The Next Right Thing

Many years ago I had the privilege of going hiking in Wales with Dave Snowden, back when we were both more-or-less inventing the discipline now (and unfortunately) called ‘Knowledge Management’.

Other than the fact we share a Welsh heritage, and we’re both political lefties, we could hardly be more different (“to give up hope is a mortal sin”, he says somewhat mockingly of his conversion to Catholicism), which is one of the reasons I continue to enjoy our occasional correspondence and keep up with his new work. Though I should confess he still loves to debate, while I, the conflict-averse Canadian, abhor it, which sometimes challenges our relationship.

He recently did another long talk at The Stoa, in which he delightfully attacks muddle-headed, arrogant, well-intentioned, self-important idealists and ideologies which fail to understand how change (or anything else) actually happens in the real world. He takes shots at the execrable Jordan Peterson, at Ken Wilber and the Spiral Dynamics crew, at Rebel Wisdom, at logical positivists and post-modernists and meta-modernists and neo-platonists and stoics, at self-proclaimed and anointed gurus of all stripes, and many more. He even criticizes the Game B gang that includes Daniel Schmachtenberger and many of the Stoa regulars.

The real value of this talk, however, as with most of Dave’s work, is appreciating his pragmatic, evolving, challenging take on the world and how it works, and how practically we can nudge it in more positive directions.

His talks are dense, opinionated, sometimes rambling, and full of the jargon of complexity which he’s had to master to deal with the largely-academic world he has to navigate, and to introduce new concepts for which there is no useful English term. There is a glossary however, for those willing to learn the shorthand, and I certainly needed it for this talk. Nevertheless, as a caveat, some will find his talk opaque and annoying.

This post is basically to capture what I learned from this particular talk. I may have some of it wrong, and/or oversimplified, but here are my notes:

  1. Focus on understanding the present, rather than inventing an aspirational future: What is the “next right thing” that can be done to move in a positive trajectory? Knowing the current situation is far more useful than picturing an ideal future state, and it keeps you grounded instead of caught up in fanciful ‘design’ activities that may be completely impracticable. We should explore new ways of thinking and being in the world to deal with the realities of the moment, not a new grand narrative for the future of the world that some lotus-eating group of idealists thinks we should all strive for. More present-focused activists, please, and fewer future-focused designers.
  2. Evolution, at every scale, is a punctuated, and synthesizing process, rather than a prescribable linear one: We didn’t ‘advance’ from “hunter-gatherer” to “agricultural” to “industrial” cultures. Every change was a blending of the old and new, with the best of each not necessarily selected for. There has never been any simple set of stages of ‘progress forward’ in any complex situation, and stage theories are hopelessly flawed, simplistic ways of trying to solve problems or assess ‘progress’. Likewise, there are no “higher levels of enlightenment” that people can achieve. Terms like “turquoise” measure nothing more than your level of narcissism. Learning and evolution are, instead, complex processes directed towards “messy coherence”.
  3. The meta-crisis is actually a poly-crisis: Meta actually means ‘between’ not ‘higher’, and the multiple, complex, interrelated crises we face are not part of some one larger crisis, but rather manifold and diverse.
  4. It makes no sense to look at things in isolation from their relationships and their environments:  Narrowing your focus and analyzing something as if it were separate and apart from everything else is simply bad science. As Richard Lewontin has explained, for example, the real cause of most of the diseases we face is not bacteria, viruses and cancers, but rather overwork, malnourishment, and dysfunctional, under-regulated industrial systems.
  5. Social atomism is a terrible basis from which to analyze complex problems: Humans evolved to make decisions as collectives, not as individuals. We are defined by our communities and our physical and social environments. We are not isolated individuals whose aggregate choices transform the world; we are part of our collective(s) and our environment. Collectives can do many things that individuals cannot. Our current hyper-individualism does not augur well for our capacity for addressing the poly-crisis.
  6. How to nudge a group forward: Three questions to understanding the situation: (1) Who has a voice or power in this situation (“agency”)?; (2) what opportunities and constraints are available to them to exercise that power (“affordances”)?; and (3) what methods and paths can be employed to act on those opportunities and overcome established impediments and deterrents to change (“assemblages”) ie What are the adjacent possibles that can be identified and enacted right now? [This resonates a bit with Daniel Schmachtenberger’s 35 questions.] Dave’s organization helps groups to (i) map where people are now, (ii) give individuals the epistemic sovereignty to define their own position, and (iii) from that, identify sustainable pathways to a different future, in part through asking the above questions.
  7. When people have to choose between eating food and heating their home, this is not a “crisis of meaning”: People with their heads so far up in the clouds that they mistake real problems for epistemological ones, need to get a life.
  8. Putting people in positions where they have to think differently: There’s a myth that informed dialectics and conversation actually promote change, but it is far more effective to put people in a position where they have no choice but to think differently. Take them to visit a factory farm. Have them accompany a cop and a social worker who’ve been called to deal with a domestic violence incident. Or impose new constraints, such as “you can’t come to the office for the next year because of the pandemic”.
  9. Making it easier: Changing the dispositional state: Lowering the ‘energy’ cost of change, or shortening the time needed to change, makes it easier and more likely that change will happen. [I might add that making it more fun can also improve the dispositional state for change.] If you want people to use LED bulbs instead of incandescents, make them cheaper and more accessible. [If you want people to learn some new skill, make a game of it.]
  10. The next pandemic is likely to be much worse: It’s likely to be an avian virus or bacterial disease with a much higher fatality rate. Recent hyper-individualistic behaviours and distrust of public health authorities suggest we’re really poorly equipped to handle such a crisis.
  11. One unsolvable problem for AI is its incapacity for drawing on historical context and for creating and learning from metaphor: We reason by analogy and communicate and innovate by metaphor, and that capacity draws on a vast, diverse, and culturally-based history of knowledge, ideas and experiences. That is not programmable.
  12. There is no such thing as mastery: Learning is a complex, iterative, continuous, non-linear process. Holding oneself out as a ‘master’ of anything is a conceit.

Lots to think about here.

When/if I next get the chance to sit down with Dave, I’d love to explore with him my sense that humans (or at least human brains) loathe complexity, uncertainty, and not knowing, and what we might be able to do to get people to embrace complexity and revel in uncertainty and not knowing instead. Is the answer making it more fun? Chess players seem to enjoy complexity. Murder mystery fans seem to enjoy uncertainty and not knowing, for a while at least. Perhaps the play’s the thing?

Posted in How the World Really Works | 3 Comments

Better Than Real

The wounded surgeon plies the steel
That questions the distempered part;
Beneath the bleeding hands we feel
The sharp compassion of the healer’s art
Resolving the enigma of the fever chart.
Our only health is the disease
If we obey the dying nurse
Whose constant care is not to please
But remind of our, and Adam’s curse,
And that, to be restored, our sickness must grow worse.
The whole earth is our hospital
Endowed by the ruined millionaire
Wherein, if we do well, we shall
Die of the absolute paternal care
That will not leave us, but prevents us everywhere.

— TS Eliot, East Coker, the Four Quartets

I‘ve always been a daydreamer, and a bit of a misanthrope. It’s not that I don’t like people. I just find it hard to care about all the things they care about. I look out at the city with astonishment and joy, and I participate in social activities. But I feel like I’m living in a whole-world hospital, full of people with serious physical, emotional and situational illnesses. They’re doing their best, but I’m not inclined to want to spend a lot of time with them, since I can’t do anything for them, and I find their illnesses (as I found my own) exhausting, enervating, and unpleasant.

I imagine, as I look down at the people and cars scurrying around, that we’re eight billion bewildered monkeys, racing around mimicking each other desperately, in the hope that someone knows what they’re doing and how it came to this, and where it’s going. Eight billion monkeys totally conditioned by our biology and culture, doing the only things we can under the circumstances of the moment. All doing our best to cope with the illnesses that afflict and confront us everywhere. We know something is not right, but we’re helpless to understand or address it.

I never quite got with the program. From my earliest school years I just couldn’t relate to what other people said, did, or cared about. It just didn’t make sense. Why were they acting this way? They were like starving rats in a maze, or beaten zoo animals endlessly pacing their cages. They were cruel, angry, anxious, selfish, driven by jealousy, guilt, and shame. They were dreadfully unhealthy, and mostly unhappy.

So I just withdrew into a world of imaginary creatures that acted the way I thought everyone should — creatures that cared about what I cared about. I still interacted with other people, and sometimes really enjoyed those interactions, but they were mostly half-hearted and unpleasurable. I played out my own conditioning and then retreated as soon as possible into my own, very different, invented reality, one that made sense to me.

This looks familiar, vaguely familiar
Almost unreal yet it’s too soon to feel yet
Close to my soul and yet so far away
I’m going to go back there someday.
Sunrises, night falls; sometimes the sky calls
Is that a song there and do I belong there?
I’ve never been there but I know the way
I’m going to go back there someday.

Come and go with me; it’s more fun to share
We’ll both be completely at home in midair —
We’re flying not walking on featherless wings
We can hold on to love like invisible strings.

There’s not a word yet for old friends who’ve just met
Part heaven, part space, or have I found my place?
You can just visit, but I plan to stay —
I’m going to go back there someday.

— Paul Williams (for The Muppet Movie), I’m Going to Go Back There Someday

No surprise that, now, much of my time is spent writing fiction, of one kind or another. I can imagine myself, and imagine others (joyful, curious comrades and playmates) with me, on a beach or in a forest or in a totally different world, as vivid as any ‘real’ thing.

As a child, I created a world of fictional characters, imaginary friends, people who were, to me, far more interesting than the ‘real’ people I had to interact with, since my fictional characters were healthy, wild creatures, not the domesticated, reactive, tense, damaged inmates of this global self-made prison we call civilization.

The list of ‘actual’ people I’d like to meet and invite to my ‘ideal dinner party’ has gradually been whittled down to a handful. I’d much rather have dinner with some of the fictional characters I’ve invented over the years — healthy, joyful, curious creatures that would never want to live in the ‘real’ world we have (in more ways than one) constructed.

I find most writers’ fiction to be hopelessly and depressingly unimaginative, wallowing as it does in the milieus and personas of our global hospital-prison. Why would anyone want to read, or watch, depictions of ghastly human struggle and suffering, with their absurd, impossible Hollywood deus ex machina endings? Perhaps they make others feel better and hopeful about their own situation, but they no longer have any appeal to me.

So if I want to spend time with people and animals and in places and times that I find joyful and interesting, I mostly have to make them up.

And I do. I turn the sound off on the screen and make up my own lines for what the characters are saying, which are generally more interesting and more fun than what the hack screenwriters provided. At tea houses and in restaurants I imagine fascinating stories and conversations for the other patrons. I’m rarely interested in knowing who they ‘really’ are or what they’re ‘really’ talking about.

Although I’ll probably never know for sure, my sense is that the 8 billion mutually-conditioned Homo monkeys on the planet, and the 100 billion others who have lived and died creating and struggling in civilization’s hospital-prison, have inherited the terrifying disease whose principal symptom is the chronic illusion of having a self that is somehow separate from everything else, and which then needs to be constantly protected and defended from everything else.

As I’ve written elsewhere (probably too often), I think this is a uniquely human affliction, the result of evolving a brain sophisticated enough to invent complicated models of what is happening in the ‘real’ world, and then, with encouragement from other afflicted humans, mistaking those models for actual reality.

It’s as if humans, as young children, suddenly went to sleep one day in an astonishing, full, already-complete world, and then woke up the next in an ersatz simulacrum of a world, a fake, incomplete model of the world, where nothing worked and nothing made sense. And then had to spend the rest of their lives trying, hopelessly, to make sense of it, when it isn’t even real.

And through this effort, we have created a dreadful, prosthetic, human world, the one I see outside my window, a mad world that has so utterly destroyed its ecosystems that it’s produced the massive and unstoppable extinction of most life on the planet.

So my invention of these other worlds, these alternative fictions of healthy, joyful, loving creatures living together in peace, is not about hope. I have no illusions that there is a path from today’s beautiful, terrible world to the ones I have invented. I am not expecting anything to ‘get better’, to unfold any way other than the only way it can. I will not be disappointed if the human experiment, as seems increasingly likely, ends badly.

If there is consolation in this, other than the fact that, despite the human carnage, this world is still an astonishing, wondrous place, it is that if our selves and the atomized world of their invention are truly just illusions, then it doesn’t matter what we do, or don’t do. It doesn’t matter whether we choose to live in endless struggle in the composite human fiction of the ‘real’ world, or in an alternative fiction that is far more pleasant.

Jeremy Bentham was an early exponent of the idea that we should in all things seek to maximize pleasure and minimize pain for the greatest number (and as he was an animal rights advocate, that ‘number’ was not limited to just humans). My observation has been that this is far more than just a moral code — it essentially describes what evolutionarily underlies the conditioning of all life on the planet. It is Gaia’s modus operandi.

But seen through the veil of the dis-ease of the illusion of self and separation, the calculation of optimal pleasure and minimal pain has changed, for humans, from a holistic assessment (“what is healthiest for the organism that is ‘all-life-on-Earth'”), to one of the adding-up of individuals’ levels of pleasure (“what is optimal for the greatest number of individuals, weighted somehow by their relative importance”). That is an insane calculus.

My conditioning precludes me from being a NTHE‘er, at least not to the point of trying to crash civilization faster than it’s already doing itself.

Instead, my conditioning seems to be leading me to withdraw from the cacophony of that collapse, and instead sustain myself in the alternate fiction of a world that is so well attuned to the rhythms of all life on earth that it need not collapse, one that already maximizes the pleasure and minimizes the pain of all-life-on-Earth.

So I’m checking out of the hospital and the prison, where I was not equipped to be of much service anyway. I’m going back to that undivided, uncivilized, pleasure-filled, vaguely familiar place, with echoes of my earliest childhood where there was nothing that had to be done.

I’ve never been there, but I know the way.

Posted in Collapse Watch, How the World Really Works, Illusion of the Separate Self and Free Will | 1 Comment

Exemplifying and Modelling ‘Teal’

image CC0 from

I‘m a member of a discussion group around the book Reinventing Organizations and the concept of Teal. The book, and practice, advocates creating organizations that are self-organized, self-managed, self-correcting, transparent and minimally hierarchical. I’ve written about it before.

The upcoming session of our group challenges us to take Teal personally. How can we exemplify and model the practices and principles of Teal organizations in our everyday lives — in whatever activities (even just conversation) we undertake with family, friends, collaborators, and other ‘community’ members — and not just in the “work world”?

Here are some of my thoughts on the subject — none of them novel, but pulled together in one place:

  1. Start by knowing ourselves better — As I described in my collapse readiness reminders poster, this entails knowing what we’re good it, and lousy at, what our blind spots and biases and triggers and tacit assumptions are, and being aware of why we’re reacting, in the moment, the way we are.
  2. Growing our capacity to engage others — The art of inviting others to a group or a conversation or an exploration begins with genuine curiosity about what others care about, and entails learning how to ‘craft’ an engaging invitation.
  3. Sustaining an atmosphere of trust — The very best theatre ensembles trust each other deeply, and they ‘rehearse’ together to get better, as equals, authentically, transparently, with utter honesty and a focus on each other’s and their ‘customers’ extraordinary experience. Just don’t ask me how they do it!
  4. Learning by asking great questions — Asking questions to understand why things are the way they are and how they might be different. Daniel Schmachtenberger’s brilliant list of questions to ‘understand the problem-space’ is great for starters, including challenging our own tacit assumptions.
  5. Appreciating what we have in common — Understanding and building on our shared values and beliefs, what we all care about, enjoy doing, and are really good at, and how we uniquely do things and express ourselves. Our whole way of being in the world that we share in common. This is the bedrock of community. Without it, everything is a negotiation.
  6. Learning to understand and appreciate opposing perspectives — Kind of the antithesis of #5. This entails deeply exploring and appreciating why people believe things so different from our beliefs. And then trying to synthesize some sensible understanding and viable approaches that are compatible with and encompass both sets of beliefs. Devilishly difficult, but powerful when it works.
  7. Staying aware of where we’re going — Because too often we go off on tangents in meetings and conversations, because we forget what our common purpose or objective is. This ‘purpose’ may be a best possible outcome. Or, if things are in flux and we don’t know yet, it might just be the first next step, some tactics aimed along the trajectory we think might be the best one.
  8. Learning to recognize and call out power dynamics — Most of us kinda wish we had more power, so we’re quick to use it when we have it. But exploiting power differences almost never produces optimal results, and can lead to resentment, disengagement, learned helplessness, and abuse. Sometimes power abuse is unintentional, or passive-aggressive, or even non-verbal.  It takes constant diligence to keep challenging the use of power, and shifting power to those with less, to restore healthy group dynamics and optimal behaviours.
  9. Being willing to delegate to the most competent — That means acknowledging that the person with the matching title or job description or CV isn’t necessarily that person. It means letting go of control. And, always, it means matching authority to responsibility. Too many lousy ‘leaders’ delegate the latter but hold on to the former.
  10. Being willing to take courageous, calculated risks — Most of us become more risk-averse as we age and gain authority. That’s partly why real innovation is everywhere in precipitous decline, and why so many corporate oligopolies are dangerously sclerotic. Life is too short to always play it safe. We learn much more from our mistakes than from our successes. And there are ways to make it safer to fail.
  11. Learning and practicing collective accountability — This is not the same as ‘responsibility’, which refers to being the one on the hook to take action (and/or flak for failure). It means assessing together the measure of what has happened, and collectively deciding what should be done about it. It removes the ‘blame game’ and the individual burden, especially since in most cases no one person or group of people ’caused’ the outcome anyway.
  12. Learning and practicing the Art of Dialogue — This is more, and less, than conversation. It entails a lot of listening and paying attention without analyzing or even really thinking. It requires suspending judgement and postponing questions and objections. Its author David Bohm said true Dialogue requires and enables us to set aside our conditioned thoughts and beliefs and open ourselves to appreciating those of others, and hence developing a collective understanding.
  13. Learning how to self-correct (adapt to change) — This is about honing our capacity to continually sense what is happening and respond effectively, much as a living organism does when it detects something wrong. It requires a commitment to accept and exercise collective accountability (see #11 above). It requires a knowledge of what a “healthy state” looks like for the group in question (family, community, organization, or even for an individual) at a time of upset, struggle or turmoil. And it requires awareness of what pathways might be available to shift toward that healthy state.
  14. Learning and practicing facilitation, consensus and conflict resolution skills — We can practice these skills in many contexts: eg at the family dinner table, during a political debate, or when someone needs guidance (not advice) to sort out their own thoughts and priorities. Facilitation is a servant/steward role; consensus is not the same as agreement; and conflict resolution is about fairly discharging emotional distress. You don’t learn these essential skills in MBA school.

These are worthwhile objectives, I think, but the real question is: How do we actually get better at these things? What practices can we put into place now to test and track our improvement? How can this list be made useful instead of just interesting?

What is needed are practical methods to obtain and hone these skills. My guess is that one reason so many organizations that try to “get to Teal” fail is because their people just don’t have these skills, and there isn’t an opportunity to develop and practice them.

My sense is that we need a kind of “Teal curriculum” to learn the fundamentals of these important capacities, and to practice them until we’re really good at them. Like an anti-MBA program. Maybe even offer it in high schools.

Fun to think about, anyway.

Posted in How the World Really Works, Working Smarter | 5 Comments

The Watcher

photo taken last summer out my window — Kulshan (Mt Baker) looms over the Pitt River Bridge and the Port Coquitlam dockyards

She keeps her secrets frozen under glaciers way up north
And people have got lost up there, in the home of the grizzly bear
And you can ask the mountain, but the mountain doesn’t care.
— Antje Duvekot, Long Way

Now, in the dead of winter, The Watcher is totally buried in snow. Kulshan, its First Nations name, is called Mt Baker by the colonists, but in earlier traditions, and to me, it is The Watcher, keeping an eye on what is happening all the way from Victoria and Vancouver to Seattle, from where it can be seen. Even on clear days it is often shrouded in cloud and fog, but when it emerges it is breathtaking.

The Watcher is 90km (58mi) from my window, and two miles (3300m) high, but it dwarfs everything else along the long rugged skyline visible from my panoramic view. It is an active volcano, like its sisters Mt St Helens (Lawetlat’la — “The Smoking Maiden”), Mt Rainier (Tahoma — “The Water Source”), Mt Hood (Wy’east — “Lawetlat’la’s Suitor”), Glacier Peak (Dahkobed — “The Parent”), Lassen Peak (Kohm Yah-mah-nee — “The Snowy One”), and Mt Shasta (Waka-nunee-Tuki-wuki — “Walk around and around, but never on top, because that is only for the gods”).

The Watcher is really a baby as far as volcanoes go. While the area has teemed with volcanic activity for four million years, The Watcher, mostly constructed from the debris of many earlier and now collapsed volcanoes, only emerged as an active volcano 140,000 years ago, and its greatest volcanic activity occurred from 40,000 to 12,000 years ago. A more recent eruption permanently changed the course of the Nooksack River, which once emptied north into the Fraser River and now empties west into Bellingham Bay. There are concerns that, with climate change, constant “atmospheric rivers” might so flood the lowlands north of The Watcher that the Nooksack might once again flow into the Sumas Valley and hence into the Fraser, with catastrophic implications for BC agriculture and the local First Nations peoples.

Small eruptions occurred as recently as 1843 and 1880, and even more recently (notably in 1943) escaping gas and high pressure have caused explosions leading to avalanches and mud flows. No one knows when it will erupt again.

The Watcher has a remarkable 12 glaciers angling down from its peak, covering an area of 50km2 (20 square miles). But the glaciers are melting, even though the peaks of The Watcher are the snowiest place on Earth, receiving between 60′ (20m) and 100′ (35m) of new snow each year.

So more extreme weather events are now a double threat to the peoples who live in the shadow of The Watcher — disastrous flooding in the rainy winter, compounded by spring snow melt, and then disastrous drought in the summer, when retreating glaciers mean sharp declines in water supplies downstream.

As the photo above illustrates, even a mountain that receives so much snow can be dry by the following summer.

What will happen when the snows become rains instead as the planet warms? When the water stored up in glaciers in past years instead rushes immediately into the lowlands and hence into the sea, leaving flooding and erosion in the spring, and drought and dried-up rivers in the summer and fall?

The Watcher isn’t telling. It’s been here longer than even the earliest hominids. It’s seen ice ages, when ice covered everything for hundreds of miles around, two miles thick. It’s been here since before the Salish Sea was carved out by the ice’s retreat, when Vancouver Island, Haida Gwaii and all the Gulf Islands were just a part of the mainland. It will be here long after humans cease tinkering with the land and the waters, when nature once again follows its own course.

It’s just marking time, stoically chronicling the rise and fall, the ebb and flow, the changing of seasons and climates. Kind of like I am, I guess, though it does so with much more grace.

It’s not here to watch over us, after all. Just to watch, to see what happens, to witness how the story ends.

Posted in Collapse Watch, How the World Really Works | Leave a comment

Walking in the Dark

This post is about the most recent of the 2-3 hour ‘contemplative wanderings’ that I do near the end of each month.

In the early hours of evening, at this time of year this far north, it’s already been dark for a while. But it’s not raining, or windy, or foggy, so I make my way down the elevator and head outside. Here, in the city, a flashlight isn’t essential, as it was when I lived on Nex̱wlélex̱wm, so I have purposely left it behind.

This is the hour of after-work joggers, some of them sporting headlamps or reflective tape on their clothes. It’s the hour of dog-walkers, and late commuters, and weary night-shift workers. Drawn to the sea, I walk towards the eastern edge of Burrard Inlet (səl̓ilw̓ət — “tsuh-LAYL-wut” in the hən̓q̓əmin̓əm̓ local First Nation language).

After my recent post on our “sense of scents”, I’m hoping to see whether the darkness allows me to exercise my non-visual senses. Will I be able to smell səl̓ilw̓ət’s salt water, and remember it? Will it then strike me, the next time I’m near, differently from the rich green smell of Hoy Creek, which I often visit, and which I’ve just passed? Will I ever be able to map the emotional landscape of these smells? Is there a language of smells, a language that can’t be spoken, a language in which that smell could be related to that feeling, the way a major seventh, or a sus4 chord, relates to that feeling?

I’m walking alongside rows of hedges and riverside trails, but I’m not able to discern much in the way of scents, even when I briefly close my eyes and try to concentrate.

And then a guy walking a beagle passes by going in the other direction, and the dog stops the guy it’s taking for a walk, in order to sniff. I slap myself on the side of the head. Of course! I utter a greeting to the guy, and nod to the dog in thanks for the lesson.

When I stop walking, and focus, and pay attention, I really can smell the differences from plant to plant. But it’s strange and frustrating — I have no language with which to distinguish and remember these scents. Perhaps if I knew what the names of the shrubs and trees were, I could at least ‘tag’ the smells with the names of their bearers, as I can now with cedars and lilacs. But I am totally unpracticed at this — I can no more make sense of these scents than I can make sense of the conversation of the people I passed a few moments ago speaking — what? — Mandarin or Cantonese or Korean? Japanese even? I have no idea.

How is it even possible to ‘remember’ anything if you have no taxonomy, no ontology, no words for it, I wonder? I recall scents from even way back in my childhood, when I’m re-exposed to them. “That smell” means “that precise place” or “that thing that happened” or even “that person”. It all comes rushing back. But we have no words for it — for the Cardiff Bridge Street smell or the listening-to-Gymnopédies-with-Joanne smell. Perhaps there is no need for words for it.

As I continue to walk, I am a bit surprised at the number of people, mostly women, who say words of greeting to me as we pass in the darkness. Since I moved here I’ve not noticed that very much. What’s changed? I am smiling, but that’s not unusual for me, especially when I’m walking. Is it because it’s dark, so it’s a safety acknowledgement, like the gentle ting of bicycles when they are passing you on multi-use paths?

And then I laugh. It’s because I’m not wearing a mask! For the past three years I’ve defaulted to wearing one, even outdoors when I’m in busy places. They were acknowledging my unmasked smile, along with my eye-contact and brief attention to them as our paths crossed. Nothing more meaningful, and nothing less human, than that.

There are, of course, people who don’t meet your gaze, who shrink down and look away and hurry past.

That gets me thinking about what it must be like to live a life of constant precarity, constant unease, constant wariness, or constant struggle. A life in the shattering aftermath of trauma. A life in never-ending fear of the reappearance of an abuser, or another horrific war. A life full of the the shame and dread of not knowing where the next meal for you or your children will come from, or the next fix, or where you’ll sleep tonight, and tomorrow night.

No wild creature, I am convinced, would ever put up with such a life — having known a better life, it would be too far down for them to even contemplate putting up with it. They would skulk away, lie down quietly and gracefully and just let it end.

What is it that drives humans to go on, no matter how ghastly their lives? Is it hope, or is it just the only life they know and the only life they can imagine? Are we all domesticated creatures like Lucky the dog, willing to put up with almost anything once we get used to it?

I sigh. The older I get, the more I realize that I know nothing. I wonder if my walking in the dark is a metaphor for where we are, we humans, now, always, scurrying around in a sea of unknowing. Wild creatures live in a world of wonder, while we, allegedly homo sapiens (twice), live mostly in a world of dissatisfaction, anxiety and bewilderment. Is this what all our ‘knowledge’ brings us?

As I reach the long arm of the ocean, and descend down the steps from the always-noisy road to the sand-and-pebble shore, I discover that last month’s king tide damaged the boardwalk across the edge of the inlet. There’s yellow tape everywhere, so I can’t even get close enough to smell the ocean, or what the ocean becomes in its transition to rivers and lakes. So I sit on the park bench quietly and listen to the ducks. There could be thousands of them out there; it’s too dark to see.

On the way back, I find myself walking behind two little girls with (I suppose) their mothers. The girls are dancing and singing and spinning around holding small flashlights in their hands, illuminating everything around them. “Aha!” says one, “You can’t avoid my gaze.” The other asks whether they can take the riverside path home instead of the “boring” roadside sidewalk. The mother is dubious. “We can show you the way,” the girl replies, in superhero voice. “We can see anything even far away, so we can protect you.” And then, shining the light from below her chin to eerily illuminate her face, she adds: “We have TASERS!” “Whaaaat?” shouts the mother, as I make my way by them.

I’m sort of glad I won’t hear where that conversation is going as I pass out of earshot.

It’s quiet then, for a while. From my treadmill routine, I’ve started to walk fast, about 7 km/h, and now I come up behind another couple, I’m guessing in their late teens, walking in the same direction. They’re speaking in urgent, hushed tones, and the young woman is pressed up against the guy as they walk. I can’t make out what they’re saying until the woman suddenly throws up her hands and says, in a loud, exasperated, grief-filled voice:

“All I want is to be able to curl up with you every night when we go to sleep, and wake up in your arms every morning, and spend all day loving you and being loved by you! Why is that so hard?… Why is everything good in this world impossible?”

I am briefly stunned by this bravura performance, and have to restrain myself from giving her a raised fist salute and shouting “Right on, sister!” Instead, as I pass them, I smile and nod to the woman, and give her a ‘thumbs-up’.

And for the rest of the walk home I am haunted by her questions. Has there ever been a time in human prehistory where that was how we lived, perhaps back in the days when we were pre-bonobos living in the trees? Was life, in those times of abundance and balance, such that we could simply reach out and grab a fig or some other nutritious food, and then sink back into the arms of the one we loved? If that were so — if it’s not just a fantasy of starry-eyed paleontologists and paleoanthropologists — then where did we go wrong, or was our trajectory from there to here just one of tragic but necessary evolutionary adaptation to ecological change?

Instead of going straight home, I head first to the neighbourhood bistro for a matcha latte. The place is jammed, so I grab a seat and eavesdrop for a few minutes. The group at the next table is talking about the crows dive-bombing from the top of their apartment and then soaring back up again. One of them was repeatedly dropping a pebble and then swooping down at incredible speed and grabbing it in its beak, and then repeating the exercise over and over. Having witnessed this often, I smiled.

There are a lot of anthropocentric explanations for why wild creatures play — mostly relating to their use of play as ‘practice’ for serious real-life situations. But biologists who have carefully studied wild creatures insist this is a false myth.

As I wave goodnight to the hardworking, gentle boss of the bistro, I wonder why crows play. I wonder if they do it just for fun. I wonder if they do it because that is just what crows do with their large brains and abundant leisure time. I wonder why they have migrated dramatically to the cities over the past 50 years, to the point more live in cities than in the countryside now — just like us. I wonder why, in each city, they mass each night (except in breeding season) in enormous, crowded, raucous roosts of thousands of birds, and then return miles to their far-flung homes each morning.

I wonder why there has to be a reason for anything, or if there even is a reason for anything — perhaps reasons are just placeholders, inventions of the brain, misleading us into seeing, and sharing, patterns where none really exists.

Perhaps there isn’t even a reason why “everything good in this world is impossible”. I don’t know. I don’t know anything. I’m just standing here in the dark, looking up at the moon, and wondering.

Posted in Creative Works, Month-End Reflections | 5 Comments

Hope, on the Balance of Probabilities

my now-slightly-outdated map of worldviews about collapse; right-click and open in a new tab to see it full-sized

It’s interesting to listen to social philosopher Daniel Schmachtenberger try to reconcile his assessment of the state of the world with his vehement insistence that we have to try as hard we possibly can to avert the ‘metacrisis’ that threatens to bring about the collapse of human civilization and the extinction of most or all life on earth, including humans.

In a recent video, he said:

How can evolutionarily nasty chimpanzees with a high orientation for conflict and irrationality, with nuclear weapons and AI and synthetic biology, with a history of using technology in conflict-oriented and harm-externalizing ways, how can 8 billion of us with exponential tech [increasingly available to all] do a good job of governing that much power? It doesn’t actually look that promising.

Yet he insists that “we cannot know for certain” that we are fucked (or that we are not), so we each have a responsibility to do what we can, working with others, to pull us back from the brink.

His argument reveals a curious quirk about humans and our relationship to complexity, uncertainty, and hope. We seem completely preoccupied with what John Gray calls “the needs of the moment”, and it is clear that this preoccupation has directly produced the metacrisis (a combination of many, unintended, crises and system collapses — economic, ecological, political, social, health, educational, resource, technological, and, for some, spiritual/religious) in which we find ourselves. Yet we continue to cling to hope for our future when all logic says it’s unfounded.

Daniel harks back to when he was 12-15 years old, and first became aware of the monstrous cruelty to animals inherent in factory farming. (This is also how my own political activism started, though I was a bit older.) It seemed an impossibly complex problem to solve. But for Daniel, as long as there was some uncertainty about the outcome, some small possibility of an unknown occurrence (lab-produced animal-less meat?) that could unexpectedly intervene in the system and radically alter its trajectory, he could not allow that it was ever acceptable to give up, to shrug and say “There’s nothing we can do.”

Of course Daniel is enormously biologically, economically and culturally privileged, and it would be easy to say “Daniel, that’s easy for you to say…”. But while he acknowledges his enormous privilege, Daniel insists he is not exceptional or unusual, and that our inherent biophilia, instincts and basic human capacities make it possible, and essential, for everyone to play a role in understanding and working fiercely to resolve the metacrisis in the best way possible.

My philosophy of late has been that we have no free will, and that our beliefs and behaviours are entirely conditioned, such that “we’re all doing our best”. I think Daniel is saying “we can and will and must do better”.

I think he’s wrong about the capacities of the human species, though I do accept that if everyone in the world was as intelligent, as informed, as thoughtful, as open-minded, as engaged, as curious, as connected, as humble, as articulate, and as coherent in their thinking as he is, we really might be able to ‘save the world’ from what we have unintentionally wrought.

Instead, we are where we are. I don’t believe we can blame humans for being preoccupied with “the needs of the moment” and for only being able to do their inadequate-to-the-current-situation best.

Here’s a thought experiment to illustrate why I think this is so:

Suppose you knew, or believed, the following:

  1. The probability of a nuclear war this year is about 5%, easing slowly to about 2% in each year from 2026 onwards, should we outlive the Russia/US/NATO/China proxy wars in Ukraine and Taiwan.
  2. The probability of the economy collapsing permanently at some point over the next 15 years is 50%, rising to 95% over the following 15 years. [By “collapsing permanently” I mean a situation where the vast majority of the world’s population is hungry, permanently unemployed, and either squatting in place (unable to afford housing) or constantly transient or migrating.]
  3. The probability of an ecological catastrophe in your community occurring at some point in the next 15 years is 25%, rising to 95% over the following 15 years. [By “ecological catastrophe” I mean a situation where the vast majority of the community’s population is displaced and must migrate to another part of the world.]

I’m not asking you to accept these numbers as true — obviously we cannot know with any precision what is going to happen and when. But let’s assume you buy these probabilities. Your near-term perspective, now in 2023, of the existential risks you face would then be as illustrated below:

What demands the most of your attention, and perhaps keeps you awake at night, would naturally be the personal needs of the moment, shown in blue. If you have any bandwidth left for existential anxiety and are paying any attention to the doomscroll, your remaining preoccupation would likely be the risk of nuclear war, as its probability has soared over the past year. The horrific, longer-term economic and ecological (and other) crises we face would understandably be pushed to the back of your mind.

There’s nothing wrong-headed or inappropriately selfish about that. We have survived because our conditioning has inclined us to focus on the personal and the short-term.

But what if we extended the chart above over a longer-term risk horizon, and looked at the cumulative risks of these elements of the metacrisis, rather than the annual risks? Of course, the further out we go, the greater the uncertainty and the likelihood of our guess being wrong. But this is what it might look like, using the same hypothetical assumptions above:

“It doesn’t look promising!”

This chart suggests a different focus for how we view and prioritize the crises we are facing. This way of looking at them makes a lot of sense, logically and statistically, but this is not how humans make sense of things. For a start, the longer out we go, the more we are inclined to discount our belief in the likelihood of these crises happening, because of their enormous uncertainty*. Secondly, we know that such predictions are prone to being rendered unreliable and useless by “black swan” events (like pandemics), by novel technologies, and by other unforeseeable developments (like cosmic radiation, asteroids, and solar flares). And third, we don’t think in terms of cumulative risk; like lousy casino players, we only see one roll ahead, and if we dodge a bullet, we think the likelihood of dodging the next one is suddenly much higher.

So if we make it to 2032 (a toss-up), or 2039 (unlikely) with none of these crises having occurred, we are probably going to be unduly optimistic that they won’t happen in the next decade or two either (just as the Davos gnomes were ridiculously optimistic in late 2019 that there would be no pandemic, because there hadn’t been one recently). Same logic for the “big one” destroying Cascadia.

And when/if our systems are still basically functional in the 2030s, it’s likely our focus will still be the short-term challenges we face over the next year or two, which means we will remain preoccupied with our personal needs of the moment, until global economic or local ecological collapse changes everything.

That is one reason we will not address the metacrisis until it is too late. There is another, very human reason, and that is that we can’t, and don’t want to try to, fathom the enormous complexity and interrelatedness of the elements of the metacrisis, each one of which is enormously complex in itself. For most, it’s enough to make our heads explode. We believe it to be impossible to understand and deal with, so it in fact becomes impossible to understand and deal with. This is what “doing our best” means for human animals. And that is not a criticism.

Yet despite this, we hope. As my map of the different types of Salvationists at the top of this post describes, hope comes in lots of flavours: Hope that the gods or aliens will take care of us. Hope that technology and innovation will come to the rescue. Hope that some human elite of leaders, beneficent or hard-nosed, will save us from ourselves. Hope that a massive spontaneous return to self-sufficient community-based living or global uplifting of human consciousness will solve the crisis. Place your bets and spin the wheel.

And then there are deniers who hope and believe that it’s all a hoax. And there are the NTHE Gaia-lovers who hope our awful species will perish quickly so the planet can start to recover from the human experiment sooner rather than later.

What is behind this hope? What is it about our perverse species that uniquely chooses to believe things, and do things, based purely on this thing called hope? Is it some kind of mental illness endemic to humans?

What causes us to elect a president who runs a campaign based solely on hope — twice? What causes abused spouses and children to stay around in the hope the abuser is going to change? What causes people to desperately keep loved-ones on life support, when the prognosis is dismal? Why does Hollywood, playing to the crowd, show success at CPR at a rate ten times higher than its real-life success rate? Why do so many believe that the only alternative to unwarranted hope is crippling despair?

I have saidad nauseam, that we believe what we want to believe, and the truth be damned. So it must follow that hope is what we want to believe is true, and want to believe will happen, even when we think that belief is fraught with risk. Hope is future-oriented, and there is evidence that we are the only species on the planet that is so oriented. What is underlying that hopeful belief? Is it shame or guilt about what we have done wrong or failed to do successfully (like leave a healthy planet for our children) up ’til now? Is it anger about past ‘wrongs’ we want and hope to see atoned? Is it fear of a future we can’t bear to face, so we mask it with hopefulness?

I have, for now, come to grips with a realization that we seem to have no free will or control over our actions and inactions. When I acknowledged that everything we do is conditioned, I was able to give up hope. We can’t know or control what the future will bring, so what will happen is the only thing that could have happened. If we are hopeful on that basis, we are almost sure to be disappointed. But when we are disappointed, we may just double-down and hope even more fervently that things will be better next time, or next year. We are hope junkies.

Caitlin Johnstone just wrote a very eloquent, lovely. heartfelt essay about hope and wonder. On hope, in remarkably Schmachtenberger-ish language, she writes:

Hopelessness, when it comes to the fate of humanity, is an irrational position. The belief that we’re all inevitably going to destroy ourselves or keep marching into the depths of dystopia to the beat of the propaganda drum assumes a level of knowledge that nobody can possibly have. Nobody could possibly have enough information to draw that conclusion with any degree of confidence, and believing that you have is actually a bit arrogant. You don’t know what the future holds for our species, what unpredictable sociological, technological, environmental or situational surprises lie in wait that could cause a radical deviation from the norm… Hopelessness is the baseless and irrational shrinking of possibilities down to the spectrum of what’s known.

Yes, we cannot know, but lots of research shows that the people who have studied and learned the most about history and human nature and the current state of the world and how it works, are the most pessimistic about the future — the least hopeful. I’ve talked to enough climate scientists to think this is probably true.

And yes, we cannot know enough to be sure of the endgame, or even if there will be one. But, on the balance of probabilities, we can get a pretty strong sense that “it doesn’t look promising”. Why, then, can’t we seem to manage to move beyond hope, and just accept what is, and how fascinating the human experiment has been, despite its discouraging trajectory?

In her essay Caitlin moves on, deliciously, from hope to wonder:

If you really open your eyes, you’ll notice that the world is crackling with so much radiant beauty and wonder that even if we were to lose it all tomorrow, it would have been enough. A lucid perception of reality brings with it an experience of awe, and an on-your-knees gratitude for the fact that there was ever anything at all. From a perspective that isn’t clouded with mental narrative and internal distraction, each moment is too miraculous and too priceless a gift to get hung up on the possibility that it might not last.

Wonder is always accessible, even in the depths of sadness or depression. You might not always be able to find it in the trees or the butterflies, but you can always find it somewhere, often in the sadness itself. Even in the pain and despondency. Even in the car exhaust and the tattered billboards. Even in the background shimmering of existence. It’s always there to be found; you just might have to zoom out or zoom in your camera in order to find your access point to it.

Yes, and yes, there is wonder! The joyful pessimist in me finds it everywhere. The eight billion of us comprise only 7% of the over 100 billion humans who have ever lived on this planet. We are among the blessed 7% who will possibly get to witness the final chapter of the human experiment, who get to know how the story ends! And if it ends badly, well, that’s the only way it could have ended. All civilizations, and all stories, end. We all did our best. Nothing to be sad or ashamed about.

It doesn’t have to have a happy ending to be a wonderful story.

So, on the balance of probabilities, it’s more-or-less hopeless. And that’s fine, because we don’t need to be hopeful. Other creatures have lived for millions or billions of years without the need for hope. They understand this, in a way our species, smart and destructive and reckless and whiny as a young child in a family of patient, wise elders, is still far from learning.

If they have a purpose, it has nothing to do with hope, and everything to do with wonder. We might learn this, if we last long enough.

But I’m not hopeful.

* At the other extreme, there is an emotionally unmoored but very well-financed fringe group, including Elon Musk, who subscribe to a belief called Longtermism, that advocates actions, even if they could entail massive death and suffering of the planet’s current inhabitants, if those actions increased the odds of even more humans being alive in the far distant future. (Uncertainty is not factored in to their ghastly calculus.)

Posted in Collapse Watch, How the World Really Works, Our Culture / Ourselves | 6 Comments

Making Sense of Scents

fragrance wheel from drom, from ‘top notes’ (citrus) around to ‘bass notes’ (musk), one of many different attempts to taxonomize the scents used in perfumery

When I was young, my emotions and my sense of place and time were quite powerfully connected with my sense of smell. I remember the smell of different places: When, as a young boy, I visited the UK, I could distinguish many of its places by their smell, even with my eyes closed. I am told that, in those days, England used a lot of diesel fuel compared to Canada, and Wales of course produced a lot of coal, and that concentration of carbons might have signalled to my ‘palette’ of remembered smells to tell me where we were. Though I also noted that the skies in the three countries, and different places within them, also had unique shades of blue, so it may be that my sense of place was triangulated somewhat by those clues as well.

On my last visit to England and Wales, the different smells were immediately recognizable, as were the different shades of blue in the sky. And smelling them and seeing them immediately brought back ‘forgotten’ memories of other times I had been in those places, a phenomenon known as simultaneity. Of course, I couldn’t tell you how the smells were different, or how the skies were different in ‘blueness’. I just knew, in a deeply subconscious way, where I was, and what it was like when I had been there before.

How little we know about our bodies (as the constant proliferation of new and old ‘incurable’ diseases reminds us)! And when it comes to our senses, we seem to know almost nothing. We don’t even have a proper vocabulary to describe these smells — we know that we can distinguish about 1500 different ‘distinct’ smells (whatever that means), as well as millions or more combinations of these smells, but there is no agreed-upon taxonomy for them. Compounding our ignorance, we know that our senses of smell and taste are largely synaesthetic — for example, when our nose is plugged, we can hardly distinguish tastes at all.

Our sense of smell develops before birth, as it’s needed to be able to distinguish our mother and her nourishment even without visual clues.

There is substantial evidence that our capacity to discern smells is one that, like our imaginations, can be lost, from lack of practice using it, and regained with renewed practice. Just as wine-tasters learn about the qualities of different vintages through practice, so too can we, by paying attention, become much more attuned to the scents all around us, what they signify, and how profoundly our emotions are influenced by them.

We might even be able to ‘condition’ our subconscious to improve our mood, awareness, and capacities, simply by exposing them to certain smells.

The olfactory ‘sciences’ are, like medicine and other sciences of the body, still pretty medieval. Fragrance ‘wheels’ have been developed, but they are mostly to guide those in the business how to replicate scents and sell them to the public, and there is little agreement among them. There is no accepted ‘language’ or ‘colour wheel’ of smells in any of Earth’s major cultures.

If you’ve read Jitterbug Perfume you know that commercially successful perfumes and scented candles have a balance and synergy of three types of ‘notes’, from fleeting ‘top notes’ to grounding, enduring ‘bass notes’, and that there is a broad trans-national consensus on which scents are particularly pleasant (vanilla, lavender and jasmine are the perennial ‘top 3’ in most countries), and which are particularly unpleasant (sulphur consistently ranks last). But beyond that, which scents are preferred, and particularly which ‘whole-is-more-than-the-sum-of-the-parts’ blends of scents are preferred, varies wildly from person to person, and those preferences, much like our taste in music, are deeply affected by what past events (and what people) we associate with them.

As I discovered when researching one of my very first articles on this blog:

  • Most animals learn what foods in nature are safe to eat, and which to avoid, by smelling their mother’s breath.
  • People who are depressed are just as able to distinguish different smells as those in normal spirits, but the reaction in the parts of the brain that govern both sensory processing and emotion is significantly muted.
  • Richard Feynman, in his book Surely You’re Joking, explains that humans lost much of our innate sense of smell after we stood upright, and describes an experiment that shows that, with a little training, anyone can learn to distinguish blindfolded the hands of a large number of people simply by smelling them once at close range.
  • Humans have evolved relatively few scent receptor cells (12M) in their noses compared to rats (100M) and some dogs (220M).
  • Women generally have a much stronger sense of smell than men, though sensitivity varies throughout the menstrual cycle; the leading hypothesis is that this conveys selective procreation advantage as women sense and select as mates men whose antibodies (which emit distinctive smells) complement their own.
  • From swabs taken from the underarms of moviegoers leaving the theatre, most women (but few men) were able with minimal training to accurately tell with one sniff whether the movie seen was a comedy, drama, or horror film.
  • Memories that are scent-related last much longer and are more intense than those connected with other senses, though recollection of objective facts is no more acute.
  • Smells are conveyed to the receptors by molecules precisely large enough for detection yet small enough for airborne dispersion.
  • Some dogs can smell minute amounts of explosives and other chemicals, and even subcutaneous diseases (and in a sense can even ‘smell’ time).
  • Smells both convey and alter mood; global expert Dr. Rachel Herz of Brown University says “emotions are abstracted versions of what olfaction tells an organism at a primitive level”.
  • Things learned in the presence of a particular odour are more easily recalled a short time later if the odour is reintroduced. Maybe smart students should set up shop in the examination room while they study for exams.
  • Smells can bring on varied and profound physiological changes such as a drop in blood sucrose; in other words, aromatherapy works. Some Japanese companies promote workplace creativity and mental energy by broadcasting scents attuned to the human body clock: citrus in the morning, flora in the afternoon, cedar and cypress in the evening;
  • Introverts generally have a more acute sense of smell than extroverts; perhaps their awareness of subliminal danger signals carried in some scents makes them more socially cautious.
  • Perfumes, other than the musk family of scents that accentuate natural body odour, were rarely used in the west until two centuries ago.
  • Some Arab cultures have highly evolved scent rituals for women, entailing the layering of scents in prescribed sequence, and the after-dinner sampling of multiple scents as perfumes and incense, a social bonding experience in which all women go home smelling the same.
  • In some tribal cultures such as the Amazon Desana people, scent is the primary identifier and descriptor of individuals, and tribal language allows precise articulation of each person’s natural personal odour, the odour imparted by the foods he/she eats, the odour imparted by his/her emotional makeup, and the odour imparted by his/her fertility chemistry.
  • Every individual, except identical twins, has a highly distinct and unique odour, which many animals can differentiate easily.

So how might we make use of all this to increase our awareness and knowledge of the world and how it works, and perhaps also improve our well-being?

As with a lot of novel, confusing, subjective topics, perhaps the best place to start is with self-knowledge and self-awareness. In recent years I’ve tried a whole bunch of different kinds of scented candles, placed nearby when I soak in the bath (usually with the lights off). I’ve found about 20 scents that I like, some of which I like more, or only, in a blend with other scents. And I don’t like them all ‘the same way’ — they invoke different positive emotional responses in me.

What I’m trying to do now is to figure out which ones I like in which contexts (to get me thinking more clearly, to relax or sleep, to open my imagination, to energize me, to accompany different kinds of music etc). So that I’ll know, if I’m inclined to introduce aromatherapy into my life, which ones to try when, and where.

The other thing I’m trying to do is practice tuning into the scents around me, and noticing both what I seem to be smelling, and what that scent’s emotional impact on me is.

I’m finding this monstrously difficult for two reasons: First, I have to close my eyes to prevent synaesthesia effects; it’s really hard to focus on one sense when others, which are ‘louder’ and with which I’m more practiced, keep distracting me. This can be dangerous if you’re walking along a river trail!

Even more importantly, when I’m paying attention to what I’m smelling, it’s really difficult for me to avoid using words (unspoken) to describe what I’m smelling, because there are intellectual and emotional connotations to those words that can blur my capacity to really detect and appreciate the smell. And if the word I choose is something it smells like, then I’m also going to compromise my awareness and identification of that scent with personal connotations of that thing that this new things smells like. Scientists actually use a trick of requiring you to repeat random words while you’re smelling something (called “concurrent articulation”), to prevent verbal associations from getting you off track.

Interestingly, once you’ve ‘non-verbally’ acknowledged and experienced a new smell, its memory will be stored in a different part of the brain depending on whether ‘naming’ it was easy or hard.

The second challenge in paying attention to smells, especially when you live in a city, is the distraction of other, transient smells, and the difficulty of getting close enough to the ground (where most scents are) to actually be able to smell things well. There would seem to be some dispersion rule (though it’s apparently not an inverse-square rule) that governs how close you have to be to be able to smell something accurately.

As regular readers of this blog will know, paying attention is not my strong suit. But I’m working on it.

I’m also interested in exercising my olfactory ‘muscles’ because there is some evidence that loss of the capacity to smell some smells correlates with higher subsequent onset of dementia, a disease that I’m genetically predisposed to. (Though the notorious ‘peanut butter test’ turned out to be invalid.)

So if I’m going to get Alzheimer’s, perhaps I’ll be able to smell it coming.

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

Every Picture Tells a Story

image from Mozilla Foundation’s promotion for their VPN product; the image is not on their site, and only appears on the start tab when upgrading your Firefox version

This morning when I updated to the latest version of Firefox, a start tab opened with the photo above at the top of it. It’s a promotion for Mozilla VPN.

For anyone not aware, Firefox browser is the foundational product of Mozilla Foundation, a non-profit organization “dedicated to putting you in control of your online experience and shaping the future of the web for the public good”. The company gets most of its money from ‘royalties’ from the big search engines, which then get to be the ‘default’ search engine for Firefox browser users. It uses that money to fund product enhancements and developments, and on a number of advocacy programs that focus on privacy, equitable and affordable access, interoperability and transparency, and concerns about unregulated AI.

I really admire what the company does, and the principles it operates by.

It has a manifesto with a similar focus, though it is notably silent, or agnostic, on two major issues: (1) mis- and disinformation and censorship, and (2) psychological damage from internet addiction and from apps and sites that enable hate, bullying and other forms of online abuse. I don’t blame Mozilla for skirting these critical issues, since no one seems to have any viable ideas to address them.

I found the photo above simultaneously one of the cleverest and one of the most troublesome I’ve ever seen, for the following reasons:

  1. The headline is ostensibly about the product — Mozilla VPN privacy software — that it is promoting. But the photo suggests that what’s “important” to protect is your family, and implies that somehow signing up for Mozilla VPN will help achieve that. VPNs help protect you from hackers, advertisers, and snoops tracking your online history, and from unscrupulous ISPs selling your browsing history. And they can get you access to sites blocked or censored in your country (yay!), and allow you to bypass restrictions on downloading, to pirate content, to spoof your location, and, depending on your browser, to anonymously access the so-called “dark web”, unindexed sites which sell illegal goods and services. Is VPN really necessary to protect your family?
  2. The photo shows what appears to be a responsible caring dad and his two daughters. But despite their apparent ‘closeness’, look where their attention is focused.
  3. The photo shows a whole wall of books in the background, so large you need a ladder to access some of them, as well as either a board game or a construction set. The implications are obvious, especially for readers who can’t even dream of being able to afford this level of material comfort for their children, or who have to work multiple jobs — and not from home — that keep them from spending time with their children they’d dearly love to spend.
  4. Where’s mom?

There’s nothing terrible about this photo. I’ve seen much worse, more manipulative ads by other companies. It pulls you in; in a way, it’s charming — if only every home and every family was this comfortable, engaged, and apparently loving!

Still, I found the photo unsettling.

I’d be curious to know if others had a reaction to it.

Posted in Our Culture / Ourselves | 1 Comment

Links of the Month: January 2023

from Michael Leunig, of course

The recent end-of-year messages from most of my favourite writers have been pretty glum — the situation, they say, is hopeless, and inevitably going to get much worse (and without the “before it gets better” qualifier).

Well, yes, this is what collapse looks like. I’ve been writing about it for two decades, and while I’ve often hoped I was wrong, I’ve never been in denial about it. So I’m not glum at all. If we’re seeing the last years of human civilization, and if it’s going to be awful anyway, might as well get on with it, before the 8 billion humans on the planet make the rest of it uninhabitable for whichever species survive.

For me to wish it would hold off, at least where I live, until I’m no longer around to deal with it, would be pretty selfish. And I’m not at all prepared for it — the habits of neosurvivalism don’t seem to be in my conditioning.

Nature is beginning to perform radical surgery on a cancerous growth, with the survival of the patient very much in doubt. But while we are conditioned to convince ourselves that our current way of life, and of living on this planet, is wonderful, unprecedentedly worthwhile, as close to perfect as it has ever been, and the crown of our gods’ creation, I think we mostly instinctively know that it is not. We blew it, with the best of intentions, and the consequences of our failure are going to be severe.

But it is possible that, in a millennium or ten, when the dust clears, the survivors will emerge into a world that is unimaginably more joyful, less destructive, more alive, and more connected, than the current human experiment could ever have been. If I cannot be around to see that, I will content myself with knowing that, in my own incompetent human way, I might have paved the way a bit so that that astonishing future arrives a blink of the eye sooner. I nod to nature, to the gods, to the grand illusion of it all, for the opportunity to have done so.


Facebook meme; thanks to Michael Dowd for the link

Economic collapse looms closer: I have always expected global economic collapse to precede ecological collapse in most of the world. It appears it is beginning. Tim Watkins explains why Britain is teetering, and how its collapse will spread to Europe.  Aurélien describes how the Ukraine war is rapidly making EU countries into US vassal states, economically dependent on dubious American ‘largesse’. Michael Hudson explains how the current rapid deindustrialization of Europe will lead to its economic downfall. And Gail Tverberg forecasts an economic crash in 2023. Thanks to Paul Heft for these links and the Nate Hagens links below.

Once more, Limits to Growth 101: Tom Murphy recaps why climate change is just the tip of the (melting) iceberg of ecological collapse, and why technology can only make matters worse. Nate Hagens and Bill Rees bring us up to date on how we’ve long passed the stage when overshoot can be mitigated (transcript for the video-averse).

Running out of more than just oil: Geometallurgist Simon Michaud explains why ‘renewable’ energy at any scale requires more non-renewable metals than exist on the planet, and why our soils are now so depleted that there aren’t enough mineable fertilizers to compensate. And we’re running out of drinking water (transcript). The Honest Sorcerer confirms and elaborates.

Looming catastrophic drought in the US: Lambert Strether describes what the longest-known drought in US history means for its economy and future. And no, the recent California ‘atmospheric river’ hasn’t helped.

10ºC global temperature increase now ‘locked in’: So says James Hansen & co, per a review by Kate and Tristan. This is beyond catastrophic, entering Guy McPherson “Venusian Earth” territory. Full downloadable paper attached to the article.


Harry Potter characters reset to Dostoyevski’s Russia; by Russian artist Vasily Polyakov using Midjourney AI software

The subversive joy of being a single mother: Lyz explains why it’s a better answer for many women than you might expect. Her most popular post of 2022. More gold from Lyz: Making magic in times of loss.

What if we built stuff to last?: Our current industrial economy is based on deliberately shoddy manufacturing and planned obsolescence. If consumers demanded strong right-to-repair laws, and a few pioneering companies in each industry set the example by making durable goods, we could cut our waste in half. Thanks to Kavana Tree Bressen for the link.

Replacing the body’s bad cells: Battle lines have been drawn over the new science of senolytics, drugs that single out and kill ‘senescent’ old cells that have started to malfunction, hopefully making room for new, healthy cells.

The obvious answer to homelessness: Duh. Build more affordable homes. It’s not such a ridiculous or impossible idea, if one takes off one’s capitalist blinkers. Thanks to John Whiting for the link.

Making sense of a senseless world: Daniel Schmachtenberger talks about sense-making and coping with complexity in a recent interview in Stockholm.

A physicist’s take on nuclear fusion: Despite the recent hype, its practical application is at least decades off, according to physicist Sabine Hossenfelder. But there are some interesting developments that might have earlier practical application in other areas.


from the memebrary; original source unknown

Why the West is so ferociously anti-Russian: A deep and fascinating history lesson by blogger Aurélien, going all the way back to the Enlightenment, explaining why the Euro-American professional-managerial caste has such an enduring, ‘religious’ hate-on for all things Russian. And why the remaining Euro-American castes don’t share that visceral animosity. This is an important read IMO.

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

Propaganda, Censorship, Misinformation and Disinformation: Short takes:

CoVid-19 Corner: I think I said my piece, again, in my recent post on the pandemic. But Andrew Nikiforuk has some additional warnings, and Lambert Strether at Naked Capitalism has some more, too, just in case you think I exaggerate.


New Yorker cartoon by Teresa Burns Parkhurst

The business of lost things: Another amazing story from Lyz; this one brought tears to my eyes.

The Art Tatum Variation in Rachmaninoff’s Paganini Rhapsody?: Sergei was a fan of Art’s; did Art’s work inspire one of his variations?

A radically new genealogy of humanity: Are there a lot more early ancestors of humans, in a lot more places, than we’d thought possible? Thanks to Kavana Tree Bressen for the link.

The naughty most-watched video of all time: A paean to lust by Puerto Rican musician Luis Fonsa has been viewed 8 billion times, more than any other video (excluding children’s nursery songs). It contains the most hilarious euphemism for sex ever, in its lyrics, which translates to “Let me sign the walls of your labyrinth.”

Where are all the White Fridays?: The Beaverton deliciously skewers Jordan Peterson‘s incoherent hate-mongering rants.

Did language evolve to communicate tool construction methods?: A new book proposes a revolutionary and complex new view of human inventions and hence evolution.

Shakey Graves and Esme Patterson rattle your chains: The chemistry between the singers of this enormously fun song is palpable. Whew! Thanks to Lyz for the link.

Can dogs smell time?: Yes, and much more. Thanks to Kavana Tree Bressen for the link.

This is what happens when you don’t recycle your pizza boxes: If you’re that rare person who hasn’t seen Greta Thunberg’s perfect retort to the execrable Andrew Tate, Lyz takes it from the top.


drawing by Hugh Macleod; protesters who have been censored or arrested for carrying “offensive” protest signs have taken to carrying blank protest signs instead — sometimes silence speaks louder than words

From Caitlin Johnstone, several takes on US politics:

Saying a US politician is bad on foreign policy but good on domestic policy is like saying a serial killer was nice to his family. It’s like, okay, who gives a fuck? They’re mass murderers! …

There really isn’t enough respect for just how much better the US is at propaganda than other nations. It’s completely incomparable in its power and effectiveness. Comparing Russian and Chinese propaganda to US propaganda is comparing baby scribbles to da Vinci. …

Criticizing the US-centralized empire with appropriate and proportional forcefulness and focus looks like treasonous support for enemy nations for the same reason sunlight would seem shocking and abrasive to someone who’s lived their whole life in a cave.

From Ronald Purser in McMindfulness:

Mindfulness is now all the rage. From celebrity endorsements to monks, neuroscientists and meditation coaches rubbing shoulders with CEOs at the World Economic Forum in Davos, it is clear that mindfulness has gone mainstream. Some have even called it a revolution.

But what if, instead of changing the world, mindfulness has become a banal form of capitalist spirituality that mindlessly avoids social and political transformation, reinforcing the neoliberal status quo? Instead of a so-called “mindfulness revolution,” corporations, schools, governments and the military have instead co-opted it as a technique for social control and self-pacification.

From Aurélien, in No Cheers for Authoritarianism:

What are Liberal states and leaders actually asking for people to fight for, or at least support, at the moment? Well, [take] Mr Stoltenberg, the Secretary General of NATO, whose speechwriters have him tweeting that [“authoritarian”] Russia and China “do not share our values” of democracy and freedom, and want a different world order, presumably of un-freedom and un-democracy, so we should view them as enemies…

Liberalism is, in its essence, a set of a priori assumptions about radical economic and social freedom, which tautologically can only apply to the individual. The term “liberal society” is not exactly an oxymoron, since you can have quite large numbers of individual liberals in a society, but it is quite close to it. This is unsurprising, when we consider that economic liberalism began as a movement among the new middle classes to take power and liberate themselves from regulation by the government, and social liberalism began as a movement among privileged middle-class youth to free themselves from regulation by their parents. You cannot, by definition, construct a society on that basis, although you can come quite close to destroying one, as all these individual freedoms come into conflict with each other and the most powerful individuals and groups get their way. And it’s pretty hard to get people to die for a society built on such ideas…

There is an influential tendency in Liberalism for which any state “interference” in the economy is by definition a form of tyranny. But it isn’t influential among ordinary people. For the most part, ordinary people look to the government to do more, rather than less, to protect them. They look to the government to regulate what needs regulating, and to try to ensure as far as possible a fair outcome for all. People also look to the government to respond to their needs and wishes, and become despondent and angry when the political process is co-opted by rival teams of professional politicians hitting each other over the head with tweets…

So I don’t think this latest initiative will work. People can bring themselves to die for noble causes: the end of the slavery system, for example, or the defence of the Spanish Republic, but Mr Stoltenberg’s speechwriters are going to have to do more than that to persuade western publics that “democracy” and “freedom” versus “authoritarianism” is the great political and ideological conflict of the twenty-first century.

From Kay Ryan, in Poetry 100 Years


The mind must
set itself up
wherever it goes
and it would be
most convenient
to impose its
old rooms—just
tack them up
like an interior
tent. Oh but
the new holes
aren’t where
the windows

From William Stafford in Ohio Review:


Just lying on the couch and being happy.
Only humming a little, the quiet sound in the head.
Trouble is busy elsewhere at the moment, it has
so much to do in the world.

People who might judge are mostly asleep; they can’t
monitor you all the time, and sometimes they forget.
When dawn flows over the hedge you can
get up and act busy.

Little corners like this, pieces of Heaven
left lying around, can be picked up and saved.
People won’t even see that you have them,
they are so light and easy to hide.

Later in the day you can act like the others.
You can shake your head. You can frown.

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

Coping With Collapse: Updated Poster

2023 update to this 2019 poster; right click and open in a separate tab to view or print full-size
Dire warnings about imminent or ongoing economic or ecological collapse always used to be followed by obligatory “It might not be too late; here’s what we need to do” conclusions. But recently, many of the leading writers about collapse have ceased proffering ‘solutions’ or even ‘preparations’ for it, because we can’t possibly know precisely how collapse will unfold, or its timeline.

Instead, writers about collapse are acknowledging it as a natural and inevitable consequence of large-scale systems that fall out of sustainable equilibrium. But this is cold comfort to those of us who, naturally, want to “do something” about it.

Collapse is not a new phenomenon, and it occurs at many levels and to many different types of unsustainable systems. So I’ve begun to think about how people have coped in the past with the collapse of other systems — ecosystems, businesses, military campaigns, nations, and even systems of thought. If it’s all going sideways and you can’t fix it, mitigate its effects, or prepare for it, what can you do?

If your army is facing certain defeat, how do you deal with that reality? An orderly retreat makes sense, rather than denial or panic. Same thing if your business is insolvent and facing bankruptcy, or if your product is becoming obsolete because of competitor innovations.

If you’re a gatherer or hunter, and epidemics or floods or fires or other ecological changes have suddenly depleted available resources, what do you do? Yell at the gods, or move on to another area? Pray for salvation, or adapt in place? If your country is being balkanized because it no longer meets the needs of its diverse citizens, do you embark on a civil war, or renegotiate a confederation of nations that makes more sense for all? If your Theory of Everything suddenly comes apart because of new scientific evidence that totally undermines it, do you try to kill the messengers, or do you start over, with a new theory that the evidence supports?

The answers to these questions depend, of course, on the context. But generally, denial, rage, panic, blaming others, and doubling down are pretty bad strategies.

I wrote about collapse preparation a couple of years ago, before CoVid-19, suggesting we might be better off learning to be more adaptable so that we’re ready for anything, rather than trying to prepare for a specific scenario that might never arise.

In the intervening period, we have seen enormous fragility and vulnerability of many of the collapsing systems of our culture, political, economic, ecological and social. There’s also a growing consensus that dealing with collapse is going to require strong communities, and in much of the world people now live in huge cities, or in isolated or polarized areas, where there is often little or no sense of community at all.

So I’ve updated my “Being Adaptable: Reminders to Myself” poster to include more on community-building, autonomy, creativity, and dealing with loss, since it may be time to start devoting some more attention and energy to these important aspects of adaptability.

Here are a few notes on the changes:

  • I’ve reworded the “reminders” so they’re in the first person instead of the second
  • I’ve added cooperation and acceptance to the 3rd reminder; I’ve found it helps to keep reminding myself, again and again: We’re all doing our best; no one is ‘to blame’ for the mess we find ourselves in.
  • I’ve added the suggestion that I rationalize all the disparate ‘communities’ I am a part of, and home in on trying to move them from virtual to face-to-face physical communities, as the timeline for the end of air travel looms closer. I know who I’d love to have on my ‘team’ helping my local community fend with widespread system collapse, and right now they’re all over the place, in more senses than one.
  • I’ve also acknowledged that the community I am in when all hell breaks loose is going to have to consist of people who have skills and passions I lack, and vice versa, and that’s a good thing, though it will take some adjustment to learn to “love people [in my community] I don’t particularly like”.
  • I’ve added a clause on helping to build sustainable, truly collaborative, cooperative local enterprises that care about meeting real needs, so that my community will be a little better able to deal with the collapse of large corporations, large systems (health care, energy, education, food, infrastructure), and the disappearance of most global trade.
  • I’ve added a clause on creativity and imagination, because unless we encourage and enable more of this (the trend is in the opposite direction), we will be unable to come up with necessary innovations to deal with what are now likely unimaginable and novel new challenges.
  • And I’ve added a clause on letting go, which I am currently very incompetent at. I hate admitting I was wrong, I hate losing things and ways of living I’m attached to. I am going to have to be more agile in changing my beliefs, and changing my ways of doing things, than I have been in past, and not take such losses so personally.

I hope you find the updated poster useful, or at least interesting, as the challenges of coping with collapse deepen. These “reminders” remain mostly about how to be (when TSHTF), rather than what to do, because it’s still too early to know with any certainty what we will have to do.

If there are other “reminders” that are helping you deal with the accelerating crises of our time, I’d be interested in hearing them.

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