, greedy Big Pharma companies and bloated police forces looking to justify their existence, argues addiction researcher Carl Hart.

Curbing coercive and controlling behaviour: Psychological abuse is hard to regulate, but it is often the precursor or accompanier of physical violence and even murder of ‘friends’ and family, particularly by men who abuse women. On the one hand, we want all the tools we can have to fight psychological abuse, both for the damage it causes and what it often escalates to. But on the other hand, do we want police, who have a lousy record dealing with domestic violence, and who lack the skills and training to intervene effectively, to be the ones using these tools?

Reforming the ‘American’ diet: Mark Bittman’s new history of food argues “the rise of uniformity and convenience in food has mostly benefited large companies, fuelled societal inequities and ravaged human health and the environment”.

Following the clues behind disinformation: McGill University’s Office for Science and Society has been using clever, concise, science-based videos to correct and gently ridicule mis- and disinformation about matters of health and science since long before the pandemic. Now they’ve upped their game, taking on anti-vaxxers, conspiracy theorists, fraudsters and quacks like Joe Mercola.

What would you like to work on next, staff?: Corporate Rebels has an interesting idea for progressive organizations: allot some % of all employees’ time to ‘bottom-up’ innovative projects dreamt up by the employees themselves, and let the employees pitch their ideas, and then let their colleagues allot their discretionary hours to whichever projects made most sense to them. Thanks to Tree Bressen for the link, and the one that follows.

Using data to hammer home gender discrimination: GenderAvenger provides clever tools that allow you to track to what degree your Zoom and in-person meetings are male-dominated, tracks how many articles in major magazines are written by men vs women, and fights against ‘manels’ (ubiquitous all-male ‘expert’ panels).

Hank Green talks to vaccine hesitants: In four minutes, Hank compassionately dispels all the reasons for putting off getting vaccinated NOW.


POLITICS AND ECONOMICS AS USUAL


from Michael Leunig, of course

***  Why it’s so hard for the US to end its wars: An incredibly depressing story by Middle-East expert Robin Wright on the region’s many failed states and the tinder keg the power vacuum has created.

An NTSB-like agency for police killings and mass shootings?: When people die in plane crashes in the US, the NTSB investigates to find out what happened, and laws are enacted to prevent systemic recurrence. Since police killings and mass shootings are much more common, and indicate systemic problems, why is there no similarly-empowered agency to deal with them? These are, after all, public health crises, not political crises.

***  Blame the victims’ memories: A woman psychologist who has defended many of the world’s worst and most famous abusers of women is revealed to be herself a confused sufferer of horrific childhood abuse, who dealt with it by blaming herself for an ‘unreliable’ memory, in this extraordinary exposé by The New Yorker’s Rachel Aviv.

***  The repressive politics of Emotional Intelligence: A brilliant and courageous article by Oxford’s Merve Imre pillories the tyranny of Daniel Goleman’s 25-year-old concept of Emotional Intelligence and how it has been warped since then to brainwash workers and the oppressed into believing their lack of EI is to blame for their suffering and their failures. “Those who are at the mercy of impulse—who lack self-control—suffer a moral deficiency,” Goleman proclaims, assuring us, like a gospel preacher, that our free will and capacity for self-improvement are limitless. The conclusion of the critique:

Envision “Emotional Intelligence” and the books descended from it as morality plays for a secular era, performed before audiences of mainly white professionals. In a theatre that admits no light or sound from the outside world, the audience watches as poor, begrimed laborers and criminals are pushed onstage to shoot their kids and stab their teachers. Pricked by the masked vices of Rage, Depression, and Anxiety, shamed by the veiled virtues of Empathy, Mindfulness, and Reason, the players have no chance at salvation. The lessons of emotional intelligence are not theirs to learn.

When the curtain falls, the audience members turn to one another to talk softly about how to teach their children to avoid such a fate, how to live happily in a world where one is bound to be inconvenienced by the violent impulses of others. Even from the front row, they cannot see that the masks and veils hide a reality in which they are no freer than the players they condemn. To pull back the mask would be to uncover an impotence they all share. And it might allow the audience and the cast to rise together, becoming angry to the right degree, at the right time, for the right purpose, and in the right way, toward the right people, who have, for the past twenty-five years, sold them some of the most alluring and quietly repressive ideas in recent history.

Israel doubles down on apartheid: Pictures of Israeli soldiers celebrating the murder of Palestinian protesters, and punching Palestinian babies, is putting a crack in the armour of blind support for Israel’s apartheid occupation of Palestinian lands. Cameras are capturing what the cowed western media and politicians are afraid to report or criticize for fear of being branded “anti-Semitic”. But after Human Rights Watch accused Israel of “crimes against humanity”, some media covered the story, but others, notably Canada’s CBC, buried the story entirely, and the Trudeau government refused any comment on it. In fact all of the major Canadian media covered up the story, and none of Canada’s political parties, including the Greens (who, under their former ‘leader’, purged all the BDS supporters from their executive and overturned the decision of the majority of members to include a condemnation of Israeli apartheid and support for BDS, from its policy framework) dared say a word about the report or the reported “crimes against humanity”.

The days of Gandhi are long gone: Arundhati Roy describes the horrors that the despotic and anti-Moslem populist Indian PM Modi has inflicted on his citizens, stirring up hate, passing discriminatory laws, preying on ignorance, lying, ignoring the misery that CoVid-19 has created, especially among the poor, and ridiculing the victims. Sound familiar?

The genocide in Tigray: Combined Ethiopian and Eritrean forces are working to starve out the citizens of Tigray, and to block all humanitarian aid from reaching them. The head of the WHO, who is from Tigray, is trying to cope with two horrific crises at once.

The vulnerability of activists to conspiracy theories: When you’ve been conditioned to distrust government, there can be some terrible side-effects. My friend Ken Ward writes:

I have a morbid, clinical fascination watching the COVID vaccine conspiracy disease spread through the ranks of climate activists. It’s horrifying, of course, but it’s a real-time window into the process of group isolation we saw, from a much greater distance, on the right. The most perplexing step toward full-on anti-vaccination conspiracy thinking is accepting that scientists & medical professionals are all in on the conspiracy; nearly a 180 turn from our stance as climate activists, where, if anything, we are critical of scientists for not fully embracing the implications of their own research. To accept the COVID conspiracy, I would have to believe that my own life partner (a family doctor and CMO of a group of clinics so dedicated to vaccinations that all routine medical work has been postponed while they run mass vaccination clinics, focusing on high risk migrant farmworkers) is in on it. Wow, this is powerful, twisted stuff. If it spreads any further, it may be the death knell for an already riven, marginalized, dirt poor, and seriously compromised climate action community.

When anti-maskers melt down: A report on one confrontation of two rich male businessmen with a pizza shop attendant shows a dangerous cocktail of “paranoia and entitlement”. And racism: “Are you fucking Middle Eastern or where are you from?… I’m worth $50 million, you’re worth zero.”

Drug manufacturers fight furiously to block generic vaccines: The lobbyists for the Big Pharma oligopoly have both US political parties shilling for them. Thanks to Tree Bressen for the link.

Democrats push for tax cut for the rich: Bought members of Congress are pressuring Biden to allow the ultra-rich to once again deduct all state and local taxes from their income that is subject to federal tax.

Canada’s death-with-indignity: While Trudeau’s pathetically inadequate and still-unconstitutional right-to-die law, watered down under pressure from Conservative and Liberal evangelicals, was finally passed, the Conservatives are now refusing to proceed with the special committee to address the issues in the law that were unresolved and shelved for two years, unless their extremist no-right-to-die representative is named co-chair of the committee. An American Christian has written a moving article for more compassionate right-to-die laws that’s received lots of attention, but it’s not moving the fanatics.

Canada’s “vaccine tourism”: The CEO of the Canada Pension Plan thought nothing of flying to Dubai to get vaccinated early for CoVid-19. Until he got back and found out he’d been fired for it. “Bioethicist Kerry Bowman said he was shocked to learn that a prominent figure would travel abroad to get a COVID-19 vaccine, especially after the furor that erupted in late December and early January over jet-setting politicians defying public health advice against international vacation travel.”  Under Canadian law it is unconstitutional to prohibit any Canadian citizen from leaving or re-entering the country, and rich vaccine “queue jumpers”, already used to jumping the queue to go to the US for faster surgeries and tests, are exploiting the loophole, encouraged by Canada’s money-hungry airlines.

BC’s poisoned street drug crisis gets worse: The BC government, five years and 7,000 deaths after declaring the crisis a public health emergency, announced a completely inadequate drug possession decriminalization plan, with no timeline and a process for a long series of ‘consultations’ with doctors and ‘expert focus panels’ before even applying for the decriminalization provision, which must be approved by the federal government. The province rejected our esteemed senior public health officer’s plea for immediate unilateral decriminalization, two years ago, outright. The city of Vancouver’s application is even worse. No matter how you look at it, it’s a complete, unconscionable disgrace. It’s yet another public health crisis being mismanaged as a political issue.


COVID-19 CORNER


illustration by the brilliant Nan Lee in The New Yorker

Nothing new to add about the pandemic since last week’s update.


FUN AND INSPIRATION


from Gatos Debochados (“over-indulgent cats”) Facebook group

The history and future of vegan cheese: We’ve come a long way from flavoured tofu. Thanks to Raffi for the link.

Artist celebrates Canada’s unknown women artists: BC’s Marlene Lowden describes her project to pay homage to dozens of mostly unrecognized Canadian women artists, and then goes on to teach you an art technique she used called blind contour drawing. A tour de force. Thanks to Jami &co at The Hearth for saving this great talk.

The most elegant key change in pop music?: Musicologist Adam Neely explains how Céline Dion’s key change at the end of Eric Carmen’s Rachmaninoff-derived song All By Myself, completely changes the spirit of the song (presumably from defeat to triumph). I personally think this particular key change is an abomination that spoils the song, but Adam’s analysis, especially of the underlying Rachmaninoff chord sequences, is fascinating.

Five-fold symmetry: The slick, fascinating and peculiarly popular Canadian vlog Veritasium describes, and visually demonstrates, one of the great puzzles of geometry, and explains how it was resolved. Thanks to Earl Mardle for the link.

How aging works: Another Veritasium offering suggests that aging/ageing is simply what results when our cells ‘forget’ what they’re supposed to do, and start doing something else. It’s a fascinating idea, though the inevitable diversion into reversing aging and living forever put me off.

The strangest video ever made: Though perhaps it strikes me that way because I’m old. The always-astonishing Hank Green makes a guest appearance on a vlog run by two very smart, well-read, engaged women who appear to try to act dumb for no evident reason. I learned an enormous amount about new things techie that are everyday reality to many under 30, and laughed myself silly in the process. Brilliant and ghastly.

Beaverton headlines of the month:

  • Canada ranked #1 in list of countries that care most about international rankings.
  • Netflix adds Canada filter to American shows by removing scenes where characters wear shoes inside the house.
  • Masked woman can’t stop smiling now that men can’t tell her to smile.
  • Subway station playing classical music to deter young loiterers, now plagued by loitering elderlies

RADICAL NON-DUALITY AND NO-FREE-WILL STUFF


one of several Scott Adams cartoons on free will, from back in the days when the gentleman was funny, and sane

The case against free will: The chorus of scientists and philosophers saying we have no free will grows steadily louder. A thoughtful and balanced summation of recent thinking on the topic. Thanks to John Whiting for the link.

My Radical Non-Duality playlist: Every video on the subject that has resonated with me since I started watching them over six years ago.


THOUGHTS OF THE MONTH


cartoon by James Norbury from Big Panda and Little Dragon

From Mary Oliver, from the poem A Thousand Mornings (via John Green):

This morning
the beautiful white heron
was floating along above the water

and then into the sky of this
this one world
we all belong to

where everything
sooner or later
is a part of everything else

∞∞∞∞∞

From my friend John Whiting, in thinking about the famous Upton Sinclair quip about how difficult it is to get someone to understand something when their salary depends upon their not understanding it:

For salary, substitute marriage, social status, religious belief, circle of close friends, peace of mind, self-respect . . .

∞∞∞∞∞

From Lisel Mueller (thanks to Larry Sheehy for the link):

Alive Together

Speaking of marvels, I am alive
together with you, when I might have been
alive with anyone under the sun,
when I might have been Abelard’s woman
or the whore of a Renaissance pope
or a peasant wife with not enough food
and not enough love, with my children
dead of the plague. I might have slept
in an alcove next to the man
with the golden nose, who poked it
into the business of stars,
or sewn a starry flag
for a general with wooden teeth.
I might have been the exemplary Pocahontas
or a woman without a name
weeping in Master’s bed
for my husband, exchanged for a mule,
my daughter, lost in a drunken bet.
I might have been stretched on a totem pole
to appease a vindictive god
or left, a useless girl-child,
to die on a cliff. I like to think
I might have been Mary Shelley
in love with a wrongheaded angel,
or Mary’s friend. I might have been you.
This poem is endless, the odds against us are endless,
our chances of being alive together
statistically nonexistent;
still we have made it, alive in a time
when rationalists in square hats
and hatless Jehovah’s Witnesses
agree it is almost over,
alive with our lively children
who–but for endless ifs–
might have missed out on being alive
together with marvels and follies
and longings and lies and wishes
and error and humor and mercy
and journeys and voices and faces
and colors and summers and mornings
and knowledge and tears and chance.

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

No More Heroes: Sociological vs Psychological Stories


image from Pxhere, CC0

Zeynep Tüfekçi has this amazing capacity to see through complex issues and provide insights that most normal linear thinkers could never imagine. Her solutions to some of our most intractable problems are bold yet obvious: eg make Facebook et al into cooperatives, free from all advertising, corporate funding and profit demands, supported entirely by individual $20/year subscriptions, so that we, not the corporations and politicians, are the customers and owners, not the “product” as we are now. Instead, she says, “we’re building a dystopia just to make people click on ads“.

Her insights on CoVid-19 have been revolutionary, and her persistent fight against some misguided public health orthodoxy, which she’s backed with thorough yet sympathetic research and evidence through her work on CoVid-19’s aerosol vs surface-infection transmission, and the importance of ventilation in controlling its spread) has changed the dialogue and recommendations for addressing the pandemic, and possibly saved thousands of lives.

If that weren’t enough, she’s now throwing light on why most of us are drawn to polarizing, dumbed-down, good-vs-evil narratives (in the media, in political polemics, and in Hollywood and most modern literature).

Much of her thinking on this is being saved for a book, but she’s chatting about it with her subscribers on Insight, her Substack subscribers’ private newsletter, and she launched her thesis with this 2019 public article in Scientific American.

Essentially, she argues, there are two styles of storytelling — the simplistic psychological one, which focuses on the heroic-vs-evil behaviours of individuals, and the much harder, more complex, and educational sociological one, which focuses on a whole culture or group of people, provides context for their behaviours, and eschews judgements in favour of a complex understanding of why groups, and individuals within them, behave in certain ways, none of them categorically good or evil.

So, cop dramas that paint bad guys as irredeemable and the cops as acceptably-flawed heroes, thrive on TV, while shows that take time to develop an appreciation of a whole culture (my favourite was the ensemble cast of Sports Night, but Zeynep in her SA article uses the example of the all-but-last season of Game of Thrones), are much harder to pull off, and take time and viewer patience to develop. For lazy scriptwriters, it’s a no-brainer. The cartoonish characters’ costumes are often even colour-coded for the especially-dense reader/viewer.

It’s the same in narratives in the news. It’s easier to believe in a good-guys-vs-bad-guys explanation for CoVid-19 — an evil or inept manufacture in a lab in a country we are being endlessly propagandized to hate — rather than the much more logical explanation that it occurred the same way way every other pandemic in the past century occurred — by a zoonotic species jump. It’s easier to believe in Trump as the deranged maniac and Biden as the white knight, than to accept the very complicated reasons why the US is sliding inexorably into fear-based collective xenophobia and fascism, and Biden is neither capable nor particularly interested in doing anything about it.

It’s also part of the reason we don’t get any serious reporting about the genocides in Yemen or Tigray, or about climate change — these complex issues don’t have any clear heroes or villains, and they aren’t about individual accomplishments. Tell us a story about one specific victim or perpetrator, no matter how trivial or merely symbolic, and you might get our attention.

It all comes down to what we want to believe, and most of us want to believe in heroes and villains, in simple fixes, and in hope for a better future. Pandering politicians and writers are all too happy to oblige. It makes their job binary, and simple. The only victim is the truth.

Zeynep urges us, as thinkers, as writers, and as scientists, to prefer sociological narratives to psychological ones. To accept that we’re all doing our best, and to understand why those doing seemingly awful things are doing them. To seek to appreciate rather than rushing to judge.

She writes:

Whether we tell our stories primarily from a sociological or psychological point of view has great consequences for how we deal with our world and the problems we encounter… Our inability to understand and tell sociological stories is one of the key reasons we’re struggling with how to respond to the historic… transitions we’re currently experiencing… Hollywood does not have the right tools for sociological stories, nor do they even seem to understand the job…

In sociological storytelling, the characters have personal stories and agency, of course, but those are also greatly shaped by institutions and events around them. The incentives for characters’ behavior come noticeably from these external forces, too, and even strongly influence their inner life. People fit their internal narrative to align with their incentives, justifying and rationalizing their behavior along the way. (Thus the famous Upton Sinclair quip: “It is difficult to get a man to understand something when his salary depends upon his not understanding it.”)… If we can better understand how and why characters make their choices, we can also think about how to structure our world that encourages better choices for everyone.

My (unusual) passion and appreciation for complexity, and my preference as a result for sociological narratives over psychological ones, has, I think, allowed me to appreciate that, as I now keep saying, We’re all doing our best. It’s enabled me to overcome my entrained opposition to the idea that we’re the products of our biological and cultural conditioning, devoid of free choice. That’s a liberating understanding.

And I finally understand what’s at the heart of my revulsion to almost all modern TV and film “entertainment” programming, and almost all fiction — it manipulates us by dumbing us down to think in terms of simplistic psychological causes for everything, and hence insults our intelligence. The same goes for almost all “editorial” writing in the media, a large proportion of absurdly-oversimplified sound-byte “news reporting”, and the gazillion mindless “likes” and “retweets” this useless, polarizing, dangerous story-telling produces.

Tell me a story, by all means, but if your story doesn’t tell me, in compelling detail, what motivated all of the people in the story’s arc to do what they did, don’t expect me to believe it. I’ll keep reading until I discover the real story.

And please don’t insult my intelligence by ascribing everything that happened to one individual’s unhappy childhood, or one individual’s heroic interventions. I outgrew comic book narratives a half-century ago. All the devils we’ve demonized throughout history were, like the heroes we idolize, just standing on the shoulders of giants, and the shoulders of other complex creatures of all sizes and descriptions who, for reasons we would best start to try to understand, were ready, willing and able to give them the boost they needed to do “their best”.

Better yet, don’t tell me the story of the super-hero, or super-villain. Enough blather about mega-narcissists like Trump, Zuckerberg and Musk, please. Tell me the story of the people whose unrecognized work enabled an alleged hero to accomplish what s/he did, and the cultural backdrop that contributed to it. Or the story of the struggling, downtrodden minions whose quiet support or indifference enabled an alleged villain to do what s/he did, and the cultural backdrop that contributed to it.

Though it’s a lot more work to uncover and tell that story honestly and in all its complexity, that’s a story worth paying attention to. That’s the kind of story that informs Zeynep’s understanding of complex situations, and inspires the insights that stem from it.

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

IHME Goes All In On Excess Deaths Over Reported CoVid-19 Deaths

This is the 17th in a series of articles on CoVid-19. I am not a medical expert, but have worked with epidemiologists and have some expertise in research, data analysis and statistics. I am producing these articles in the belief that reasonably researched writing on this topic can’t help but be an improvement over the firehose of misinformation that represents far too much of what is being presented on this topic in social (and some other) media.


IHME estimated cumulative “actual” CoVid-19 deaths per 100,000 citizens, through May 3, 2021. These numbers are on average more than twice official “reported” deaths per 100,000 citizens, and use global data on “excess deaths” from many sources.


IHME current average daily “actual” CoVid-19 deaths per million citizens, as of the week ending May 3, 2021. These numbers are on average more than twice official “reported” deaths per 100,000 citizens, and use global data on “excess deaths” from many sources.

For the past year, the University of Washington’s IHME CoVid-19 forecasters have been twisting themselves into knots to get their forecasts to be both accurate and consistent with their long-standing assumptions that (1) actual CoVid-19 deaths have been reasonably close to reported deaths, and getting closer over time, and (2) infection fatality rates (IFRs) for the disease are globally consistent when adjusted for age demographics.

Something had to give. More and more anomalies were appearing in the discrepancies between their predictions and reported cases and deaths. So this week IHME basically abandoned both assumptions. They will no longer attempt to forecast “reported” deaths, instead forecasting their computation of “actual” deaths, using a mountain of diverse sources of “excess deaths” data, and presuming that substantially all “excess deaths” since the pandemic began are attributable to CoVid-19.

That means that they believe excess deaths from other causes, such as those due to people dying at home rather than risking going to CoVid-19-infested hospitals, roughly offset, in all jurisdictions, reduced deaths from other causes affected by CoVid-19 restrictions, such as the drop in fatal car accidents due less driving. It’s not an unreasonable assumption, but, given the biases out there, it’s aroused a chorus of protests, most of them saying that “developed” nations couldn’t possibly have underreported CoVid-19 deaths that dramatically.

Here are some of the reported and “actual” CoVid-19 death numbers the IHME is now using:

The chart suggests that not only have actual CoVid-19 deaths been 1.5-3plus times what health authorities have been reporting, but that that serious undercounting continues even now to about the same degree.

It’s interesting that, a year ago, IHME was talking about the possibility of a million US CoVid-19 deaths, and ten million deaths worldwide, and after some huge revisions to their projections in the interim, they’ve come full circle to the original estimates.

IHME’s changes also acknowledge, finally, that “lifestyle” issues (notably, the prevalence of obesity and many chronic respiratory, immunodeficiency and autoimmune diseases in the Americas and Europe) affecting the capacity of our immune systems to cope with infections, dramatically affect rates of death and hospitalization for every age cohort. The IFR in much of Africa and Asia (even accounting for the current explosion of cases in India) now looks to be less than 1/5 that experienced in the immunocompromised Americas and Europe, far more than their younger demographics alone could account for. We know that much of our “lifestyle” illness is attributable to stress, lack of exercise and poor diet. Now we know that this also sets us up for disproportionate fatalities in a pandemic, might that cause some changes in this western “lifestyle”? I wouldn’t count on it.


more than a year into this pandemic, thanks to our repeated failure to Go For Zero, we still have not yet even reached global peak daily deaths from the disease

So, we haven’t learned that our poor “lifestyle” makes us much more vulnerable to pandemic disease. Or at least, not sufficiently to change that lifestyle. And we haven’t understood that preventing most future pandemics will require an end to factory farming, exotic animal harvesting, and invading the last remaining areas of the planet’s wilderness where more novel infectious diseases await us. Or at least, we haven’t learned sufficiently to abandon these ruinous, dangerous practices. What if anything have we learned?

  1. I think we’ve learned that a century-old dogma about infectious disease, that prevented us from acknowledging that CoVid-19 spreads mainly by aerosol infection, has needlessly cost millions of human lives. Next time: high quality masks ready and mandatory, activities moved outside or to very-well-ventilated spaces, and avoiding the crowds that enable super-spreader events responsible for most disease transmission. And less preoccupation with transmission on surfaces and during outdoor activities.
  2. I think we’ve learned that kids get pandemic diseases at much the same rate as adults, but because (like those in ‘less developed’ nations) they have healthier immune systems and more B-cells than adults, they get less sick, carry lower viral loads, and infect fewer others less seriously. Next time: especially when they’re doing things outdoors, leave the kids alone.
  3. I think some of us have learned to Go For Zero, right from the start of a pandemic, and stay with that strategy until it’s over. Next time: listen to the health leaders that advised Taiwan, Australia and New Zealand in 2020-21. Understand that defeating a pandemic is a public health issue, not a political issue. Lock up the damned politicians if they get in the way again.

None of that will be easy, and we humans have terrible memories and keep repeating our mistakes. And the anti-science forces and disinformation media are relentless. But, to save ten million lives, not to mention the unknown long-term damage this virus has potentially done to the bodies of billions of people, it’s worth fighting for.

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

Homo Lapsus

barsotti truth
cartoon by the late, wonderful Charles Barsotti

Lapsus (L. adj.) falling into error; in rapid decline

It seems that most of the people I know, especially men, as they get older, and learn and know more, become more and more unhappy, despairing, even depressed.

Depression dominated much of my youth and middle age, and now, as I get older, I just realize more and more how little I know, and I grow happier, more often astonished, and gradually more equanimous.

While the knowledge that our global human civilization is in its final, potentially horrific, century is enough to bring out denial and despair in most of us, the realization that this destructive civilization cannot be ‘saved’ was, for me, absolutely liberating. The end of our civilization is a cause for rejoicing, not despair! It’s a chance for our little blue planet to heal from all the damage our species has unintentionally inflicted on it, and, once collapse is complete, it will bring the end of our human suffering and, maybe, a chance for future, smaller, human societies to thrive as a part of, rather than a destroyer of, the Earth-super-organism that some call Gaia.

So we are a wretched species, but not because we’re evil, or innately ruinous and catastrophic, but because we’re afflicted. We are not well.  Whether our species perishes like a cancer, victim of the damage it’s done to its host, leaving the planet to recover in its own, astonishing, five-billion-year-old way; or if, instead, the human animal survives as a bit-player in a rebalanced, whole, healed planet, the suffering will soon be over. Maybe even in less than a million years, a blink of the eye in cosmic time!

How can one be depressed and despairing at that realization? For our planet, and perhaps our species, the most interesting and peaceful millennia are likely still ahead of us.

The uniquely human affliction I refer to above, for those not familiar with this blog’s (latest) thesis, is the disease of self-hood, the ghastly, illusory, hallucinated sense that we are, each of us, apart from the whole of all life, of everything that is, and that, worse, each of us is responsible for the miserable lifelong struggle to survive, and to somehow make things better. And that we have free will and control over the body of the creature we presume to inhabit, even when it misbehaves. And that the consequences of that misbehaviour, and of all human behaviour, are real, solid, and etched in history’s unsympathetic, unsparing record. All an illusion, a misunderstanding, a mistaking of our brain’s fevered conceptualizations for reality.

This illusion of self-hood, separation, ‘consciousness’, finity, and control, is like a worm that has burrowed into and infected our brains. It makes us see and believe things that are not real or true, and, since it’s a contagious disease endemic to all humans from a very early age, we all inadvertently reinforce the credibility of the illusion to each other. When we all see the same hallucination, that makes it hard to deny, but that doesn’t make it real.

The vehicle for transmission of this disease (though it is a mental illness, not a virus) is our stories.

And oh, how we love our stories! When we were tiny infants, there were no stories, and no time or space within which they could be situated. But then suddenly there was this sense of self, of being, somehow, apart, and simultaneously everything else separate from ‘us’ was also seen as apart. And the story of our selves began.

And from that point on, there was a thirst to ‘know’ — to hear and make sense of others’ stories, to see how they meshed with our stories, and where they agreed and disagreed with our own. “Why?” and “How?”, we incessantly asked our parents, the first ‘others’ we recognized and heard stories from: “Help me make sense of this story.”

Some of the stories were astonishingly beautiful: The story of humanity’s fall from grace by eating the fruit of the tree of knowledge. The stories of wise and foolish talking animals. The lovely unfinished mystery story of evolution.

And then there was the indoctrination of school, where we were told which stories were correct and which were not, even though we continued to harbour a sense that they were all just stories anyway, so what did it matter whether they were approved and verified, or just made up? We heard the stories of historians and scientists and others about how things were and are and worked. And, as we all know, if you hear a story often enough, from enough different people, you start to believe it’s true.

But something has never rung quite right, for some of us, about all the stories, especially the ones about responsibility and self-control and “you can do anything you set your mind to” and the whole story about progress and the striving to make things better. No matter how often we heard these stories, some of us couldn’t quite buy them — they just didn’t mesh with our observations. Surely life shouldn’t have to be this hard!

And these dissatisfying stories created a lot of anxiety and fear and grief and sorrow and anger and rage and guilt and shame about the gulf between what “should be” and what seemingly actually was. Damn those stories, anyway! According to them, we’ve never been and never will be good enough, deserving enough. Our foolishness, bad judgement, our failure to be smart and educated and knowledgeable and popular and loved and rich and successful and recognized and healthy (physically and psychologically) and attractive and listened to and appreciated and reassured — these stories imply that these failings are all our fault. And they don’t seem to be our fault because we’ve tried our best and done what we were told. It’s unfair! It must be someone else’s fault, and surely those people need to own up to their error and make it right. Someone’s not telling us the truth.

And then there were the love stories. The ones we were told (by people we know, and in books and on TV and in movies and songs) were compelling. We wanted to believe they were true. But the people telling them were on drugs. Of course, when we fell in love ourselves we forgot that the feeling was just a combination of intoxicating chemicals that our bodies manufactured to compel us to mate and stay with other humans, and so we started to tell, and to believe, our own love stories. They became the most important stories of all.

Our stories about love proclaim that love, and only love, can redeem us, and make all the anguish and anxiety of our stories of ‘me’ subside. And they shift, for a while, our attention from our own stories to our stories about those we love. Of course, these are still our stories!

But the love stories turn out to be dubious as well. Keeping the illusion of mutual, unending love for another human alive turns out to be hard work, a kind of internal complicit con job. We want to believe that we still really love and will always love these people we said we would always love. But the drugs that compel these proclamations, these forever stories, wear off, and the stories become harder and harder to believe, or to convince others of. “If you really loved me you would…” then becomes a kind of shaming, a desperate accusation that the story we had told was untrue, or that (if we are the one let down) the story they had told us was untrue. Why would anyone lie about that?

And those other love stories, about loving our god or our country or our Party or our possessions, or our selves, are so desperate and lame that we kind of feel sorry for anyone that believes them.

Suspicious of stories, now, some of us turned to other drugs, those we thought we could depend on to make us feel better, the way the stories said we should feel. They were very good for a while, but coming down from them and falling back into the story of our “real” lives was hell.

How could we get home, to that wondrous place before all the sad, invented stories began? We tried all the paths — riches, popularity, excitement, pleasure, work, sacrifice, devotion, therapy, spiritual enlightenment — but they all led back to the infinite closed loop of us.

So now there are no paths, no escape. We are alone with our disease in the prison of our self’s own making, in the unholy mess our species has so quickly made in its distress and despair. What we observe through the headgear that we innocently put on in early childhood, and which we now cannot even see to take off, is the only truth we know, the only life we know, the only life that we can know.

Is it enough to know this? Is it enough to know that the future, which is just another story in any case, will be, without us, wondrous, magical? That as there is no time and no “we”, the apparent death of what we call our selves will be just as much an illusion as the life that apparently preceded it, changing nothing except, perhaps, the illusory burdens and grief of those we seemingly leave behind?

Is it enough to know that this is all just an amazing show, nothing appearing as everything, already, without meaning or purpose, and that it’s only we wretched afflicted humans that can’t see that, but that, one way or another, the headgear that constrains us will soon be wrenched away (though not as a result of anything we do) and all will be revealed?

Maybe, for some of us. For most, it will remain as ludicrous as Copernicus’ heliocentric argument was for two centuries after its publication — absurd, ignorable, obviously untrue, a truly incredible story. A tale told by an idiot, signifying nothing.

We will see.

Posted in Our Culture / Ourselves, Preparing for Civilization's End, Radical Non-Duality | 2 Comments

The Unhinged Apes


Image from wikimedia by Nick Hobgood, CC-BY-SA 3.0

In the article in which scientist EO Wilson famously said “Darwin’s dice have rolled badly for Earth”, he speculates on what an alien species observing us for a billion years might have to say about the evolution of life on our planet. His view is that humans are an inherently destructive, excessively acquisitive, and selfish species, and that it may be inevitable that any intelligent species will quickly self-annihilate.

It’s a very conventional argument, assuming that it is our evolved intelligence that has turbocharged our innate destructiveness, to the point we have unleashed the sixth great extinction of life on the planet and may have already rendered most of the planet uninhabitable for most if not all species.

This argument does not quite ring true for me. The evolution of life tends (for prosaic reasons Stephen Jay Gould has explained) towards greater complexity, accommodating and promoting a vast diversity of species that ‘fit’ better in each ecosystem. Despite their purported rapacity, dinosaurs ‘fit’ well in balance with their environments, and for their 130 million years of existence on the planet, did not destroy, accidentally or deliberately, their ecosystems. Had it not been for the misfortune of the devastating meteor strike a mere 65 mya, they would most likely still be around. Had they destroyed their ecosystems, they would not have survived anywhere near as long as they did. That has nothing to do with intelligence, or ferocity; it is simply the laws of evolution.

At some point, humans ceased to ‘fit’ well in their ecosystems, and tried, futilely, to make ecosystems fit them instead. That effort was doomed from the outset, and we are now seeing its consequences. So the question is, What caused humans to stop ‘fitting’ well within the ecosystems we had evolved to thrive in (mainly, as tree-dwellers in tropical rainforests)?

The answer is probably complex. There is some evidence that our species was nearly completely eradicated when massive cosmic radiation from exploding supernovae some three million years ago essentially burned up all the tropical rainforests, so we had to abandon them and try to ‘fit’ in some other ecosystem (requiring us, among other things, to become bipedal). So part of the answer is that, as for the dinosaurs, our ecosystems changed so that we no longer ‘fit’.

But I suspect that another part of the answer is that, due to the Darwin’s Dice accident of trying out consciousness (ie creating a mental model of reality in the brain and positioning our invented ‘selves’ in the middle of that model), we became unhinged. By that I mean, we became disconnected from all other life on the planet, and convinced that our separation from it was real. As I’ve argued before, Gaia is in essence a super-organism, one ‘creature’ acting in its own collective interest. That ‘acting’ is not ‘intelligent’ the way we use the word to describe our selves; it is simply a successful evolution. Had it not been successful, in the sense of optimizing the fitness of its components, it would not have survived, and our planet would be, like most, lifeless.

The creation in the human brain of the illusion of separation, of separate “consciousness”, rather than being a sign of true intelligence or evolutionary advance, was, I think, rather an horrific mental illness, a loss of capacity to see what really is. It is similar to the mutation of cancer cells, which, like humans, are incapable of fitting in with the rest of the organism of which they are a part, and instead, in the desperate, disconnected, diseased attempt to survive, replicate until they actually kill the entire organism.

The trying-out of the idea of separation and self consciousness might well have been a simple extension of the instincts that provoke the fight/flight/freeze reaction when an existential threat is perceived. This reaction is evident in the tiniest and most small-brained creatures. There is no “thinking” involved in it (thinking is far too slow a process). How can such a process have evolved in creatures that have no sense of self, of being separate from the threat their instinct is responding to?

We cannot know, of course, but there may be a hint in the behaviour of many animals immediately after they recover from their fight/flight/freeze reaction. It takes the form of a furious shaking of the body. There is some speculation that the fight/flight/freeze instinct equips the creature with a rudimentary, brief, horrific sense of itself as separate from its predator, and hence in danger — a hallucination of sorts. Then, when the danger has passed, the hallucination ends — it is “shaken off” and everything is once again seen as it really is — with nothing separate, no space or time, and nothing needed.

I think it’s plausible that our sense of “consciousness”, of being “permanently” separate with a sense of self, positioned in space and time, is the same instinctive horrific hallucination permanently etched in “consciousness”. A cosmic evolutionary misstep, enabled by a brain with too much excess capacity for its own good. The illusion of self-hood is a maladaptive disease of the brain that afflicts us all starting in early childhood.

To me, there is no more compelling explanation for humanity’s outrageous, un-“fit” behaviour, its horrific self-inflicted suffering, and its lifelong unhappiness.

It is not the human species that is inherently destructive, acquisitive and self-obsessed. It is the endemic disease of consciousness, of self and separation, that has afflicted us all. The disease that has unhinged our sorry branch of the apes.

 

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

The Emperor’s New Weavers

More on radical non-duality. Caveat lector.

Illustration by Arthur Rackham of an early version of the fairy tale. Public domain.

OK, I admit that the fairy tale The Emperor’s New Clothes (which can be found in multiple cultures and predates by centuries the Hans Christian Andersen version) has kind of been done to death. The Emperor’s nudity has been used as a metaphor for many kinds of arrogant foolishness, gullibility and unwarranted deference to “superiors” and “experts”.

Yet today, as I was thinking about nothing, it occurred to me that the messengers of radical non-duality are very much like the little girl (or boy, in some versions) who shouts out (futilely, and being immediately shushed by all around) the obvious news that the strutting Emperor is ridiculously naked.

This time around we have three swindler-weavers of false, invisible cloth:

  1. The Scientific Weaver, who proclaims to the Emperor that science is on the verge of a “Grand Theory of Everything”, and that as soon as everything is known, humans will be able to do anything, ie to become gods, our manifest destiny to conquer the universe (starting, apparently, with Mars), since we are (to our knowledge) the smartest, most conscious species in the Cosmos.
  2. The Humanist Weaver, who proclaims to the Emperor, using the standard trick of hero stories built on the Myth of Progress, that, both as individuals and collectively, we can do anything we set our minds to. Create the more beautiful world we know is possible™, 100% climate-change free.
  3. The Technotopian Weaver, who proclaims to the Emperor, using the well-worn analogy of the brain/mind as computer, that we are on the verge of being able, thanks to AI and human invention, to transcend our bodies and live forever as pure consciousness. And leave this fucked-up world behind once and for all.

For an Emperor who desperately wants to believe that there is hope for this traumatized mess of a species totally dependent on a civilization culture that has irrevocably wrecked the living systems on which all life depends, these are welcome guests indeed. The weavers’ collective cheer is “We can do it!” That’s a Royal “We” of course, this being an Emperor and all.

And guess who the Emperor is? “We” are! We rule the Empirical prison of our selfhood, unopposed except by our own occasional doubts, and cheered on by (most of) the other Emperors in their lonely nearby apparent Empires. We gladly don the robes of the swindler-weavers, desperate to believe that, swathed in their assurances, We can indeed do anything.

Except there’s that annoying little child, in the midst of all the Emperors all screaming “We can do it!” And the child is just quietly, and quizzically, saying, over and over:

“There is no We.”

Where did the little brat get such a heretical idea?

Well, perhaps from quantum science and astrophysics, where new discoveries suggest that the space and time on which all science is built, actually doesn’t exist, and these are just constructs of the mind, ideas. The deeper we probe into our models of reality, the more we find things that don’t fit, that don’t even begin to fit with our models, our theories, our maps purporting, absurdly, to be closer and closer to becoming the territory.

Or perhaps it comes from neuroscience, the cognitive and behavioural sciences, which have pretty much eviscerated the idea that the ‘self’ and its ‘consciousness’ exist other than as a concept in the brain, a place-holder to hold together the brain’s model of what seems to be, based on all the sensory data it tries to process. And that we have no free will, no control over the bodies we presume to inhabit. That our bodies are simply acting out responses based completely on our biological and cultural conditioning, given the circumstances of the moment, and our ‘conscious selves’ merely attempt to rationalize what was done as being ‘our’ decisions, after the fact.

Or maybe it comes from evolutionary biology, which has shown compellingly that the brain is utterly unlike even the most complex imaginable computing and storing machine, and that the ‘mind’ is a fiction. That the brain is, in fact, a glorified feature detection system that evolved in some creatures to protect the collective cells and organs of the body, that ludicrously then got the idea that it was in charge.

Wherever the precocious, protesting child’s claim that “There is no We” came from, it is, in one sentence, the message of radical non-duality. Everything is just as it apparently is, already. There is no space, no time, no thing, no one, nothing separate, no meaning, no purpose, nothing known or needed. No We. The unbearable lightness of nothing, being everything, just, apparently, being this.

Just as in the fairy tale, the weavers don’t really care whether you can hear the child’s absurd statement. Their reputations are well-established, secure, reinforced by all the other weavers in their guilds. The crowd doesn’t hear the child, and the few that can hear over the din of the collective shouting of “We can do it!” think the child must be disturbed, as what it says makes no sense.

The weavers have been around before. They were around to support the promise and validity of phrenology, of humours, vapours and miasma, of demonic possession, of trephination and lobotomy, of alchemy, of bleeding with leeches, of the burning of witches, of the geocentric universe, of the crusades and the inquisition. When their weavings come unstrung and fall out of favour, they bid a hasty retreat, wait a short while for the people to forget, and then return with new promises, new methods and new raiments. Now, CBT, the DSM and Mindfulness™ are part of their accoutrements.

But this might be their last visit, at least for a few millennia, or even many millennia. Their chants and assurances now ring a bit hollow. The people, and the Emperor, still want to believe, but there are gnawing doubts. The records suggest they’ve been fooled by these weavers before.

Just because everyone has been convinced they see the hallucination, the clothes the Emperor just might be wearing, or that mirage ahead in the now seemingly-endless desert, doesn’t mean it’s real.

Posted in Our Culture / Ourselves, Radical Non-Duality | 1 Comment

Future Perfect: Some Thoughts on Writing


council of clan mothers in post-civ culture; diorama from Afterculture

It has long been my intention to write a novel or book of short stories about the world after civilization’s collapse. It would be set an imprecise number of millennia in the future, since time most likely doesn’t really exist anyway, and since we have a propensity for assuming things will change in the future more quickly than they actually do.

This collection would not be a dystopia. I think that’s too easy, and needlessly depressing, and the plethora of such writings out there suggests to me just how addicted we are to civilization’s current story (and obsessed with our grief and shame about it). The predominance of like-today-only-more-so-but-worse dystopias also demonstrates, to me, just how serious our collective imaginative poverty has become.

Each time I start to pull together some ideas for this collection, I run into the same roadblocks. First, the future of the human species, if there is one, is almost certain to be one of staggering diversity and local autonomy. We will be bit players in the fabric of our planet’s life, acting out very different and isolated adventures. So each story in the collection, if it is to be even vaguely representative, would entail a completely new beginning, and tying the stories together might be impossible, which would be hard on readers accustomed to looking for linear threads and patterns.

Secondly, I want to avoid at all costs the hackneyed, formulaic approach of almost all contemporary writing. The orthodoxy that all good stories must have tension, struggle, heroism and villainy, redemption, and a moralistic (usually but not always happy) ending, is IMO tyrannical and imposes an egregious limitation on the scope and power of good writing. The shortage of well-known stories that lack these ‘orthodox’ qualities does not indicate, to me, their necessity, but rather the power of the orthodoxy to limit our exposure to stories that do not require them.

The third, and perhaps most challenging, obstacle, is the limitation of language itself. I am ambivalent about the use of radically different languages in which to couch stories about the future. They certainly make the books harder to read, and when they do work, as with the mind-boggling Riddley Walker, they are exhausting for writer and reader alike. And even then the language imposes limitations that are rooted in our presumptions about how the world works, or worked, in the time the writer lived or studied, in the present or past, which constrain how the tethered languages and cultures of future times can be imagined and portrayed.

So, for example, I can imagine a future world in which communication is done using sign language or song, and is perhaps non-linear. But what linguistic tools, current or as-yet-uninvented, would allow me to capture what such communications and culture would be like, in a book that readers could fathom? It took James Joyce 17 years to write such a book, and, after all that, it was released largely to public opprobrium.

Or I could imagine some such future cultures to be so collectivist and inclusive as to have a language without (at least singular) pronouns. But I’ve tried writing with that restriction, and it’s trying, clunky, and annoying.

I certainly would not want anything like English to be presumed as the language of any future cultures I can imagine. Given its invention and evolution as a tool principally for subjugation, extraction of information, military instructions, deceit, and ever-greater concentration of power,  our language, and its sisters, are absurdly limited in their capacity to convey what life and interactions might be like in an utterly different future. A future in which such capacities are of no more use to its citizens than they would be to the birds and other wild animals that have thrived, with utterly different means of communication, for thousands of times longer than our rather pathetic species has been around. That will entail the evolution of very different languages than the impoverished ones we struggle to use today.

At one point I envisioned the book being simply a narrative of what was observed by an overhead drone, of unknown origin, recording images of life in this distant future, and leaving it up to the reader, or viewer, to assess what, if anything, these word-images meant. Such a narrative, or film, would, I think, need an extraordinarily fine soundtrack to accompany it, to help convey its message.

Good writing, TS Eliot famously said, has to appeal both to the emotions and the intellect. It has to provide us with some new idea or insight or possibility, some ‘aha’ that is suddenly recognized, and must as well invite a sensuous, evocative appreciation that transports us, ‘moves’ us. These days I read (and watch) little fiction, because most of it offers neither of the above, instead manipulating us, insulting our intelligence, and reinforcing our existing prejudices. By filling in all the details, it starves, instead of exercising, our imaginations. I have an aversion to almost all video games for the same reason.

I’m also a believer that the most inspired, novel, and challenging writing essentially ‘writes itself’ through us — though that does not mean at all that it is a simple or straightforward process. And so I am convinced that, if and when this collection gets written, it will happen when it’s ready to be written. To some extent my preparation for this is just noticing, taking notes, being open to the awareness that it might be time. My writing of music is at the same point of anticipation and not-quite-readiness, and it’s possible that the soundtrack of my writing will come before the words or images. (Or maybe I’m just too lazy to just start. I don’t know.)

It’s hard to imagine this work, regardless of its medium, being without a musical accompaniment — I may be able to paint pictures with words, but not the sounds that elucidate them.

If and when it is produced, I do not expect it to be popular. It will lack the ingredients that most of us have been conditioned to expect and to want in a narrative. Like a photo that tells a non-linear story, it will not have a momentous resolution, conclusion, or even trajectory. The characteristics of its characters will not be familiar to or resonate with most readers. It is important that reading it (and writing it) be tremendous fun, but both writing and reading it will probably also be challenging. My task will be to ensure it’s not more trouble than it’s worth; for most readers, I suspect it will be, no matter how accessible I try to make it.

A few thoughts on what I expect the collection would or would not include:

  • It would depict nothing that we would describe as “work”, and little of what we would think of as struggle; my sense is that part of modern humanity’s tragic Civilization Disease is the unique and unhealthy conviction that staying alive is worth any amount of struggle and suffering, and no matter what the cost.
  • There would be no distinction between what we would describe as food, drugs, and medicines, and no restrictions or judgements on their consumption; such distinctions are, I think, a uniquely modern civilization-era prejudice.
  • The apparent behaviours I would hope to present would be those I have observed in intelligent wild creatures, which are in many respects very, very different from those of our modern human species. We are an aberration.
  • The technologies they employ would not be derivatives or vestiges of civilization’s, which I think are unsustainable and hence doomed to be quickly forgotten; instead, future technologies will be almost entirely based on biomimicry — on discovery of how nature works around challenges, and on modest, analogical experimentation.
  • We will only be around in this imagined future if a way has been found to deal with the existing mess of 21st-century nuclear and chemical wastes that currently need modern human technology to be continuously and indefinitely maintained and safely stored to prevent it soon annihilating almost all life on earth; some intriguing, unexpected, adaptive workaround for that needs somehow to be accommodated in any plausible future narrative. Perhaps a new ritual to placate the future gods. Not sure. It won’t be any solution we would come up with.
  • If there is a lesson to the collection it might be about the rediscovering of things modern humans have forgotten, such as our sense of wonder and curiosity, our capacity to continually and joyfully create temporary things, our capacity to relish simple pleasures, and our capacity to laugh with, rather than laugh at.
  • And if those lessons are imparted it will be through what these characters do, not what they say, or, worse, what they supposedly think. There will be no annoying “…, he thought” passages in my writing. I try as much as possible to write like a playwright. Doing away with thought bubbles in narratives is liberating. Doing away with both thought bubbles and dialogue is…  well, I guess we’ll see. Maybe the visuals and the soundtrack will be enough.

Some renowned writers have said that the book they’d ideally like to write is probably impossible to write, due to a host of limitations. I’m not that pessimistic, and I’m not attached to the result being well-received. I’m similarly not attached to any particular medium for its expression. The constraints of language and media bring with them their own power. The problem with CGI and other ‘unconstraining’ tools in film is that, to some extent, in my opinion, the lack of constraints has made writers and producers lazy and undisciplined. In all writing, for every medium, there is no place for waste, for excess, for needless diversions. A three-hour movie, like a 1,000-page novel, is an extravagance, an indulgence.

Those are my thoughts so far, anyway. I am learning, these days, at a ferocious pace. A lot of it is going right by me, and I’m hoping some of the things I’m missing will come around again when they’re needed.

Something needs to be said, here, now or soon, that apparently can’t be said in the medium of a blog. Expect it to be radical, to push boundaries, and to be a bit ragged. I’m a creative generalist, and my best work so far has been coming up with intriguing and novel ideas that no one has voiced before, and standing back to let others do the hard work of bringing those ideas to fruition. They can have the credit.

They say that those who achieve astonishing things are merely standing on the shoulders of giants who came before them, who paved the path and pointed them in the right direction. I’d like to think some of the lower-downs on whose shoulders they’ve stood weren’t giants, just people, like me, who could imagine possibilities that even the giants hadn’t thought of. That would be just fine.

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

Do It Anyway


The late Charlie Cole’s iconic Tiananmen Square photo

The title of this post (a quotation misattributed to Mother Teresa) has been used to inspire the disheartened, the ignored, the unrecognized, the intimidated, and the reticent.

It may actually not be bad advice for collapsniks and radical non-dualists either.

If you have come to the conclusion, as I have, that we have long passed the point of being able to prevent the collapse of our now-global economy, and of our global climate and ecological systems — and hence our global civilization — the obvious question that arises is: OK, then what? If nothing we can do will prevent or significantly mitigate collapse, what is the point of trying to do anything? If anything we do now will be quickly undone once collapse advances to a certain point, why waste the time, energy and commitment now?

I have recently come to believe that we lack free will, and if our conditioning has been such that we’re going to try doing something, no matter how short-lived or hopeless or unrecognized or even dangerous that might be, then we’re going to do it anyway. And if our conditioning is more resigned, tentative, dispassionate or pragmatic, then we’re not going to do it. We can agonize over it all we want, but to some extent, the decision has already been made, and wasn’t ours to make in the first place.

But I recognize that most people believe we do have some degree of free will. For them, what might be the answer to the “what is the point?” question? One could, say, do it because it’s the “right thing to do”. Or because it might at least make a difference for those of us living in the short run. Or because that swish on our sneakers tells us it’s a mark of character and bravery. Or because John Anster’s somewhat freewheeling translation of Goethe’s Faust proclaims “Whatever you can do or dream you can, begin it; Boldness has genius, power, and magic in it.” Or because Derrick Jensen’s fervent assertion that we have to be ready to risk everything, even our lives, to fight against actions that are leading to ghastly ecological collapse, inspires you.

It does have kind of nice in-your-face bravery ring to it: Do it anyway. 

Of course, there’s a dark side to such courage, or recklessness. One has to wonder if the bombers of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, or the pilots who brought down the World Trade Center, or the people in charge of gas chambers and guillotines and capital punishment apparatus, had those words ringing in their ears, pushing them past doubts. Morality is a multi-edged sword.

There are things that we do that we simply cannot not do (like, for me, writing). There is no anyway in such actions, regardless of their futility. What is the point? never comes up, and these are not the actions we’re concerned with here. We’re concerned with actions where there is a tension, the possibility of regret, failure, shame, guilt if we do it, or if we do not.

There probably is no answer to the question “Should we do it anyway?” Does that mean if our instincts, or logic, or emotions of the moment, or moral codes, tell us it is “right”? And is the anyway a stand-in for “even though we know in our hearts it won’t make any difference”, or “even though other people say it’s foolish, or wrong, or hopeless”, or something else entirely?

Our cognitive bias may have us remembering when, in the past, “doing it anyway” led to a successful or satisfying outcome, and blocking out situations when it led to failure, disappointment, or harm. We want to believe that to Do it anyway is a sign of courage, virtue, passion. Not a sign of recklessness, foolhardiness, thoughtlessness, or mindlessness. We hear angels, not devils, whispering these three magic words in our ear.

Should we do it anyway? is probably a question with no answer, other than the unsatisfying It depends. The word should in any case implies a series of understandings and possibilities that presuppose both an unambiguous moral code and the free will to act on it, as well as a host of other judgements and presuppositions.

And yet. I cannot dismiss this question as moot, even though I quibble over the connotations and implications of should and anyway and the presence or absence of free will. Do it anyway. These three words conjure up, if not heroism, at least resolution, courage, responsibility, decisiveness, character-building, empowerment. Being a fearful character, I fondly remember some of the shaking-in-my-boots moments when I did it anyway. And not so fondly recall some moments when what I did “anyway” was the height of idiocy.

But, as much as I try to calm it with stories of no-free-will and conditioning and “five years from now it won’t matter either way”, the question Should I do it anyway? keeps coming up, all the time. And, as biased in favour of the affirmative as its phrasing makes it, it has, like most really great questions, no definitive answer.

Posted in Our Culture / Ourselves, Preparing for Civilization's End | 1 Comment

If We Had Honest Headlines: The Global Decline of Real Journalism


Palestine’s shrinking borders due to Israeli occupation. You won’t see this map on mainstream sites. The 2011 unoccupied areas match those of the Wikipedia map dated that year.

The mainstream media, which have long been used as house organs for spouting the talking points of the rich and powerful, are in free fall. Even the NYT has started publishing fact-free opinion pieces as “news”, no longer restricting them to the editorial pages, and no longer labeling them as editorials. Welcome to Faux Times.

What would it be like if the headlines actually told the truth? Of course, this would first require that the publishers make a serious effort to ascertain the truth, no matter how unpalatable, and dispense with reducing everything to simplistic binaries. And stop their nonsense “both-sidesing” news “reporting”. Giving column space to inflammatory racist and denialist arguments of execrable shills like Bret Stephens has nothing to do with “balanced” reporting.

After Reagan and Bush introduced Orwellian names for their ecologically ruinous deregulation laws (“The Clean Skies Act”), it’s almost as if newspaper publishers wanted to get in on the game. They write about “economic growth” as if it were a good thing that benefits everyone, rather than a scourge that is making our planet unliveable and benefitting only the richest one percent of the population.

If I were writing the headlines (admittedly with the benefit of some hindsight and the time and capacity to do my own research and to think critically about the issues), here is what some of them might look like:

  1. Four million suffocate to death from virus because politicians don’t want to upset or inconvenience voters by making them wear masks or avoid large gatherings
  2. More economic growth pursued despite overwhelming evidence it will soon make most of the planet uninhabitable for our children and grandchildren
  3. Another million Yemenis die of bombings and starvation caused by weaponry partly supplied by [name of your western country]’s government
  4. Tigray leads earth’s top 1o ongoing genocides in countries we don’t care about because they’re not oil rich or superpowers (and hence we do not report on them, to leave more room for our reporting on Oscar night fashions)
  5. True inflation rate continues in double-digits, four times the false, officially published rate, halving the spending power of those on fixed incomes every seven years
  6. (1945) US nukes millions of Japanese citizens to test new bomb, because the military can’t figure out how else to test it
  7. In the interest of honest disclosure, all Orwellian words in our headlines (those that actually signify their opposite) will hereinafter be marked with a small raised “O”: eg UnitedO Nations, UnitedO Kingdom, UnitedO States, Soviet UnionO , PatriotO Act, National DefenseO, Homeland SecurityO, Operation [name of foreign country invaded] FreedomO Act, and 12,645 others.
  8. Israel’s lobbyists effectively gag all opposition to its Apartheid system and its vast Palestinian occupations, labeling opposition as anti-Semitism
  9. All stock markets and real estate markets, now trading as pure Ponzi schemes, soar past breaking point; technically bankrupt Tesla’s shares trade at 1700 times earnings, which presumes a doubling of profits every year for the next 50 years, and amounts to $1.5M for every car it has sold
  10. The richest now pay less tax as a proportion of their reported (unsheltered) income than any other income cohort, and Biden is about to widen the gulf by allowing rich Americans to deduct state taxes from their federal tax, without limit
  11. Governments embrace and fund completely unfeasible magical solutions to climate change, like cap-and-trade, carbon capture and “net zero“, as emissions continue to rise out of control

Why do we, instead of truths like this, get false headlines, fed by intelligence spooks, PR wonks and corporatist “think tanks”, dutifully transcribed to the front page, when these media companies have supposedly taken a vow that “the truth dies in darkness” (actually, it just disappears behind a paywall)? Why are some of the worst atrocities in the world knowingly and systematically unreported?

I think there are three reasons:

  1. Like politicians, they’re afraid of alienating their base. Like their readers, media publishers believe what they want to believe, and they want to believe in, and tell the stories of, good guys and happy endings. Most newspapers today are, like Tesla, technically insolvent, using every desperate method of paywalling and subscription-begging in the book to scrape up enough for the next edition. They are dependent on gullible patrons, grants, and “philanthropist”O owners.  In short, there is nothing in it for the mainstream media to tell the truth. Few of their readers want to hear it, and they certainly won’t pay for it.
  2. They are trapped in ancient information paradigms, from back when there were feasible, practical solutions to some of the predicaments of the day, and when some of the choices could actually be reduced to A-or-B without distorting the truth too badly. People, including most readers and most publishers, loathe complexity.
  3. They really don’t know any better. With limited revenue to pay for real research, journalists and publishers are an easy mark for slick organizations that can make it look as if they’ve done their homework and have important findings, when they’re actually just lobbyists for pressure groups. The media have never apologized for getting duped into supporting the first Gulf War, which was predicated on a carefully-concocted and completely untrue “story” scripted and produced by the sleazy PR “reputation managementO firm Hill & Knowlton working on behalf of Kuwaiti oil sheiks. They’ve never apologized for getting duped again into supporting the second Gulf War based on anonymous spooks’ lies about Saddam Hussein’s WMD, working on behalf of the defenseO industry, war profiteers, anti-Islamic fanatics and other interests. And now they’re mindlessly taking up the Biden war cry against China, Russia, Iran, Syria and other countries based on the same unsubstantiated and suspect claims. Unable to afford investigative journalism, they just report what they’re told, and ascribe it to anonymous “sources”, most of which are just using them.

I made a presentation two decades ago to a national press organization, and I told them at the time that unless they found a way to add real value to the information funnelling through them, that they would soon be disintermediated out of business. That’s now happening. They’ve obviously tried. But they’ve proven to be completely incompetent at fact-checking. They no longer do detailed analyses, since they’re too expensive and most of their audience is too busy, distracted, and dumbed down to read them anyway. They no longer do investigative reporting, since that’s also expensive and would require them, too often, to bite the political/corporatist hand that feeds them.

And paradoxically the effect of their increasingly severe paywalls and pan-handling “subscriptions” has been to turn customers away in frustration, to “free” sources of information, which are of course not really free, and are polluted with mis- and dis-information from nut groups and those with vested financial and political interests in concealing and obscuring the truth. I get no pleasure from having told them that would happen 20 years ago.

We are living in an era where our political and economic systems have become so dysfunctional that they are collapsing. Politicians no longer even pretend to play by the rules or to represent their constituents. Laws are written by and for the benefit of corporatist lobbyists and pressure groups, and mindlessly promulgated by politicians in return for campaign kickbacks. DeregulationO ensures an ever-increasing flow of wealth from the poor to the rich. But the media, who only look as far ahead and behind as tomorrow’s headlines necessitate, are oblivious to, and overwhelmed by, this collapse and its implications. It’s too complex to capture in bite-size, two-minute stories. It’s too complex to investigate or unravel all the chicanery and unexpected and indirect consequences of what’s happening, and those like Edward Snowden who try to point them towards it are turned upon like embarrassing upstart competitors.

In the anti-intellectual fervour of the 21st century, the mainstream media are fish out of water, and I predict that in a decade they will be gone, indistinguishable from the content-and-opinion providers of Substack, Medium, and the rest. There is no money to be made in providing information, except perhaps to intelligenceO agencies. There is even less money to be made in providing nuanced, complex, in-depth, critically-considered, truthful information. The money is in entertainment, distraction, propaganda, and attention-grabbing, outraging disinformation. The mindless pap of Facebook and Twitter.

As I’ve said before, I am addicted to wanting to know what’s really going on. That’s getting more and more difficult, even discounting the decline of information media. As we slide from a complex world into the chaotic one of full-on collapse, knowing the truth becomes less and less useful. I’ve been trying to be a “chronicler” of civilization’s collapse. I may have to find another retirement career. Maybe chronicling what’s happening at a hyper-local level, where it’s still possible to make some sense of things. Maybe fiction and poetry, where I can explore some larger truths. We’ll see.

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

Compassion

This is a sequel to Bark Bark Bark Bark Bark Bark Bark.


image from piqsels, CC0

One of the reasons I like talking with, and reading the works of, radical non-duality speaker Tim Cliss, is his compassion. He comes by it honestly, through a long career in education and counselling.

The radical non-duality cohort (about 8-10 people that I know of) are a diverse lot. They’re mostly in Europe. What they have in common is that their sense of self and separation suddenly dropped away at some point in their lives, leaving nothing but the obvious sense that nothing (especially individuals) is real, nothing is separate, nothing has meaning or purpose, there is no time, space, no ‘one’ and no ‘thing’ and everything is just an appearance. Everything we believe to be real and true, including the very existence of our selves, is actually just an invention of our feverishly patterning brains, an attempt to make sense of all the sensations they are trying to process — and a total fiction.

This is so preposterous, so outrageous, so outside our experience and everything we’ve been taught, that it’s understandable that so few are even interested in considering the possibility that it’s correct. What makes it magical and addictive to me is that it is completely internally consistent, and unarguably plausible. It is the ultimate “theory of everything”, and something ‘here’ has glimpsed it, and ‘knows’ it’s true. It’s not even a theory. It’s an explanation. Sadly, it is also a completely useless explanation. You can do nothing with it.

When this (apparent) falling away of the separate self happens, in some cases the loss is never even noticed — who would be left to notice it, or to care? In some cases, as with the apparent character Tim Cliss, lingering memories of separation and bygone machinations of selfhood are recalled with compassion, and maybe even a bit of sadness. In others, like Tony Parsons and Jim Newman, there is an insistence that the only true compassion is consistently and uncompromisingly clarifying the message — that everything, including all the suffering produced by the illusion of real selfhood, self-control, free will and agency, is an illusion, and, worse, that there is absolutely no path, nothing that can be done, to “realize” this. We have each built a perfect, life-long, escape-less prison for one, and we pass our lives talking with each other via incoherent taps on the walls we’ve built between us.

I try to be compassionate, but it doesn’t seem to be much in this character’s nature. Part of it is my impatience with what I perceive to be most people’s stupidity, wilful ignorance, narcissism, gullibility, cruelty, and…  well I could add a hundred more seemingly ubiquitous qualities of human creatures, but you get the idea. I’m a very slowly recovering misanthrope, prone to deep and frequent relapses.

Some of this is likely a reflection of my own personal guilt, embarrassment and shame. I recognize how blessed I have been, and how many of the annoying qualities in the previous paragraph I have demonstrated, and even exemplified, in my own life. I also know that no one has any choice or free will, so my annoyance, impatience, and intolerance seem rather petty and judgemental, but still I often catch myself being so. I could say that I have no choice other than to be this way, since there is no real me, no agency, no control over this character I presume to inhabit. But that seems a bit disingenuous. “I couldn’t help it!” Right. Well, I couldn’t, and I can’t. But so what?

I sometimes try to put myself in the shoes of wild creatures trying to live around our global dinosauric cruelty and reckless stupidity. What must they think of us dumb, rapacious creatures too smart and powerful for our own good? But of course, as they’re not plagued with selves and the illusion of separateness and self-consciousness (which are completely unnecessary to thrive on the planet thousands of times longer than our pathetic species has been around), they don’t judge us at all. We appear to them like everything else — just what’s happening, for no reason. I sometimes think we’re not worthy of living among them. But none of this was our choice either. They don’t hate us for what we’ve done. They don’t think of us, period. They don’t care about us — even the creatures we’ve co-domesticated are just playing out their conditioning, as we are, using us as we use them.

Not a very nice story, that. We do like our stories. So much we actually believe they’re true. Ferociously.

So now I have time and opportunity to think about this, and what it means. And I have to laugh, because what that foolish thinking has led to is the sense that thinking is just useless, stressful folly, totally unnecessary, and that none of it means anything. The truth will never be found inside our heads.

Everything is just, and already, glorious, awesome, stunning, perfect. It’s not going anywhere. It’s always been here. We just can’t see it. We get in our own way. It’s a hard lesson, impossible even, ridiculous, ironic, tragic, but only to us. It’s all just more barking from the stands at our characters up there on the stage with the fake costumes and fake props and fake sets.

Until I look around and notice there aren’t any other dogs in the stands. They seem to be there, barking louder than me, but then they kind of fade, and I sense I am barking alone. And I look up at the stage and somehow expect, and achingly long, for its tawdry scenes and artifacts to be gone, and for there to be just everything there, boundless, astonishing, seen at last. At last, the end of the need for all the discouraging, exhausting barking.

But the actors are still there, getting their lines just before they have to be delivered, and the fake action and the fake dialogue goes on and on, with no end in sight.

And so I am barking again. It’s a different bark than the old one, but it’s still just incoherent noise. Everyone can hear, but no one is listening. I can’t help it, that’s what we dogs in the stands do. It’s the lot of selves, our only skill. It’s our purpose, and how we make meaning, in a world without either.

Gaia doesn’t care. The plants and wild animals don’t care. The universe doesn’t care. If we want compassion for our distress at what’s happening on stage, all that yelling and fighting and anger and fear and sorrow and blood and death, we’ll have to get it from the other dogs in the stands. We have the weight of the world on our shoulders, the conscience of a million years of our star-crossed kind. What can we do to get the actors on stage to listen to and understand us, to do what we know is the right thing, or at least a better thing, to do?

I really try to stop, to not get upset, to just see and enjoy the show for what it is. But then the actors start doing that crazy stuff, and I can’t stay silent. I get carried away by the plot, caught up in it. I forget it’s not real. And now there’s a lot of us here, again, barking madly. When one of us starts barking, it’s hard to resist joining in. Tim understands, but barking dogs rarely get much compassion.

Sometimes I lie in the stands and imagine being unleashed, free from this self-built and choice-less prison. But it’s been like this for so long, I can’t remember, and I can hardly imagine, anything else. This is my lot. This is what I signed up for. No point pining or worrying about it. But so tired of barking. Annoyed at the other dogs who seem oblivious to the fruitlessness of it all. Oh well, nothing that can be done.

That dog over there barks so furiously she’s lost her voice. And that one there is so exhausted she can’t even bark any more. They’re nice dogs, nicer than me, and smarter. I should show them some compassion. This is hard, and they’re doing their best. We all are, all the dogs in the stands, all the characters on the stage, all the creatures outside this shabby theatre projected through our minds. All doing their best, our best.

I shouldn’t complain. I’m healthy, well-looked-after, freer than most. Just a little lost, scared and bewildered. Something, somehow, seems to be not quite right, to be missing. There’s a sense that all this is more trouble than it should be, than it’s really worth. Sometimes there’s a remembering. But I daren’t think about that. Probably just something I made up, dreamt. Just going to rest now, for a while. Intermission — there seem to be a lot of them in this play. Just a sad look over at the less fortunate dogs. Poor creatures. Just a big sigh, and closing my eyes. It’ll be over soon, I’m sure.

Posted in Our Culture / Ourselves, Radical Non-Duality | 6 Comments