No Choice But To Resist

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

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

He starts on this cheerful note:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Links of the Month: February 2024

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

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

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


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

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

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

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


Mona’s bad hair day; image via

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

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

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


New Yorker cartoon by Sofia Warren 

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

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

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

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

Propaganda, Censorship, Misinformation and Disinformation: Short takes:


from the memebrary

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


from the memebrary

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

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

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

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

From Caitlin Johnstone in More US-Driven Escalations:

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

From (source unknown) on the Story of Me:

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

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

A Cornered Beast

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What Third Culture Kids Might Teach Us About Coping With Collapse

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

They are all in for a big surprise.

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

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

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

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

Tiny Perfect Songs

hummingbird 4
my own photo

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Posted in Our Culture / Ourselves | 1 Comment

War, Peace, and Human Nature

Cartoon from Tom Gauld, seen on the memebrary.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Or end it all in war.

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

Time For a Jubilee

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

How De-Dollarization is Likely to Play Out

Much has been written in recent years about “De-dollarization” — the shift from the use of the US dollar as the “international reserve currency” in favour of more diverse bi-lateral and multi-lateral currency agreements and transactions.

The current system has a long and complicated history, but its most essential features are as follows:

  1. In 1944, with the war grinding on and currencies in crisis, most countries signed on to the Bretton Woods Agreement, which “required countries to guarantee convertibility of their currencies into U.S. dollars to within 1% of fixed parity rates, with the dollar convertible to gold bullion for foreign governments and central banks at US$35 per troy ounce”. The US dollar hence replaced the “gold standard” with US dollar reserves, rather than amounts of gold, being what each country was required to maintain to support the fixed rates of exchange. The IMF was simultaneously established to enforce the Agreement.
  2. This replacement of gold with the US dollar created for the US what is called exorbitant privilege. It means that basically they can create (print into existence) additional US dollars without limit and without any requirement that they be supported by assets, and other countries are required to honour them as ‘real’ money. As a result, the US can run up unlimited deficits (eg through reckless military and ‘security’ spending), deficits that would render any other country bankrupt and lead to a crippling devaluation of their currency and severe IMF-imposed restrictions on future spending  (as has happened to many ‘developing’ countries in the Global South).
  3. In 1968 the US reneged on the US dollar’s pegging to gold. The US simply didn’t have, and couldn’t acquire, nearly enough gold to continue to honour the Agreement. In 1971 Nixon put the final nail in the Bretton Woods coffin by refusing to convert France’s US dollar holdings to gold, which was then worth much more than $35/ounce. The US declared the dollar a fiat currency whose value would henceforth float against the value of gold. Other countries immediately followed suit, producing the current complex system of “floating” currencies.
  4. While this reneging logically suggested the need for a floating ‘basket of currencies’ to replace the US dollar as the international reserve currency (for all kinds of reasons, including the abuse of exorbitant privilege), that has never happened. First, because for many years after WW2 the US economy was sufficiently robust and dominant that most of the value of any computed ‘basket of currencies’ would have ended up being US dollars anyway. And secondly, because it’s damned hard to get agreement on such a complicated subject, especially if the country losing its exorbitant privilege objects, which of course it has.

Several things have occurred in recent years to complicate this situation. First, the US economy has lost its global prominence, since it has really offshored and financialized its economy to the point it really doesn’t produce anything anymore other than war materials and IP, both of which are pretty worthless. Its dirty oil exports (fracked gas) only have value thanks to massive government subsidies, Biden’s blowing up of the Russian pipelines, and the continued destabilization of Middle Eastern oil producers by the US war machine. So less and less economic activity actually needs to take place in US dollars.

Secondly, the US has egregiously abused its executive privilege. The US is technically bankrupt, principally due to the combination of (a) unlimited, soaring, unauditable war spending creating a globally unprecedented deficit, and (b) the insane politically-motivated reductions in tax rates to the point US billionaires now pay a lower percentage of tax on their income than any other segment of US taxpayers. The US is now using its executive privilege to confiscate (steal) and sanction US dollar deposits of countries (Afghanistan, Russia, Venezuela) it doesn’t like. And it is threatening war with China, Russia and Iran, the three countries that are most quickly replacing US dollar-denominated agreements and transactions with bilateral and multilateral agreements in their own domestic currencies.

The upshot of all this is that, as a recent study revealed, the actual value of the US dollar is now roughly only half, computed in terms of purchasing power equivalent, of its executive privilege value. As Tim Morgan puts it:

The rest of the world gets only $0.54 for each dollar-equivalent of economic value that their countries produce. Put the other way around, we can calculate that the US dollar is over-valued by about 85% in relation to underlying value in the world outside the United States.

For countries in the Global South particularly, this means that they are paying twice as much as they should, if currency prices reflected actual productivity, for all goods and services they buy in US dollars. (And that’s not just goods they buy from the US.)

And they are receiving only half as much as they should, if currency prices reflected actual productivity, for domestic goods and services they sell abroad in US dollars.

If I’m in a Global South country and I want to buy goods from China, I have to pay twice as much for them if I have to pay in US dollars, as if I negotiated the deal in one of our domestic currencies. That makes no sense, and it is unsustainable. That’s the mess we’re now facing.

A recent study computes that this over-pricing of the US dollar means the Global South is overpaying for imported goods (and is underpaid for its exports) to the tune of $2.2T annually. That’s fourteen times what these countries receive in total foreign aid each year. And this doesn’t include the other chicanery used to repatriate wealth to the US Empire, such as tax-avoiding “transfer pricing” and “management fees to foreign subsidiaries” — all priced, of course, in US dollars. These wealth-repatriating transfers account for almost 40% of all global ‘trade‘, and their ‘prices’ and value are pure fiction.

Inevitably, US dollar-denominated trading activity is declining, to avoid the exorbitant privilege for which the traders receive no value. Tim explains how this is beginning to happen:

What we should expect to see is a rolling shift towards bilateral and multilateral trade and investment in currencies other than the dollar. Beginning with oil, this can be expected to move on to natural gas, chemicals, minerals and agricultural commodities. A point is likely to be reached at which most of the ‘hard’ trade (and associated investment) in energy, raw materials and commodities shifts over to non-USD transactions outside the ‘dollar fence’. ‘Softer’ trades may follow, but at some remove from commodities.

The dynamic here is straightforward. In a global economy now inflecting from growth into contraction, national economies can get by without dollar-denominated Hollywood blockbusters and the latest gizmos from Silicon Valley, but they must have energy, chemicals, minerals and food. Ironically, most of the raw materials needed for transition to renewable energy are likely to end up on ‘the other side’ of the de-dollarized ‘fence’…

Where trade and investment are concerned, the BRICS+ member nations don’t need to wait unless and until they have a fully-formed settlement system, or a common currency usable in the superstores of Shanghai or the coffee-shops of Riyadh. They can get on with non-dollar trade right now, and have enormous incentives for doing exactly that.

Dollar hegemony, then, isn’t likely to be ended by a replacement currency or currencies, but by the successive splitting-off of important trade flows from the dollar-denominated system.

The danger in this, from an American and Western perspective, is the division of the global economy into two parts, where “we” (the West) have all the Hollywood blockbusters and Silicon Valley gizmos (and most of the debt), whilst “they” have all the oil, natural gas, chemicals, minerals and foodstuffs. This is a particularly disturbing prospect for a Europe which doesn’t have America’s resource wealth, and can no longer import energy from Russia.

So that is what is happening now, and is inevitably going to become more widespread as more and more countries realize the folly of paying an absurd 85% premium for the privilege of using the US dollar as its currency for settlement of trades.

The crisis will come when these countries start to tell the US Empire that they no longer wish to use overpriced US dollars in future trade. We are a ways from that happening (the bargaining power of the US Empire as a trade bloc is too strong). But unless the Empire destroys the productive capacity of China and other nations that actually produce things of value, by declaring wars against them, embargoing them and bombing their factories (which is not out of the question), this reluctance to accept US dollars will eventually snowball.

At that point all hell will break loose. We will probably see an economic collapse such as the world has never seen, and while it will be global, it will be concentrated in the US Empire nations which no longer have the competence, knowledge or capacity to produce essential goods domestically, so reliant have they (we) become on cheap (half-price, every day) foreign imports.

Canada’s situation (I’m Canadian) is especially precarious. Our economy is tied at the hip to the US’ (they own most of our resources), and if (when) the value of the US dollar falls 50%, ours will inevitably follow suit.

Well, it will make our Alberta Tar Sands bitumen sludge a bargain for Chinese buyers. As long as we’re willing to settle the transaction in yuan.

Thanks to Paul Heft for the links in this article.

Posted in Collapse Watch, How the World Really Works | 2 Comments

Work That Doesn’t Work, and Work That Does

cartoon by the late New Yorker cartoonist Robert Weber, one of the few cartoonists who worked mostly with charcoal

Every year we hear about workplace surveys that say that most employees are “satisfied” with their jobs, which would, I think, suggest more that they can’t imagine finding better work, than that they like the work they are doing.

We also hear about “quiet quitting”, and complaints that minimum wage jobs are going begging. Employers would like us to believe that that’s because most people are lazy, but if you actually speak to people doing these jobs, it’s quite clear that no one, especially if they have a family, can afford to live on a minimum wage job (or even two minimum wage jobs) with today’s costs of housing, health care, transportation, and other essential expenses that are increasing at twice the rate of the minimum wage and “average” wages.

The truth is that our economy is stretched so tight that there is a huge and growing chasm between what workers need to live even a basically comfortable life, and what dysfunctional corporations desperate to keep profits growing to avoid collapse of their stock prices, can afford to pay them. This is what collapse looks like.

In a recent article, Aurélien explores what this means for the poor beleaguered employee who is spending more than half of their waking hours, for a lifetime, working at, or commuting to and from, a Bullshit Job.

This means accepting, and coming to grips with these terrible realities:

  • Employers cannot afford to pay them a decent salary, or give them a decent real-inflation-level salary increase, or give them basic essential employee benefits, or any job security, or the possibility of a decent promotion, or the promise of a pension.
  • The level of trust in workplaces is so low that employers dare not let their employees “work at home” or away from supervision, and increasingly use technology to actively disempower employees from providing customers with what they reasonably want and need, for fear that will adversely affect profits.
  • Governments, which are mostly now technically bankrupt due to a combination of incompetence, mismanagement, dysfunctional bureaucracy (due to being too big and too centralized), wild overspending on the military and “security”, and obscene tax cuts for the rich and powerful, are trying furiously to reduce and even eliminate essential social services and citizen-protecting regulations to fend off actual bankruptcy. In the process they are aggravating the challenges workers are having trying to make ends meet in their tedious, underpaid Bullshit Jobs.
  • Corporations (which were actually, as Indrajit Samarajiva has explained, the first form of AI, and remain its most insidious form) are perversely driven by their mandates and charters to try to weaken and replace governments and public services, and to see both their customers (“whiny and litigious”) and their employees (“outsource and offshore”) as loathsome impediments to their profitability and smooth function, and to treat them accordingly.

The fact that anyone is “satisfied” with this state of affairs should be cause for alarm. But that is where we seemingly are.

How corporations’ implicit psychopathy plays out, from my earlier post

Like me, Aurélien is not proffering solutions to this worsening situation. It is up to us, he suggests, to use what power we have to make the best of it. This entails, he says, taking charge of our own work lives, and getting out of the rut of not seeing any alternative to our current daily work drudgery.

What brings joy at work is not, he says, “success”, but rather the satisfaction of knowing that what you do is important — that it matters to, and is appreciated by, customers and co-workers (ie that it’s not really a Bullshit Job), that you have some control over it, and that you know that you and your co-workers are doing good work for the customer, the community, the society, and/or the world as a whole.

Aurélien writes:

I suppose nothing could be more foreign to our present culture than the idea that in life we have a series of free choices, and we are responsible for them and their consequences. In a world where everyone is a victim and no-one is responsible for anything, that’s almost literally heresy. But we then have to ask how practically useful to us, in reality, is today’s ethic of complaint, and futile appeals to “rights.” Does it actually help us to survive and retain our sanity, working in an organisation that hates us? Does it make us happier? I think the answer is obvious.

He goes on to explain how we try to retain our sanity in a brutal workplace, by reference to Jean-Paul Sartre’s and Gabor Maté’s arguments about our fundamental human need for authenticity — our capacity to be honest with ourselves and other about what we believe and want and do, and sometimes what we have to demand:

A very senior official in my organisation once gently explained to me why the extravagant promises of a glittering career made to me when I was younger were now inoperative. ‘Your problem’ he said, not unkindly, ‘is that you’re not perceived as being sufficiently dedicated to the management priorities of the organisation.’ Now as it happened, I was involved in other things than management priorities at the time, and didn’t think about them very much, and rarely if ever said anything about them. Nonetheless, I said, look, I’m a professional, and I do what the organisation wants, including its management practices. Ah, came the reply: but that’s not enough, we need your full-hearted commitment. At that point, I knew it was time to think of going, because once you confuse a bureaucratic organisation with a church or a political party, you’re in deep trouble.

He’s speaking a bit tongue-in-cheek, but I sense a lot of readers will be nodding with recognition of their own situations in dead-end jobs that demand(ed) more from them than they could ever give back.

“Doing a good job” in the face of this, and in the face of dysfunctional organizations, “is an act of resistance” — of defiance even, he asserts.

The large proviso here, of course, is that you foreswear formal protests and open confrontation, and that you care only about the final outcome, not the degree to which your ego is polished thereby. Sometimes there may be no alternative to letting important people with their own large egos make stupid decisions, but there are always ways of quietly unpicking those decisions later, in silence and anonymity.

I think this is brilliantly perceptive, and it resonates strongly with my own experiences through nearly 40 years of exhausting, perplexing, exasperating work. I learned to accept that achieving the right outcome often required letting my boss take the credit for my efforts and insights. I learned to listen to my customers and co-workers and peers, even when I knew that acting on their behalf and against the stated interests or policies of my employer, might be a career-limiting move. It was the right thing to do. I always knew how to do my job better than those ‘superiors’ I had to explain my actions to, who mostly never found out just what I did or how important it really was.

So here’s a toast to everyone dedicated to “doing a good job”, by ignoring all the career advice you received in those cheesy, self-important airport bookstore self-help books, and in spite of the fact everything is falling apart all around us.

It matters, it makes a difference, and it is appreciated in ways you will probably never know. And you probably have more control over your work and your work life than you think, including, if it comes to that, the power to resign. Life’s too long, and too short, to spend so much of it doing work that you’re merely “satisfied” with.

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

The Weather Under the Weather

This is #26 in a series of month-end reflections on the state of the world, and other things that come to mind, as I walk, hike, and explore in my local community.

“Under the Umbrella”, by Midjourney AI; not my prompt

“My poetry took its voice from the rain.” — Pablo Neruda

“The rain began again. It fell heavily, easily, with no meaning or intention but the fulfilment of its own nature, which was to fall and fall.” — Helen Garner

Here on the Canadian west coast, we’re having the usual winter weather: The last 10 days have been rainy, and the next 10 are expected to be likewise. Most people, like most creatures apparently, don’t like rain much, and tend to scatter for cover when it rains (notable animal exceptions being elephants and deer).

So this month’s ‘cultural anthropology’ has been paying attention to who is out in the rain. My research has required almost daily trips to the local café to see who’s out and about — my sacrifice for science!

My first observation was that umbrellas are much commoner here in Asian-culture-inspired Coquitlam than in predominantly Anglo areas of Vancouver. The Japanese, I’ve learned, lead the world in use of umbrellas. When I asked people who didn’t use them, why they didn’t, the main answer was that it requires use of one hand all the time. So if you’re carrying bags or walking the dog, or in an insecure area, you need both hands, so umbrellas are suboptimal. Why hasn’t anyone invented an umbrella that doesn’t need hand-holding?

Mind you, since almost all ‘serious’ raincoats continue to use toxic, polluting ‘forever’ chemicals like PFAS, PFC and PVC, you’re not doing any favours using them instead. And more natural solutions like oiled silk, beeswax, waxed canvas and oilskin all have their problems (they can’t be washed, for a start).

In the café, most of the older customers have umbrellas, while most of the younger customers have hooded jackets, and are wet. Whether that’s obliviousness or stubbornness is your guess. Young wild creatures apparently like the rain better than their parents, so maybe we’re the same. But then wild creatures mostly have hair or fur that can be shaken to dry themselves quickly. I was surprised to learn that most animals have evolved the capacity to shake their bodies after getting wet — at precisely the optimal frequency to expel water fastest. (Yes, someone has actually measured these frequencies.) If you’ve ever been owned by a dog, you will know how effective this shaking is — for the dog.

Demographically, the crowd in the café looks younger today than it does on drier days. On the way over here I watched three dogs taking their people for walks in the downpour. They seemed ambivalent: the smells more intense, perhaps, but the sounds of rain a distraction for the smaller, warier pups, and the rain itself unpleasant on and in the eyes. Still, they looked much happier than the (umbrella-less) people they were walking.

There is a bit of a ritual in the café on heavy-rain days: First you must secure a table (harder to come by on rainy days), preferably by putting your wettest items on an empty table and chair to discourage others from trying to take it. The umbrella must be shaken outside before you come in, futile as that is on a day like today, so as not to sprinkle customers inside or make the floor even more slippery than it is. Then you put your coffee order in, and then you wipe down your table, which is inevitably still wet from the previous customer’s belongings.

For those (about half of the customers) with laptops or tablets, there is the usual fruitless casting around for an unused electrical outlet, followed by a sigh, and then the setting up of the equipment, which, here at least, seems to involve custom-made folding brackets and stands for tablets, phones and hard-copy materials. They don’t call it your ‘third place’ for nothing.

It would appear that puffer jackets are very much in style here. Even geezers are wearing them. They promise warmth, light weight, and dryness, but caveat emptor — almost none of them are vegan, and most contain PFAS. And the better-made ones suggest you hand-wash them in cold water with a special non-detergent cleaner, to avoid damaging the down, destroying its water-resistance, and reducing its thermal properties. And few of them are actually waterproof. What price fashion?

My next observation today is that there seems to be a point at about age 30 when people switch from backpacks to shoulder bags. The former almost all look badly worn and seem to have obligatory ‘designer’ labels on the outside, like underwear. I will never understand this. The latter are apparently always black, the designers apparently more than content to remain anonymous.

There are some women, usually middle-aged or older, who carry a kind of large structured handbag instead, kinda like an old-fashioned sewing or knitting basket. These seem enormously roomy: I watched a woman take at least 30 items out of her bag at the café, and it still looked full. The only drawback I could see is that these bags all seem to be hideously gaudy, as if you sewed it or knitted it yourself, perhaps. Still, they have possibilities. Whoever’s working on inventing a hands-free umbrella might take inspiration from these carry-alls.

You don’t want to be seen pulling your laptop out of a tote-bag, however. Too flimsy, like an accident waiting to happen. Too easy for your laptop to fall out of and crash spectacularly to the café floor. And if it’s a branded department store tote, be prepared to have the socially conscious roll their eyes at your choice of bag, as it’s most likely advertising a chain they would never shop in, for various political, social, ecological and/or economic reasons.

Cultural anthropology is one of the shadier forms of voyeurism, and if you think you’re being subtle, you can rest assured you’re not. People know that you’re looking at them in the café even if they have their back constantly to you. They just know. You’re not fooling anyone with your spreadsheet on your Mac open in front of you. This eyes-in-the-back-of-the-head skill is something women apparently learn quite young, for their own defence. The quality of their radar is directly proportional to the age, unattractiveness and/or creepiness of the voyeur, and for perfectly good reasons. Some but not most men seem to have this same radar, but for different (and, um, sometimes ickier?) reasons.

I have learned to be discreet — staring is just rude, even in the interest of science — but I don’t pretend I am not glancing around the room looking for something interesting or amusing to write about on my month-end blog post. If someone catches me looking at them, I nod and acknowledge their attention, and then gently look away.

Since I recently caught myself smiling in the mirror of my apartment elevator, I no longer smile at strangers unless they smile at me first. For some reason, my self-initiated smiles just look disturbing, like grimaces, while those that are in response to others’ smiles seem natural and genuine. Not enough practice I guess, during all those long years of anxiety and depression.

When CoVid-19 ‘ended’, I was briefly astonished at the number of strangers who smiled at me on the street, apparently because, for the first time in years, they could see my whole face, and over the duration of the pandemic my expressions had seemingly become less guarded and perhaps more natural, thanks to the mask. Sadly, that tendency seems to have ended. Now, when strangers smile at me, it’s usually older women, and mostly when I have a bouquet of flowers in my hands.

So now I have to learn to smile all over again. I’ll let you know how that goes.

The rain has intensified outside, and I’ve taken a table that lets me see the people outside as well as here in the café. I have my list of favourite rain songs playing through my earphones.

One of the things my cultural anthropology has taught me is that most people, in their relationships of every kind — with family, friends, co-workers — are looking for attention, appreciation, and reassurance. I have my theories about why this is so, mostly arrived at from reading Gabor Maté on the importance of secure attachment and authenticity in early childhood. But at any rate it seems males tend to want more attention, while women tend to want more appreciation. Makes perfect sense, and not just for human animals.

And that is what is playing out in the café. There’s a man talking to a woman at one table, and he’s adamant about something while she seems disinterested or distracted. His answer, it seems, is to talk louder. I laugh into my latte.

I’ve written before about conversations where the man is talking, incessantly, mistaking the constant nods from the woman he is talking to (or more accurately talking at) for agreement and encouragement to continue talking, when her nods merely mean “yes I hear you and understand what you’re saying”, rather than agreement or encouragement, and she’s not responding only because she’s waiting for the insensate clod to STFU so she can get a word in. This was playing out yesterday at the corner table, where the woman was shrinking into the large comfy chair she was sitting in, as if wishing it could envelop her and whisk her away.

cartoon by the world’s most observant male, Will McPhail

At another table, two men, both working on their second large mugs of coffee, are engaged in what looks like an epic battle for airtime and oxygen. They keep interrupting each other, and it’s not to finish each other’s sentences. Their hand movements punctuate the conversation like visual carets, looking for a space in the conversation to add something before it’s lost, or em-dashes, separating thoughts without having to stop for a period and allowing the other guy to take control of the conversation again. It’s about getting rather than paying attention, not about comprehension, and the reassurance they’re both getting is from the sound of their own voices, not the confirmation of the other.

I gather all this despite the fact they are not speaking English. I may be reading it wrong. But I doubt it. Our cultures aren’t that different.

The next day, I watch two older women talking, one of whom has one of the hideously coloured but impossibly spacious ‘knitting baskets’ by her feet. Their nods are slower; they’re appreciating and reassuring, not just trying to keep up. There are actual pauses in the conversation during which they both just reflect and drink their coffees. Impossibly long pauses. But then I note that their hands and eyes and bodies are still talking with each other — an upturned palm, a shrug, a smile, a raised eyebrow, that ‘hmm’ expression where you scrunch your lips over to one side —”Not sure what to say”. It looks as if they are warming each other, without even having to say a word.

I have so much to learn about the art of conversation.

As they leave, one of the women slides a stack of papers and books, along with her tablet and stand, into her knitting basket (I am sure it has room in it for the entire Canadian Archives), while the other, impressively, wipes and busses the table and slides their chairs back under it. She’s worked in the biz, for sure.

A few minutes later a young man arrives, looking very wet (hooded puffer, no umbrella), and as if he’s looking for someone, or has lost something. He sits at the vacated table looking nervous. He looks at his watch, and his phone.

A few minutes later a well-dressed young woman arrives, looking immaculate (umbrella, not a hair out of place), and looks uncertainly over at the recently-arrived guy, who now has slumped down in his chair, his legs stretched out, arms crossed. She goes over to his table and they talk. Blind date? Nope, they clearly know each other a bit by the way she lowers her shoulders to hug him. He doesn’t sit up straight until after she’s done so. Reunion after a disagreement or long separation? I don’t think so. There’s a certain formality to their body language. Second date, perhaps.

Yep, Will McPhail again. The guy’s just brilliant. 

They’re fun to watch. Improv has nothing on these two. He’s sitting up straight now, and apparently trying to be charming. She’s doing her best not to let on that he isn’t. They are studying each other with their eyes, but in completely different ways. He’s looking at her body, but trying to not look too obvious. (“I’m appreciating you — what do you want?”). She is seemingly trying to figure out what he wants from her. I would have added ”…other than that…”, but the world is changing — some women today, it seems, aren’t averse to a purely physical relationship, if they can only find that one guy in a thousand who can actually pull that off, those rare few that don’t come laden with baggage and performance anxiety.

The performance playing out is, it seems to me, as transactional as if they were bargaining over an appropriate price for fruit hidden in an opaque container.

They’re both reasonably good-looking, but she knows it while his body language suggests he probably doesn’t — it’s awkward. She’s leaning forward, but not in the classic deference-attentiveness pose. She’s studying him. I imagine her trying to decide if he’s worth the investment. He’s leaning backwards, and it’s hard to say whether he’s trying to look nonchalant, or if he’s intimidated.

The conversation is mostly small-talk, but this woman is smart — she has a copy of Melissa Febos’ gut-wrenching, eye-opening memoir Girlhood on the table beside her coffee mug. I recognize it by the bright, fragmented cover, with the title sliding down into oblivion. She took this book out deliberately. Is it a statement? I wonder. Is she trying to get him to comment on it, or ask her about it?

The lilt of the conversation shifts to a familiar cadence that makes me sigh. She is asking him questions. Questions about him. He is answering, at length, and then, it seems, waiting for the next question. He does not seem to be asking her any questions about herself, or about anything for that matter. He does most of the talking. He has her attention, which, I am guessing, is what he wants. If she is getting his appreciation, other than for her appearance, non-verbally, it doesn’t show. Does it matter to her? Has she given up expecting it?

They are acting out their conditioning, and this is what the script called for. It may have been their second date. And then, I realize, to my dismay, that they may have been married for years. Same script.

Perhaps there is no such thing as improv.

A few minutes later, he looks at his watch, and they get up to leave. I’m not going to get to see the next scene in this drama. She slides Melissa’s tour de force into her bag. He does not appear to have noticed it. He takes her hand. She doesn’t resist. With only one hand free, she does not try to open her umbrella as she leaves the café.

They do not bus their table, which is wet, mostly on his side.


The rain has slowed, and my matcha is done. I clean up a bit, slide my chair under its table, say goodnight to the barista, and head out, looking up at the sky. Eyes suddenly drenched, I open my umbrella. When I get home, I locate my copy of Girlhood, and it doesn’t take me long to find the passage I’m looking for:

The self becomes a collaboration with other people, a series of fantasies that lead to “the armour of an alienating identity.” Have you seen a suit of armour? There are so many pieces. Here is where a strange man named me. Here is where the girls stared. Here is the school report card. The plates clink and move together like one. The self underneath is invisible to others.

We are completely alone inside ourselves.

That night I dream of happy people, people without baggage, drenched cats, little girls and joyful puppies running through puddles. And meeting a bookstore clerk whose favourite books speak the same, dark, endlessly amazed language as mine. In the dream, she sees the books I am buying, and the fact I am carrying an umbrella, and she smiles, wordlessly, and, finally, I am free to smile back.

Posted in Month-End Reflections, Our Culture / Ourselves | 9 Comments