The Apology

photo by the author

Eve Ensler, playwright, author, and screenwriter, recently wrote a haunting and powerful book called The Apology, and, after writing it, she realized that there was an apology inside her waiting to be spoken too. She explains:

After I finished writing The Apology, a book in which I wrote a letter from my father to myself apologizing and exploring, explaining in detail all the ways he had abused and harmed me, I realized there was an apology I needed to make — an apology that would force me to confront my deepest sorrow, guilt and shame, an apology that I had been avoiding since I moved out of the city to the woods where I now live with the oaks, locust and weeping willows, Lydia the snapping turtle, running spring water, foxes, deer, coyotes, bears and cardinals and my precious dog, Pablo. It is my offering to you. It is my apology to the Earth, herself.

Eve published the letter in Maria Popova’s wonderful blog BrainPickings. It’s worth reading Maria’s article in its entirety, but I’m taking the liberty of reposting it below because it may be the most moving, and important, letter written so far in this century:

Dear Mother,

It began with the article about the birds, the 2.9 billion missing North America birds, the 2.9 billion birds that disappeared and no one noticed. The sparrows, black birds, and swallows who didn’t make it, who weren’t ever born, who stopped flying or singing or making their most ingenious nests, who didn’t perch or peck their gentle beaks into moist black earth. It began with the birds. Hadn’t we even commented in June, James and I that they were hardly here? A kind of eerie quiet had descended. But later they came back. The swarms of barn swallows and the huge ravens landing on the gravel one by one. I know it was after hearing about the birds, that afternoon I crashed my bike. Suddenly falling, falling, unable to prevent the catastrophe ahead, unable to find the brakes or make them work, unable to stop the falling. I fell and spun and realized I had already been falling, that we have been falling, all of us, and crows and conifers and ice caps and expectations — falling and falling and I wanted to keep falling. I didn’t want to be here to witness everything falling, missing, bleaching, burning, drying, disappearing, choking, never blooming. I didn’t want to live without the birds or bees and sparkling flies that light the summer nights. I didn’t want to live with hunger that turned us feral or desperation that gave us claws. I wanted to fall and fall into the deepest, darkest ground and be finally still and buried there.

But Mother, you had other plans. The bike landed in grass and dirt and bang, I was ten-years-old, fallen in the road, my knees scraped and bloody. And I realized that even then nature was something foreign and cruel, something that could and would hurt me because everything I had ever known or loved that was grand and powerful and beautiful became foreign and cruel and eventually hurt me. Even then I had already been exiled, or so I felt, forever cast out of the forest. I belonged with the broken, the contaminated, the dead. 

Maybe it was the sharp pain in my knee and elbow, or the dirt embedded in my new jacket, maybe it was the shock or the realization that death was preferable to the thick tar of grief coagulated in my chest, or maybe it was just the lonely rattling of the spokes of the bicycle wheel still spinning without me. Whatever it was. It broke. It broke. I heard the howling. 

Mother, I am the reason the birds are missing. I am the cause of salmon who cannot spawn and the butterflies unable to take their journey home. I am the coral reef bleached death white and the sea boiling with methane. I am the millions running from lands that have dried, forests that are burning or islands drowned in water. 

I didn’t see you, Mother. You were nothing to me. My trauma-made arrogance and ambition drove me to that cracking pulsing city. Chasing a dream, chasing the prize, the achievement that would finally prove I wasn’t bad or stupid or nothing or wrong. Oh my Mother, what contempt I had for you. What did you have to offer that would give me status in the market place of ideas and achieving? What could your bare trees offer but the staggering aloneness of winter or greenness I could not receive or bear. I reduced you to weather, an inconvenience, something that got in my way, dirty slush that ruined my overpriced city boots with salt. I refused your invitation, scorned your generosity, held suspicion for your love. I ignored all the ways we used and abused you. I pretended to believe the stories of the fathers who said you had to be tamed and controlled — that you were out to get us.

I press my bruised body down on your grassy belly, breathing me in and out. I have missed you, Mother. I have been away so long. I am sorry. I am so sorry. 

I am made of dirt and grit and stars and river, skin, bone, leaf, whiskers and claws. I am a part of you, of this, nothing more or less. I am mycelium, petal pistil and stamen. I am branch and hive and trunk and stone. I am what has been here and what is coming. I am energy and I am dust. I am wave and I am wonder. I am an impulse and an order. I am perfumed peonies and the single parasol tree in the African savannah. I am lavender, dandelion, daisy, dahlia, cosmos, chrysanthemum, pansy, bleeding heart and rose. I am all that has been named and unnamed, all that has been gathered and all that has been left alone. I am all your missing creatures, all the sweet birds never born. I am daughter. I am caretaker. I am fierce defender. I am griever. I am bandit. I am baby. I am supplicant. I am here now, Mother. I am yours. I am yours. I am yours.

Eve Ensler

Please support the Cornell Lab of Ornithology in its efforts to fight the extinction of wild birds.

I am hoping to read Eve’s letter at our next local Transition meeting; it probably says what we’re about better than anything else ever has.

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

Collective Intelligence to Make Sense of Complexity

I recently did a mini introductory workshop on complexity and systems thinking, describing the difference between complicated and complex systems using my friend Dave Snowden’s Cynefin Framework (characteristics of each type of system in red; approaches in green; small business example in blue):

I then introduced the systems thinking methodology of Dr Rosalind Armson:

and then introduced Dr Armson’s systems diagramming methodology and terminology, using a children’s story as a model (the ‘dragon’ in the story is an excellent metaphor for just about every complex predicament one can encounter; just replace ‘dragon’ with ‘alcoholism’ or ‘child abuse’ or ‘neglect’, or replace the ‘house’ with ‘Earth’ and the ‘dragon’ with ‘global warming’ or ‘systemic poverty’ and it’s pretty much the same ‘story’ — so I’ve used the letter ‘P’ as the symbol for whatever the particular predicament being explored is):

and then we charted that story:

Applying the same chart to describe, say an effective vs ineffective national housing, health or education system, the virtuous circle would be something like Finland’s (high tax rates to finance government programs, primary mandate to meet the common good, large ownership of and investment in public buildings/institutions/ infrastructure, and public benefits such as an educated and healthy citizenry and a low crime rate). [Thanks to Tree Bressen for the link]. The vicious cycle would be the one most of us are familiar with (constant downward pressure on tax rates, primary mandate of enriching private shareholders and landholders, institutions/land/ infrastructure largely or mostly privatized, constant pressure to cut services to offset reduced tax revenues, and commensurate high rates of homelessness and crime and low rates of physical and mental health and affordable housing).

The balancing elements that take a nation from the virtuous to the vicious cycle might be factors like the demand by a few very rich and powerful people to slash national tax rates (or else the rich will decamp to a lower-tax-regime state). This is what happened in Thatcher’s UK for example.

The balancing element that takes a nation from the vicious cycle to the virtuous cycle might be something like the Sanders/Warren proposals for universal health care in the US funded by a substantial tax increase to the richest 1%. I say might because the situation is extremely complex; we can’t know for sure we’ve factored in even the most important variables, and what elements might come into play to keep the vicious cycle intact. This is why there is generally (and justifiably) a lot of nervous, knee-jerk opposition to any radical change, and why self-reinforcing feedback loops are so hard to escape from.

Of course, real world complex systems (and their charts) are much more involved than this, with many more elements and cycles, and come with the sobering acknowledgement that (i) we can never know all of the elements at work, (ii) while we can guess at the cause/effect relationships in how we draw the arrows, we may later be surprised to find that they’re merely correlations and possibly not causal (or predictive) at all, and (iii) while diagramming what we think we know about complex systems helps us understand what is going on much better, the ‘answer’ (eg the balancing element that moves the system from a vicious to a virtuous self-reinforcing loop) will never simply ‘drop out’ (be deductively obvious) the way it may in merely complicated systems like a malfunctioning automobile.

The diagramming process also challenges our assumptions and judgements: If one of the supposed elements is ‘human greed’ or ‘stupidity’ (or some convenient ‘evil’ enemy), a more thorough study of what’s really happening is more likely to discover that what is happening, is happening for a perfectly justifiable and understandable (and not readily correctable) reason. As I assert in Pollard’s Law of Complexity:

Things are the way they are for a reason. To change something, it helps to know that reason. If that reason is complex, success at truly changing it is unlikely, and adapting to it is probably a better strategy. Complex systems evolve to self-sustain and resist reform until they finally collapse. That is just how they work.

Blaming someone for a system caught in a vicious cycle is usually simplistic and unhelpful, and changing governments (or CEOs) is rarely sufficient to escape the cycle. Assuming “we’re all doing our best” is generally a better approach.

This is why we (as a species) loathe complexity. We want things to be easy, binary, rationally deducible. We want to believe we have the control and power to make things better.

So having diagrammed (to the extent we can) a complex system, what is required to determine what (if anything) might be an appropriate action or reaction, is generally a collective intelligence process, involving a diversity of as many knowledgeable, open-minded, creative people as possible.

That brings me to the subject of this article, which is: What makes for an optimal collective intelligence gathering process?

There are two competing points of view on this, and I think it’s essential that they be reconciled if we have any hope of achieving a useful consensus:

  1. Evidence-based approach: Collect lots of data, look for broad patterns, deduce appropriate interventions
  2. Story/anecdote approach: Listen to lots of stories, synthesize understanding, infer appropriate interventions

When it comes to, for example, human illnesses, ‘big’ medicine prefers to do lots of evidence-gathering research, find correlations, and prescribe therapies that seem to work in the preponderance of cases. It fails to conduct longer-term studies because they delay interventions too long and cost too much, it can easily fall prey to bogus research paid for by medicine and food manufacturers (and is inevitably shy on evidence of the efficacy of non-money-making treatments like better diet), and it ignores the astonishing and largely unfathomable complexity of the human body and the utter uniqueness of each individual body’s reactions.

Some medicine, on the other hand, is based on personal experience, stories from individual patients, and conviction that what works in some specific well-known cases may work well in the general populace. It is often based on thin and sometimes highly-subjective data, and also is prone to biased and bogus self-interested research, and also inevitably remains largely ignorant of the complexity of the human body and the uniqueness of each body’s reactions.

Of course, most practitioners will draw to some extent on both approaches. For example, Dave Snowden and others have developed tools that collect large numbers of stories and seek out useful patterns in them. Another example is Michael Greger’s, which filters out biased and fundamentally-flawed nutritional ‘research’ paid for by vested interests, adds in the (small sample size, since these studies aren’t profitable to anyone and hence are underfunded) research that has been done showing strong correlation between specific whole food consumption and health and longevity, and suggests how each of us, factoring in knowledge of our own personal bodies, might make use of the inferences of that body of evidence.

But the current complicated medical system in most countries is simply incapable of producing anywhere near optimal outcomes for the very complex problems of human health.

What might work better? Clearly, a system that informed patients of appropriate illness prevention processes (diet, exercise, sleep, selective supplements), and encouraged and enabled patients to take personal responsibility for monitoring their personal health and the efficacy of various therapies for them personally, would almost certainly extend most people’s lives by years and their ailment-free lives by even more years, and that would have astonishing effects on almost every aspect of our modern society. But to change to such a system would likely involve the dismantling of the capitalist basis that underpins it, and an almost unfathomable change in public perception of the value of (paying for) public services. We’re caught in the vicious cycle of our dysfunctional and unsustainable health (and related social, educational, economic, and technological) systems.

Whether it could be done before the systems collapse is the key question. Once systems collapse, there’s a temptation to try to rebuild them (which almost always fails since the dysfunctional dynamics remain). And then something different is tried, until, for better or worse, a new system is created that has enough stability to be sustainable.

Now that the massive collapse of our stable climate, industrial growth economy, and other global systems appears increasingly imminent, there is some thought going into trying to answer this question. If there were a concerted effort by a large number of disinterested (unbiased but passionate), attentive, non-judgemental, dedicated, critical-thinking, coordinated, cooperative, collaborative, informed thinkers to collectively evolve a set of interventions that might either (a) mitigate collapse enough to reform the system so that it is once again sustainable, or (b) replace the existing dysfunctional system promptly once collapse occurs so as to produce the minimal amount of suffering to the human and more-than-human world, would it get enough attention to be implemented, or would it just be ignored as another radical ‘impracticable’ egghead ‘solution’?

A number of recent initiatives have broached this question. In the 1990s, David Bohm suggested a form of dialogue that might facilitate just such collaboration. One of the objectives of The Wisdom of Crowds was to identify how and when large collectives produce better answers than any small group, no matter how competent, could hope to produce.

More recently, Daniel Schmactenberger has spoken about the need for us to hone and practice our critical thinking, conversational and collaborative capacities and apply them, first to listening to and understanding those with whom we disagree (no one is to blame; we’re all doing our best; everyone has a piece of the truth; people believe what they do for a good reason), and then to engaging in earnest, purposeful dialectics to start to appreciate some potentially useful approaches to complex predicaments. Daniel also suggests some personal vows going into such deliberations: fierce dedication to knowing the truth, not turning away when that truth is unbearable, staying open-minded and caring and equanimous, constantly challenging everything one believes, and having the courage to seek out approaches and ideas even when you’re so far ahead of the curve there is no one who can guide you.

All of these initiatives eschew debate and rhetoric and resolve to dispense with misunderstandings, untruths, untruthfulness, and bias (conscious and unconscious) in our search for ideas and approaches to deal with the immense challenges we now face.

If you believe, as I do (at least for the moment) that there is no such thing as free will, what is the point of aspiring to do any of this? As I suggested in my earlier article, I don’t think we have any choice. Those of us with this turn of mind just have to look for approaches that might work, despite the apparent impossibility of any such approaches being found.
complex predicament map export
image courtesy SHIFT Magazine; click on image to view full-size

We have been in situations that were seemingly ‘impossible’ before, and when we reached the tipping point where staying with the existing system was obviously no longer an option, we introduced radical changes. This happened with the New Deal and similar programs worldwide that essentially suspended much of the capitalist system to deal with the 1930s economic emergency. It happened with the collective response to German atrocities in what became world war two, which required a near-global massive sacrifice of a beloved way of life to deal with an existential threat. It’s sometimes easy to forget how quickly and radically we’re somehow able to shift gears when we know we have no choice.

If we have no free will, neither do we have any choice about what we do, or fail to do, as economic and ecological collapse deepens. It will be interesting to see whether an increasing number of us have no choice but to start exploring collective intelligence gathering processes, à la Bohm or Schmactenberger, to try to mitigate and be ready to replace collapsed systems. It seems, we have to try.

Posted in How the World Really Works | 1 Comment

the ever-stranger


Each day, first in the early afternoon
and then again at midnight
dave-the-character (not ‘me’; rather the creature
whose body ‘I’ presume to inhabit)

walks down from its tiny, lovely room
to the Kaua’i ocean shore,
dressed only in shorts and sandals
(the air temperature here, even at night, is
so very near its body temperature,
there seems no boundary between them).

It sits on the ancient, ever-changing beach
and watches the sunlit — or moonlit — ocean waves,
cascading over each other in the distance,
a constant roar, rippling,
finally, gently onto the sand.

‘I’ have all kinds of possible reasons
for such a strange
and seemingly reflexive ritual:
perhaps it is only here,
in this safe, warm place
that dave-the-character feels it can commune,
connect — can at least try
without distraction or discomfort
to be at one with everything;

or perhaps it is waiting for something —
a sign, an encounter, or a letting go,
or a celestial event, or the dis-covering
of an answer to some unknown question.

‘I’ cannot know; as long as ‘I’ have felt
that ‘I’ resided in dave-the-character’s body,
‘I’ have been trying to understand why
it does what it does, and does not do
what it does not;

and still ‘I’ do not understand.

For a long time ‘I’ thought its decisions
were ‘mine’, but ‘I’ was mistaken:
‘I’ merely rationalized what it did,
hurriedly, as being ‘my’ decision.

But ‘I’ can no longer do so:
dave-the-character, this ever-stranger creature,
this apparent bag of water
filled with many other even-stranger creatures,
clearly does not listen to ‘me’,
so what is the point
in trying to justify its actions as ‘mine’?

So sometimes ‘I’ try to just watch it,
‘impersonally’ (as if that were possible;
it drags ‘me’ everywhere it goes!),
and to just let it, as Mary Oliver said, be
the soft animal body that loves what it loves.

And sometimes ‘I’ see that
this ever-stranger creature
does not need ‘me’ — in fact is oblivious to ‘me’ —
and try to see it just for what it is,
and is not.

It is not whole, apart, or singular —
that much is clear. Its skin does not separate it
from everything-else.

It does not conceive itself
to be separate, to have an identity —
all of that is ‘my’ projection, ‘my’ arrogation,
‘my’ hopeful, desperate,
foolish wishing for its ‘success’.

It has no need to conceive of anything,
it is too busy, it seems, perceiving
on behalf of the vast consilience
of billions of creatures that comprise it
and evolved it for, one must guess,
their collective thriving.

But that isn’t right either —
it is this consilience, this complicity of multitudes
in their collective, hard-earned, ancient wisdom
that perceive — not dave-the-character;
unless ‘I’ concede that dave-the-character is
this dazzling complicity.

In which case maybe ‘I’ should talk of
dave-the-characters, as if this creature
were a plurality.

Or ‘I’ could just call it the ever-stranger,
as that is all ‘I’ know it, for sure, to be.

‘I’, the interloper, seem to have access to,
to be party to, the thoughts and feelings
that arise in this ever-stranger,
but while it is wise enough just to acknowledge them,
and use them, or not, as it has learned
over a million years to do,

‘I’, who see everything as meaning-full
insist on taking ownership
of all these thoughts and feelings,
claiming them, reacting to them, and then
analyzing them to fucking death,

though they are only suggestions,
interesting patterns of tea leaves
in the bottom of a cup.

So now, in the moonlight,
as a pineapple rain falls,
‘I’ watch the ever-stranger (almost as if
it were a jellyfish, a creature
that is stranger still),
clamber again down to the beach,
a mug of tea clenched in its tentacle.

It is scanning the shallow water with binoculars;
it sits and waits. Apparently,
inexplicably, that is what it must do, now.
‘I’ am impatient — what is it looking for?
But as usual, we aren’t talking.

And then, and then
(at least if time were real it would be “then”)
there is a ripple in the water, and slowly,
a green turtle crawls its way up onto the beach,
and sits, as its ancestors have done
for four hundred million years,
placidly, attentively, in the sand
only a ten-jellyfish distance from
the ever-stranger.

The wind shifts, the rain picks up
and then dies away.
The moonlight and the surf
lightly brush across the turtle
who nibbles on a piece of jellyfish,
as the ever-stranger sits, quietly,
raising the mug of tea to its horned beak.

Posted in Creative Works | 3 Comments

Making Sense of Who We Are

Have you ever had the experience of learning several things, each of which evolved completely independently, such that when you put them together you get a very satisfying or profound new insight? This recently happened to me.

As an admirer of Gaia theory, I was delighted to discover Tim Garrett’s metaphoric thinking about collapse and mass extinction in that context — Earth & Gaia as a single organism, now tragically and seriously diseased through a well-intentioned evolutionary misstep we call civilization, in the late throes of inevitable collapse.

That got me thinking about the ’cause’ of this disease and how/why this evolutionary misstep might have occurred. A clue to that came in the form of a video interview sent to me recently by Tom Atlee and Tree Bressen — an interview with the evolutionary philosopher Daniel Schmactenberger on the subject of sensemaking and disinformation.

One of Daniel’s arguments is that the rise of our complex civilization corresponded to a rise in disinformation, which in turn has produced an incapacity to make sense well, which has then led to disastrously dysfunctional behaviour.

The disinformation arose, he says, because memes are not at all like genes — while genetic modifications ‘succeed’ based on whether they help the organism ‘fit’ well as part of Gaia, memetic modifications ‘succeed’ based on their persuasive power, power that can often be coercive, and which while in the best interest of its propagators is often not at all in the best interest of the whole.

Religions, corporations and states have succeeded, he says, because their champions and leaders are able to use disinformation to arrogate power into vast hierarchies where their intimidated followers are ‘persuaded’ to proxy (delegate) their sensemaking to the leaders, and end up incapable of doing their own sensemaking well. Power is seductive, addictive and corrupting. Three kinds of disinformation are used: Information that is not true, information that is not truthful (where the propagators don’t believe it themselves), and information that is not representative (where the propagators are misleadingly selective in what they do and don’t disclose). When we’re surrounded by more and more dubious information, we are forced to proxy ever more of our sensemaking to those we trust, and to align ourselves (for safety) with others who proxy their sensemaking to the same authorities. Even worse, as this information becomes increasingly suspect, we lose the ability to trust others altogether, and our society fragments and has to be held together through heightened disinformation and fear.

Civilizations arise, many believe, as an attempted adaptation to circumstances of great scarcity and commensurate stress — we struggle together and cede personal sovereignty because we sense we can’t survive otherwise. This is what John Livingston calls our propensity for self-domestication. In times of abundance, there is time and freedom to exercise authentic, sovereign, unbiased sensemaking, and trust, truth, truthfulness and representativeness of information are encouraged and empowering. In times of scarcity, however, most people are too busy to even learn the skill of sensemaking, so they must delegate/proxy it to ‘representatives’, leaders. The result is that inequality, disinformation, hierarchy, and sociopathy of leaders are all enabled and encouraged and truth is sacrificed. Daniel’s conclusion: “Rivalrous incentive (motivation to compete in zero-sum games in times of scarcity) has been the generator function of almost all the things humans have ever done that have sucked”.

What most of us end up then doing is mere “meme propagation”, which is non-thinking; it is purely reactive and has no sovereignty. Most people, Daniel argues, now have a “memetic immune system” that blocks any idea or belief not consistent with their worldview, and protector memes that have been instilled in them by leaders/proxies that prevent critical thinking. And in such a world it’s not safe not to have an in-group that shares one’s worldview, so there’s enormous pressure to conform/adapt to some ‘in’ group and identify fiercely and uncritically with it and its ideas.

If this is what has happened, how can we best deal with it? Daniel says he would like to see people practicing doing the following (because sensemaking well takes practice):

  • Challenge your own beliefs and be curious about those that don’t fit with your worldview.
  • Seek to understand, not to be understood.
  • Understand why people believe what they do.
  • Reconcile conflicting ideas to reach a higher level of understanding and perspective; this often requires, and produces, novel insight.
  • Debate doesn’t help “make sense”; it’s a “narrative warfare” process that emphasizes rhetoric and winning over understanding. By contrast, dialectic is the process of trying to make sense together, a higher order of thinking.
  • We can learn to at least love each other’s evolutionary trajectory; this requires a tolerance for nuance, emotional vulnerability (to create a sense of trust and safety), and humility. Most people have few relationships with those qualities.
  • Set aside your impulse to be right and your identification with specific beliefs and ideas. Look at your own biases; learn how to learn better; and build healthier (and better sense-making) relationships.
  • How might we remove the incentive for disinformation (zero-sum game politics and competitiveness), he asks, by aligning the definition of well-being of various agencies (individuals and organizations at all scales) and reducing rivalrous environments?

I confess to having some doubts about our capacity to do much of this, and I sense that Daniel might as well. But it was his final thought in the video that got me linking his ideas to Tim’s: He uses the metaphor of the body, and notes that the cells and organs that comprise us are able to balance their own self-interest with that of the whole body; they make sense together holistically, and share information in such a way that better decisions are made than any ‘component’ could possibly make independently. Then he notes that in cancer-ridden bodies self-interest of the afflicted cells trumps collective interest, and the result is that the cancer and the body it infects often both die.


So here’s the synthesis of these ideas I’m thinking about:

You may be familiar with the idea of Bohmian dialogue — an exchange of thoughts, information and ideas among a group of 20 or more people with some shared passion, that is without intention and which leads to understanding and ‘collective intelligence’ but not decisions. It is in many ways similar to what some indigenous cultures have apparently always done when they get together, how they collectively make sense of the world. And it is analogous to what the cells and organs of the body do to exchange information to make sense of the whole body’s situation. There are no ‘decisions’ in the sense of consensus, voting, delegation or analysis; what is done after the sharing of information is acknowledged as the only thing that could have emerged from the collective understanding.

I would argue that in fact this is what humans naturally do, that it is what every creature does, and it is what Gaia does — sensemaking. Not just our purpose, not what we’re meant to do. What we do. Sensemaking defines us. We — genes, cells, organs, creatures, Gaia — are sensemakers.

I would further argue that language didn’t evolve, as my cynical self has long believed, as a means to convey instruction down and information up in large hierarchies. Rather, it evolved to enable a better dialectic (collective investigation of what is true), and better epistemology (collective understanding of what is true) through (Bohmian-style) dialogue. Better collective sensemaking than what any individual could possibly discern or understand. It evolved because it was, at least at first, good for the whole. But in times of scarcity, language seems to be quickly appropriated as a vehicle to obtain and secure power through disinformation.

By this reasoning, it could be said that (1) scarcity led to “rivalrous incentive” which, coupled with language, enabled and encouraged the use of disinformation to achieve concentration of (addictive, corrupting) power, and also led to widespread dysfunctional sensemaking; and (2) this loss of capacity for healthy sensemaking (our very essence) created the disconnection (from Gaia, and from the truth) of civilized humanity, which has enabled massive damage to the planet and brought about the sixth great extinction.

What is happening to civilization now seems more a dissolving (ie a weakness and crumbling of foundations) than a collapse of its component parts — states, corporations, communities, hierarchies of all kinds, and even many one-on-one relationships are largely unsustainable and starting to fall apart from the bottom up, and this dissolution is accelerating. None of these can survive in the absence of the capacity for trust and good sensemaking. And nothing can survive ‘separately’.

It is highly likely that Gaia will survive, though probably in a radically-changed form. It has survived mass extinction events often enough before. Whether humans will still be a part of it, post-collapse, is anyone’s guess, but as Tim has argued, that’s entirely out of our hands.

Which brings me back to the question that prompted this article: What if there’s nothing we can do? We may engage in insightful dialogue with informed people with whom we have open trusted relationships, and we might even overcome some of our personal biases by understanding why people believe things we find preposterous. But where does that get us? We might become better sensemakers and have a greater appreciation for and sense of belonging to Gaia, and become more appreciative, understanding and non-judgemental about our current predicament, and better witnesses as it comes apart, but when the SHTF that will be cold consolation for the long dark hard years of collapse.

The answer, I think, for now, to the question What if there’s nothing we can do? is simply that we are sensemakers — we cannot help trying to make sense of things, even if and when our sensemaking is dysfunctional. Even the lamest meme-propagators are doing what they do out of a desperate drive to make sense of things — even if their memes don’t make any sense at all. As with our approach to death, we may approach that realization of our rather humbling true nature with equanimity and compassion or with rage, but neither will affect the outcome.


I can’t resist taking this thesis one step further (this may be too abstract or too far out there for some): Sensations are metaphors for reality. ‘We’ sensemakers genes, cells, organs, creatures, Gaiacannot know what is real, but we can sense, we can ‘make sense’. What we think of as reality is metaphor. Metaphors are our truths. Reality is not our business.

From that perspective I am quite comfortable with the idea that the sense of having a separate self is illusory. It is illusory because it, too, is a metaphor, an idea concocted in the brain, just as our sensations, and, scientists are now starting to say, just as time and space are. The metaphor of the self is a compelling metaphor because, like all good metaphors, it helps the brain make sense of things. The metaphors of time and space make sense because they give the brain a place and means to organize, sort, store and retrieve its sensations, the messages it receives from the ‘rest’ of the body and the ‘rest’ of Gaia. It doesn’t matter whether they are inventions, and not real, as long as they make sense. The metaphor of the ‘separate self’ makes sense because it provides a position, a context, for the making of sense of everything ‘else’. That there really is no ‘self’ and nothing ‘else’ is of no importance. Metaphor is the brain’s ‘stand-in’ for a reality it can never know. Metaphor is its truth. Reality is not its business.

The very idea of this is astonishing. But, of course, it makes no sense.

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

Links of the Quarter: December 2019

The stuff in this post is pretty heavy so I thought I’d start off light:

“The reason we know the earth isn’t flat is that if it was, cats would have knocked everything off it by now.” (origin unknown)

cartoon by Scott Metzger from Facebook


cartoon by Michael Leunig

Bill Rees on why collapse is inevitable: The Canadian ecological economist, who has said he expects human population to decline below two billion once the full extent of climate collapse weighs in, explains why renewables will not help prevent collapse (“just the annual increase in demand for electricity far exceeds the entire output of photovoltaic electricity installation in the world”). In a follow-up, he outlines 11 steps that would need to be taken immediately to prevent climate collapse, and acknowledges “It’s not going to happen…Disastrous climate change and energy shortages are near certainties in this century” leading to “global societal collapse”.

The legal system won’t save the planet: DGR explains how the legal system protects mega-polluters and big oil (and the wealthy in general). Doesn’t matter the merits of your argument, money always wins. No surprise there.

Staying with the trouble: The fascinating (but challenging to read) Donna Haraway coins the very useful concept and term “staying with the trouble” to explain how we can keep our wits about us as collapse unfolds. You can download the introduction to her book here. Thanks to Jan Wyllie for the link. Excerpt:

The task is to become capable, with each other in all of our bumptious kinds, of response. Mixed-up times are overflowing with both pain and joy—with vastly unjust patterns of pain and joy, with unnecessary killing of ongoingness but also with necessary resurgence. The task is to make kin in lines of inventive connection as a practice of learning to live and die well with each other in a thick present. Our task is to make trouble, to stir up potent response to devastating events, as well as to settle troubled waters and rebuild quiet places.

Fighting among ourselves: A harsh critique of XR, with, of course, an alternative suggestion. Sigh. Have we forgotten? We need it all. Thanks, I think, to Michael Sliwa for the link.


graphic from XPLANE (click on image to view full size); this is a great tool for presenters! (thanks to Tree Bressen for the link)

Mosquito Fleet’ blocks cargo ship from bringing in pipeline construction supplies: A fleet of kayaks successfully prevented and delayed the import of tar sands pipeline construction materials to the port of Vancouver Washington.

Sistas are doing it for themselves: An Australian women’s choir of abuse survivors finds strength and success in their collective voice.

Global biodiversity map: My new Bowen friend Jennifer Rae Pierce is part of the team that has created this global resource of bioregional reports, initiatives and analyses about local biodiversity.

The benefits of food forests: A short documentary explains how patient, wise, low-intervention land stewardship can provide food while enriching local ecosystems. Thanks to Jae Mather for the link.

Helsinki’s radical solution to homelessness: Give them homes! Thanks to Tree Bressen for the link.

Civics lesson: CIVICUS rates the “state of civil society” in every country in the world. Click on the map tab to start.


another cartoon by Michael Leunig, of course

Facebook allows paid ads full of lies: The rogue elephant of social media has announced that lies paid for by corporate and political interests, even if they are racist and incite violence, will be allowed without intervention or qualification on its pages, creating the greatest propaganda machine in history. Employees are outraged, but management is ignoring them. Mind you, they will intervene to obfuscate the truth if their government friends ask them to. Laws in other countries like Canada also give liars a pass, as the global Liars Club (all of its members old right-wing men) swells with every election.

African swine fever poised to kill half a billion ‘domestic’ pigs: The combination of diversity loss, factory farming and unsanitary farm practices is expected to cost a half billion pigs their lives in the latest monstrous atrocity of industrial agriculture.

Greedy doctors on the verge of toppling Canada’s universal health care system: A legal suit with a ton of money behind it may soon end Canada’s health care system and replace it with a two-tier system where the rich will get privileged care and the rest of the system, like other two-tier systems, will be starved of resources. A ruling in the case is imminent.

Pipeline protesters face 110 years in prison: The two defendants in the sabotage of the Dakota Access Pipeline are currently on trial and face ludicrous prison sentences; a spokesman for the pipeline company wants them “removed from the gene pool”. No damage to living creatures or the environment resulted from the vandalism.

Anyone but the Tories: An impassioned and articulate rant from Jonathan Pie on the eve of what looks from the polls to be an overwhelming election victory for the ghastly Brexit Conservatives.

1600 neglected US dams in ‘high’ danger of collapse: A new study of the US’ neglected and crumbling infrastructure shows lives are imperilled to pay, instead, for tax cuts for the rich.


from Andrea Scandurra (click on image to view full size); thanks to Giovanni Spezzacatena for the link

Five composers one theme: Classical music composer David Bruce and five colleagues rise to the challenge to write a one minute theme for the Chroma Quintet, based on a very strange but familiar set of cues. A fascinating look into the art of composition.

A feast of seals, seabirds and sea-lions: My friend Bob Turner films a breathtaking feast near my home at the site of the annual herring spawn.

Runners who get on your nerves: A very funny New Yorker cartoon lampoons jogging stereotypes. I’m the second one. The cartoonist, Teresa Burns Parkhurst, also wryly pokes fun at people (like me) who wait too long to clean their car.

How to sound like Debussy: Toronto classical composer/performer Nahre Sol analyzes and then brilliantly spoofs the ‘sound’ of classical composers including Debussy and Rachmaninoff.

Making pop music interesting: Composer Adam Neely ‘rearranges’ the pop hit Hello using more complex chord progressions and instrumentation.


Reamed up the third eye: The always-inspiring Caitlin Johnstone advises us to remember “that moment of clarity” (what radical non-duality would call a “glimpse”), and realize “It was the most real moment of your entire life.” Thanks to Paul Heft for the link.

Jack Kerouac’s non-duality letter to his ex-wife (thanks to Jeff at Night Sky Sangha for the link):

I have lots of things to teach you now,
in case we ever meet,
concerning the message that was transmitted to me
under a pine tree in North Carolina
on a cold winter moonlit night.

It said that Nothing Ever Happened, so don’t worry.
It’s all like a dream.
Everything is ecstasy, inside.
We just don’t know it because of our thinking-minds.
But in our true blissful essence of mind is known
that everything is alright forever and forever and forever.
Close your eyes,
let your hands and nerve-ends drop,
stop breathing for 3 seconds,
listen to the silence inside the illusion of the world,
and you will remember the lesson you forgot,
which was taught in immense milky ways
of cloudy innumerable worlds
long ago and not even at all.
It is all one vast awakened thing.
I call it the golden eternity.
It is perfect.
We were never really born,
we will never really die.
It has nothing to do with the imaginary idea
of a personal self,
other selves,
many selves everywhere,
or one universal self.
Self is only an idea, a mortal idea.
That which passes through everything, is one thing.
It’s a dream already ended.
There’s nothing from staring at mountains months on end.
They never show any expression,
they are like empty space.
Do you think the emptiness of space will ever crumble away.
Mountains will crumble, but the emptiness of space,
which is the one universal essence of mind,
the one vast awakenerhood,
empty and awake,
will never crumble away because it was never born.

The world you see is just a movie in your mind.


(Caution — the description below may be triggering to some readers.)
Chris Chinn Facebook post about the photo above: 
On the 2nd of July 1942, in reprisal for the assassination of Reinhard Heydrich the children of Lidice were taken to the Gestapo in Łódź. 13 were selected for “Germification”, the remaining 82 were then taken away and gassed. The artist Marie Uchytilová spent 20 years making this bronze sculpture based on details of the missing children supplied by surviving mothers. Her husband completed it after her death. Don’t look away. This is where fascism leads. This is how all extremism works. It never stops with just someone else. Whatever your complaints about democracy today, it is not this. Whichever voice screams or whispers to you that democracy is flawed, corrupt, weak, ineffective, a danger to your way of life. Remember this. Remember what democracy does give you, and realise what you actually have to lose.

From Nate Hagens & Rob Mielcarski:

The developed world is using finance to enable the extraction of things we couldn’t otherwise afford to extract to produce things we otherwise couldn’t afford to consume…

All 8 billion of us owe our existence to a six-inch layer of topsoil and the fact it rains; 6 billion of us also owe our existence to nitrogen fertilizer created from natural gas by Haber-Bosch factories. [3/4 of the planet’s food production depends on fertilizer, herbicides and pesticides produced by this carbon-intensive process to replace depleted soils; 1/2 of all the nitrogen in human bodies was produced using this process: wikipedia]

From 45 — yes, verbatim, he actually said this:

Look, having nuclear — my uncle was a great professor and scientist and engineer, Dr. John Trump at MIT; good genes, very good genes, OK, very smart, the Wharton School of Finance, very good, very smart — you know, if you’re a conservative Republican, if I were a liberal, if, like, OK, if I ran as a liberal Democrat, they would say I’m one of the smartest people anywhere in the world — it’s true! — but when you’re a conservative Republican they try — oh, do they do a number — that’s why I always start off: Went to Wharton, was a good student, went there, went there, did this, built a fortune — you know I have to give my like credentials all the time, because we’re a little disadvantaged — but you look at the nuclear deal, the thing that really bothers me — it would have been so easy, and it’s not as important as these lives are — nuclear is so powerful; my uncle explained that to me many, many years ago, the power and that was 35 years ago; he would explain the power of what’s going to happen and he was right, who would have thought? — but when you look at what’s going on with the four prisoners — now it used to be three, now it’s four — but when it was three and even now, I would have said it’s all in the messenger; fellas, and it is fellas because, you know, they don’t, they haven’t figured that the women are smarter right now than the men, so, you know, it’s gonna take them about another 150 years — but the Persians are great negotiators, the Iranians are great negotiators, so, and they, they just killed, they just killed us, this is horrible.

From Ali Smith, the introduction to her new book Spring (caution — contains words that some may find triggering; to read full size click on the image):

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Understanding Collapse: A Physical Systems View

image from the good folks at Pixabay CC0 (thanks Guillaume Preat)

While my belief in the inevitability of civilization’s collapse in this century is rooted in my study of complexity science and a commensurate appreciation of how change happens in complex systems, this is almost impossible to convey convincingly to those who haven’t studied and thought about complexity.

I don’t expect readers (or friends or loved ones) to have the interest and time to study complexity, so I often end up rather sheepishly just saying: If you take the time to study complexity science, you will understand how change happens and why it won’t happen in time to prevent civilization’s collapse. Not very compelling. Perhaps even annoying.

Thanks to a recent exchange with collapse podcaster Sam Mitchell, I’ve learned about a novel approach to explaining the inevitability of collapse using the metaphor of “super-organism” postulated by atmospheric physicist Tim Garrett and economist and Oil Drum/Post Carbon Institute editor Nate Hagens.

While Tim and Nate use the super-organism metaphor to represent global human civilization, my sense is that it would be even more apt to expand it to describe the entire organism of the living earth, what James Lovelock and Lynn Margulis affectionately if romantically call Gaia. I believe we are, in fact, inseparable from all-life-on-earth and our belief that we are separate is an illusion, a trick of our too-smart-for-our-own-good brains.

So with that expansion, let me describe this metaphor and how it might, drawing on Tim’s and Nate’s arguments, explain why the predicament of runaway climate change and the sixth great extinction is so intractable. (Please note that this is my elaboration of Tim’s and Nate’s metaphor, not how they have described it.):

  1. Over several billion years, just five physical elements have co-evolved to create what we call Gaia; together they are the ‘whole system’ that has produced everything that has ever happened on this planet:
    • the earth itself, five billion years old, with its soils and raw materials, volcanic eruptions and shifting tectonics
    • the earth’s environments (atmosphere, hydrosphere etc)
    • the ever-changing myriad of living creatures (all-life-on-earth)
    • the solar radiation that reaches and warms the earth and provides most of its energy
    • the occasional extra-system visitors (meteorites and other bodies that have impacted the earth, altered the planet’s spin etc)
  2. Gaia is of course a massively complex system, but when we view it as a single super “organism” we can also see it as amazingly simple — analogous to a single creature on a rock in a Petri dish under a heat lamp.
  3. From this perspective we can see that Gaia is really inseparable. As Stephen Jay Gould (in Full House) and Richard Lewontin (in The Triple Helix) have explained, the complexity of the interdependence between all the living creatures in the organism, the earth on which they live and the atmosphere in which they live is such that any analysis that attributes separate qualities to ‘parts’ of Gaia will be hopelessly flawed and possibly dangerously simplistic. Gaia is, and acts as, One living creature.
  4. It pretty much evolves by itself. In this part of the universe (unless you believe in UFOs), it’s the only game in town. It’s recently evolved into a much more complex form thanks to its ‘learned’ ability to stabilize its atmosphere, which has really worked well over the past 10-20 millennia, and thanks to the absence of any large external bodies hitting it, the absence of major eruptions within its crust affecting its atmosphere, and the absence of major anomalies in solar radiation. It’s gone through countless expansions and contractions of complexity, but the recent stability has greatly reduced the number and severity of collapses (extinctions) of its life-mass, greatly increasing its diversity and complexity.
  5. But at some point about 10-20 millennia ago, it became dysfunctional. Somehow* a part of it became ‘disconnected’ from the rest of Gaia and began to behave in ways insensitive to and damaging to the whole organism. As every part of the organism is utterly interdependent, this ‘disconnected’ part quickly became dis-eased and unhealthy, and in its desperate attempt to survive ‘independently’ it has dug into the core of the earth and exhausted the mineral resources the entire organism depends on, and spewed the wastes from this frantic activity into the atmosphere. So now the earth is depleted, the atmosphere is poisoned, and the entire organism is in a state of exhaustion and collapse that it inadvertently brought upon itself. And there is nothing left to mine and nowhere else to put the waste poisons the now-cancer-ridden organism continues to emit.
  6. Absurdly, the dysfunctional part of the organism acts as if it believes it can ‘save’ itself and the entire organism, either by continuing to accelerate its dysfunctional behaviour slightly differently, or by somehow ‘reforming’ itself and the entire organism, or by escaping Gaia entirely. Such is the delusion of disconnection. Clearly, this cannot end well. Still, it is in the nature of the organism to continue to try to heal itself and restore equilibrium; it cannot do otherwise. It limps along, immiserated by its now-massive, bloated and useless cancerous part. Somehow it knows its self-healing is not working very effectively this time, and that this collapse, this extinction, will be much more severe than any that it can ‘remember’.

Yes, I know this metaphor is a bit strained, but I think it’s useful, and better than telling readers that if they study complex systems they’ll understand the inevitability of near-term (this century) civilizational and ecological collapse. I also like that it doesn’t place humans apart or in apposition to the rest of life on earth, the rest of the Gaia organism. No one is to blame. We are all One. We are all doing our best, what we’ve been conditioned to do for a billion years, the only thing we can do.

It may seem strange to take individual people, culture, economics, politics, technology and other factors out of the equation about what the future might hold in store, but Tim makes a compelling case that “Our personal feelings aside, we are just sacks of matter that enable electrical and fluid flows down potential gradients. It sure has been hard for neuroscientists to find any evidence for free will; so perhaps people are really no different than any other physical system.”

Tim says that our current situation is a “double-bind“: One of two things will happen (again this is my elaboration of Tim’s conclusion, not his description):

  1. Human civilization collapses soon, economically/financially, politically, socially: Resource consumption and emissions drastically fall, human population plunges, the climate convulses but does not reach the runaway collapse stage, and the sixth great extinction slows and ends. Over millennia, the equilibrium of Gaia is restored.
  2. Human civilization continues to grow at or near a “business as usual” trajectory: CO2e concentrations reach 1000 ppm, and average surface temperatures rise 6-12ºC or more, which cannot support human or much other life, so human civilization collapses anyway; runaway climate change accelerates the sixth great extinction and eliminates all but the simplest life forms, and the equilibrium of Gaia either takes many more millennia to stabilize and slowly recover, or the climate is ‘permanently’ changed to a Venus-like lifeless state.

The end-game, as far as humans and our civilization is concerned, is pretty much the same. And we humans, just a part of ailing Gaia, can do nothing to choose between these equally-awful alternatives. We can’t even plan or prepare for this, because we cannot possibly predict precisely how and when this will all play out; we can only know how it will end.

What if there’s nothing we can do? That’s the question I’m starting to think about now. Like a passenger in a vehicle skidding off the edge of a huge cliff, what do you do when nothing you can do will make any difference?

My thoughts on that, coming soon.


* Ajit Varki has called this dysfunctional disconnection the Mind Over Reality Transition, that seemingly occurred uniquely in the human species as our brains evolved the dual capacity to reinterpret and deny ‘unpleasant’ realities, and to ‘realize’ (conceive of as ‘real’) the idea of separate personhood and personal death , which he calls “intrinsically maladaptive traits”, as they condition us to ignore what’s true and to put the ‘self’ ahead of the collective interest.

It’s anyone’s guess, of course, but I’d be inclined to say this dysfunction arose because early humans, pummelled by the ice ages, cosmic radiation, and other climate disasters, had to abandon their long-time comfortable tropical homelands and venture into new ecological zones fraught with new dangers and the constant stress of scarcity. Those early humans that found this reality too much to bear might have decided not to procreate, while those that had these “intrinsically maladaptive traits”, less connected to the natural world and what was perhaps ‘good for them’ might have persevered and procreated, producing a hardened, desensitized, disconnected species that used denial as a coping mechanism and ‘laughed in the face of death’. Perhaps this evolution, while dysfunctional in the longer term, was, in the short-term, adaptive rather than maladaptive?

Posted in How the World Really Works, Preparing for Civilization's End | 6 Comments

The World’s Most Blessed Agnostic

I’ve said before that I believe we’re all suffering, and all healing, from what I’ve called Civilization Disease — the combination of mental and physical illnesses that results from the relentless stress of horrifically overpopulated industrial society and the global nutritional poverty of the now-ubiquitous industrial food system.

I thought it might be interesting to look at Civilization Disease from a non-dual perspective. Radical non-duality says that there is no real you (that the separate ‘you’ is an illusion), and that since there is no space and time, just an eternal and infinite field of possibilities, nothing is actually real (or unreal) — everything is just an ‘appearance’, without reason or purpose.

As I’ve argued before, as crazy as that sounds, it is entirely consistent with new discoveries and theories in astrophysics, cosmology, quantum science, philosophy and cognitive science. So, while there are thoughts and feelings, they aren’t anyone’s thoughts and feelings; they just arise, as appearances, for no reason. It is the illusory self that claims that thoughts and feelings are its thoughts and feelings, and that they are real and pervasive and meaningful, and cause for action.

As a passionate fan of Gaia theory and evolution, it’s hard to square this with the sense that Gaia (ie all life on earth and its ecologies, as a single staggeringly-complex ‘organic’ system) seems to be co-evolving life on earth in a logical, consistent and ‘biophilial’ way. But Stephen Jay Gould (in Full House and elsewhere) has argued that while there is pattern in all of this, there is no intention, no direction, no ‘intelligence’ to evolution. It is just (apparently, if you’re a non-dualist) a playing out of a possibility, a game full of randomness, without purpose or ‘progress’.

But if we try to at least understand the apparent ’rules’ of the game of evolution, it seems that at some point brains evolved, and have been creating havoc ever since. Stewart and Cohen in Figments of Reality argue the evolution of brains happened because the creatures* that make up organisms experimented with a centralized ‘feature-detection system’ as a means of protection for the body’s component creatures, and, as this seemed to be an evolutionarily successful development brains are now standard equipment in most (but not all) animal species.

The brain may have evolved to detect ‘features’ (mostly food and predators), but its complexity allowed the development of intricate ‘predictive’ models (‘figments’) of reality, including, at least in humans, the recursive invention of the ‘conscious self’ as the centre of the model.

There is increasing evidence that this invention was an evolutionary misstep, since, according to radical non-duality and recent neuroscience, the ‘self’ is completely unnecessary to the success and survival of the brain-equipped character*. We would be better off without a self, since it is “a useless appendage” that comes with a ton of undesirable side-effects; most notably it ‘suffers’ from the illusion that it has free will, choice, agency, responsibility, and control of the apparent character that it presumes to inhabit.

This suffering is to no avail, since it changes nothing — the character that the suffering self struggles fruitlessly to try to control and understand is completely indifferent and oblivious to the existence of the illusory self.

One of the largest causes of the self’s suffering is its (mis-)identification with and claim of ownership of, emotions (feelings). You’ll have a hard time explaining this to health professionals, however, since the worldview of radical non-duality and that of psychology are so utterly different. But let’s see if it’s possible to reconcile these worldviews.

One of the best-known taxonomies of feelings is that of Karla McLaren. She identifies 17 key emotions in three main clusters, which I’ve depicted (as I understand them) in the chart above. Karla believes there are no ‘positive’ or ‘negative’ emotions — that they are all messages from the body to advise ‘us’ of appropriate actions to take for our well-being. She doesn’t list depression as an emotion, describing it instead as a ‘shutting-down’ coping mechanism that arises when facing a situation that is just too much to handle.

Like most psychologists she’s a believer in CBT and MM, the fanciful and hopeful idea that we can master our feelings and change ourselves by how we think about them and react to them. Tragically, people are so desperate to believe that there must be a way to deal with depression, anger, addiction, sadness and fear, that they’re prepared to ignore the overwhelming evidence that CBT and MM don’t actually work.

Non-duality would explain this quite simply: these therapies can’t work because there is no ‘you’ to undergo them, and because the illusory self has no free will or choice, no control or agency over the character* it presumes to inhabit or indeed over its (the self’s) own (claimed) feelings or thoughts.

Although it’s perilous to try to explain the evolutionary ‘purpose’ of claimed emotions (non-duality, after all, asserts there is no purpose for anything), it’s irresistible to the pattern- and sense-making self to at least try, so let’s have a go at it.

Let’s start with the three principal reactions of most apparent living creatures in response to existential threat: fight, flight and freeze. These map rather obviously to Karla’s three major categories of emotion — anger/hatred, fear/anxiety and sorrow/grief (perhaps including depression when the sorrow is deep, chronic and relentless). The chemicals that drive these responses to threats are evidently the same as those that register the corresponding emotions.

Assuming you accept that non-human creatures feel emotions, let’s take a look at Karla’s emotion taxonomy from the perspective of a squirrel. If the squirrel’s young are threatened, the squirrel will react with rage and risk all to protect them. If the squirrel sees a cat, it will react with fear, and most likely ‘choose’ to flee. If it is surrounded by cats, so that flight is not an option, it will likely freeze, play dead, and then, when the danger has passed, furiously ‘shake off’ the dreadful frozen feeling and get on with its life.

I would argue that envy/jealousy is also a characteristic emotion of squirrels just as it is in humans, and that this feeling is related in part to fear (fear of not having enough if another squirrel hoards more than its share) and in part to anger. I would also argue that squirrels fall in love, in the sense that their behaviour in certain circumstances is totally driven by a rush of chemicals that lead it to mate and bond with another. And I would also argue that squirrels, in the absence of any of these ‘negative’ (sorry Karla) emotions, feel something akin to happiness, pleasure, contentment and joy, or at least equanimity.

I’m not so sure the other two groupings of emotions — boredom/apathy and guilt/shame/loneliness — are felt by squirrels. These are particularly complex emotions, and what is interesting to me is that they are the only emotions on Karla’s list that I am not personally familiar or experienced with. In fact, I don’t understand them at all. I am astonished when someone says they’re so bored they want to gouge their eyes out. I have had some fleeting experiences of guilt and shame (though since I no longer believe in free will I am quick to ‘forgive’ myself for whatever has caused these feelings, so they rarely last). And I can’t relate to feelings of loneliness at all.

This is a bit distressing because I know and care about people who suffer terribly from loneliness (and sometimes boredom as well), and I have no basis of experience to fathom it and hence empathize with it. I have simply never been bored, or lonely, even in the darkest depths of depression, or when afflicted with the ‘winter blues’, or feeling bereft from the loss of a loved one. Perhaps I’m more like a squirrel than a typical human.

Let’s suppose that our emotional squirrel is not afflicted with a self like we poor humans. How does it ‘feel’ these emotions? My sense, from personal observation and from discussion with non-dualists who appear not to have a ‘self’, is that without a self to take ownership of these emotions and dwell upon them, feelings simply arise as a manifestation of the body’s chemistry, and act upon the conditioned creature to provoke an appropriate fight/flight/freeze response, and then they quickly dissipate. The squirrel does not ‘stay’ angry, sad or fearful, because it has no self (or need of a self) to continue to feel and think about the event that gave rise to these feelings. That is not to say that there isn’t great anguish in the moment — it may well be that without an intervening self, these intense feelings are felt even more strongly than they are in humans, and that likewise the physical manifestations (pain and distress) are felt more acutely by them than by humans.

But in creatures not afflicted with selves, there is (to use Eckhart Tolle’s terms) no reinforcing cycle of egoic-mind thoughts and pain-body emotional reactions to preoccupy and distress them once the immediate source of the distress has passed.

(A side-note: I confess I’m uncertain about what happens in non-human creatures that face chronic stress — those in factory farms, zoos, laboratories, abusive homes, and areas under relentless human or other encroachment and threats. Such situations are anomalous and symptomatic of collapse situations, and not sustainable. That’s a subject for another article, so chime in and stay tuned if this is a subject that interests you.)

So in the absence of chronic stress, it seems to me that while pain is real and inevitable (and sometimes intense) for all creatures, suffering is not. Suffering requires a self.

I think that may be why squirrels probably don’t feel lonely, ashamed, guilty, apathetic or bored. These emotions require a judgement that the situation is unfair and that someone or something (possibly the creature itself) is to blame. I doubt that such thoughts and feelings preoccupy squirrels the way they (uselessly) do human selves. I share the view of radical non-duality that no one is to blame, not even one’s self, so perhaps that’s why I am seemingly not prone to these emotions either.

Loneliness may be even more complex to understand. Gabor Maté has a hypothesis that most chronic mental and physical illnesses arise as a maladaptation to the failure of the young child to get two essential needs fulfilled: attachment (to its mother and then to others and to its community; a sense of comfortable and supported belonging), and authenticity (the capacity and freedom to be one’s true evolving self, rather than living a lie based on others’ demands and expectations). Some of the emotions on the chart might not arise in those who’ve grown up with a strong sense of attachment and the freedom to be authentic. Loneliness in particular seems to entail a feeling of social alienation that may stem from the kind of early-life physical and psychological abandonment that is endemic in our fractured and disconnected industrial civilization culture. Similarly, boredom, the desperate feeling of emptiness and the need to fill one’s life with distracting activity, might stem from the acedia that is bred in the absence of a sense of attachment to the world and a sense of oneself as worthy and authentic.

I don’t think I would ascribe all emotional suffering to lack of attachment and authenticity though. Much of it, I think, is a reaction to the ghastly and relentless stresses of our massively overpopulated, crowded, disconnected and dangerous civilized world — ie Civilization Disease. We all have it, but those who also have suffered the absence of early-childhood attachment or authenticity probably have it worse. Or, to be more precise, their selves have it worse.

There is no help for Civilization Disease. The illusory self is the embodied, incessant reaction to this chronic disease, and it can’t overcome itself, or think or wish itself away. That’s the CBT/MM myth.

But I have not given up (no self can) wondering if by simply being more aware of the self’s tragic plight, and where we seem to be moment-to-moment on the feeling path between the self’s dark emotional circles and the joyful equanimous space shown in white on the chart above, our selves might lessen the intensity and duration of their reactivity and hence the extent of their suffering.

It seems ludicrous to think that an illusion can do that (or can do anything), but as I slowly become a little more self-aware, and learn more about the ideas of radical non-duality, it seems to me that suffering is gradually losing its hold on me. I am still angered and saddened by the same things, but not as intensely or enduringly. I am still driven by fear, and have no control over that, but the realization that it is usually ungrounded or disproportional does seem to lesson its charge a bit. And I’m guessing that my continuing struggle to deal with anxiety has a lot to do with getting less and less practice at it, as my life becomes less and less stressful, so that when something stressful does happen it hits me harder than it once would. But I’m not sure. This may be just wishful thinking on my inconsolable self’s part. I probably need to explore this further too.

So when I say I’m the world’s most blessed agnostic, I’m being ironic, but not entirely. I did grow up, it seems, with a healthy sense of attachment and the freedom to be authentically myself, and although that early-childhood health was severely tested by the subsequent shock of encountering and dealing with our brutal educational system and work world, and by the astonishing insensitivity and savagery of those most severely afflicted by Civilization Disease, as well as by decades of recurring deep depression, I seem to have survived these tests, and now live an astonishingly healthy and blessed life. And my life is relatively free of the stresses — financial, social, and cultural — that bedevil the vast majority of humans, so in that sense I am truly blessed.

Life should not be so hard, and it actually isn’t. “The dark and gathering sameness of the world” that Civilization and its Disease have wrought may seem awful, but it is only so to the selves that cannot help but judge it. To the characters we presume to inhabit, it is all unreal, a wondrous appearance of everything out of nothing, outside of space and time, a magic show. But although we may know it’s all sleight of mind, our selves can still, somehow, feel the bite of the magician’s ghastly saw, as it separates us from everything.


* This is mind-boggling stuff to absorb, so I am continuing to use the term ‘character’ to describe the (actually plural) complicity (the term Stewart and Cohen use) of (apparently) living creatures that their shared brain serves. As Richard Lewontin has explained (in The Triple Helix and elsewhere), evolutionary biologists now understand that there is no real border that separates one apparent creature from another, or indeed one creature from its apparent environment. Gaia really is just one, and trying to analyze it by separating it into discrete parts is dangerous and ultimately futile. Radical non-dualists would, I think, appreciate why this is true. So though I would prefer to describe the apparent creatures that arise, wondrously and for no reason out of the ‘one nothing’, as complicities, to convey their plurality, I will continue to use the terms characters, or creatures, depending on context, to describe the apparent bags of water-filled organs we call people, as it’s more familiar and easier to fathom.

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Dave’s Favourite Songs of the 2010s

seal photo from a recent video by my friend Bob Turner

In my last post I described the qualities of a great song, and specifically what certain songs evoke in me. This list is my favourite songs of the thousands I listened to for the first time in this (now nearly-finished) decade. I’ve been making these lists since the 60s.

It’s an eclectic and diverse list; I suspect few readers will have heard more than a handful of these. For each song I list the length, the genre, the year (if it was actually released before 2010 and only recently discovered by me), and a brief descriptive blurb. Clicking on the number of a song will take you to a YouTube or SoundCloud recording of the song (just hit your ‘back’ arrow to return you to the list after you’ve sampled).

Genres (as close as it’s possible to categorize some of these songs): D: Dance, F: Folk, N: New Age, S: Singer-Songwriter (mostly, again this decade, by women), W: World. For the second decade in a row, half the songs on my favourites list were written by women.

 Song, Length, Genre, CommentsArtists
1Totally Illégal (Harmonik song remix)
Canadian/Haitian duo Freakeyz riffs off the 'kompa' (instrumental groove) of Haitian supergroup Harmonik's song Illégal; then DJ Mayass remixes that. I looped it to make it longer.
Freakeyz/DJ Mayass
2The Seal Lullaby
The composer famous for his 'virtual choirs' dusts off a song that he wrote for a Disney movie that was never made; words by Rudyard Kipling.
Eric Whitacre Singers
3Restless Fool
4:26/F 1988
The masterpiece of the Scottish folk superstar, written in open D tuning.
Dougie MacLean
4Yaw Rek Leu (feat. Corine)
4:43/W 2009
Cabo Verde's Philip and Sénégal's Corine combine on a love song sung in Wolof, with the very recognizable zouk/kompa/kizomba rhythm.
Philip Monteiro
5Long Way
6:08/S 2002
The ultimate find-yourself-by-travelling song, with an homage to Jack Kerouac.
Antje Duvekot
5:00/S 1996
First of 3 songs by Patty on this list, and this is probably the rawest.
Patty Griffin
7Love's a Game
A tour-de-force of guitar and compositional virtuosity, with its heart on its sleeve.
The Magic Numbers
The live version of this song with lots of improvisation; possibly the spark that started a lot of DIY kompa musicians, including quite a few on this list.
9So It Goes
5:01/S 2006
Perhaps the most intense, gut-wrenching anti-war song ever written.
Chris Pureka
10Mad World
3:08/S 2003
The stripped-down remake that out-charted the '80s Tears for Fears original.
Gary Jules
11Joue Tululute (Milca) Remix
Floridian/Haitian duo riffs off the kompa groove from French/Haitian Milca's hit song.
Gello Keyzz & Sonson
12Totally Incroyable (Dave Bo Kote mix)
My own concatenation of the kompa grooves from two big hits by Haitian supergroup Harmonik.
13Désenchantée (Live / Lyon / 2013)
The #1 hit of the French superstar who plays to sellout crowds throughout the country.
Mylène Farmer
3:24/S 1993
First of 2 songs by Cheryl on this list; gentle and ironic. When she performs now it's mostly fun stuff.
Cheryl Wheeler
15Where I Find You
My fave song of the Aussie neo-folk star.
Dustin Tebbutt
16The Kind of Love You Never Recover From
4:37/S 1990
Best know for her satires like Sensitive New-Age Guys, Christine absolutely soars on this raw and revealing lament.
Christine Lavin
17Broken Things
4:05/S 2001
If you're sensing a trend here of World Weary Women Song-Writers (WWWSS), you got me. Here's another soul-wrenching masterpiece.
Lucy Kaplansky
18Longtime (feat. Javon J)
Another Floridian/Haitian kompa artist; this original song adds a reggae counterpoint to the rhythm.
19Young Black Pearl
4:16/W 2001
First of 3 early 2000's 'ghetto zouk' songs on this list from French/AfroAmerican/Vietnamese Shydeeh; this is what rap could be with complexity, composition and crafting.
3:05/F 1997
The wildly underrated Winnipeg trio's finest song IMO,
Wyrd Sisters
21Sylvia Hotel
3:21/S 1997
The quirky hotel in question is in West End Vancouver, and it's just as Cheryl describes.
Cheryl Wheeler
22First Crush
The Australian EDM duo channel the Beach Boys at their most harmonic and nostalgic.
Empire of the Sun
4:35/W 2001
Profane and outrageous, this song is an angry feminist rant, with brilliant and complex composition.
Fun and inventive instrumentation make this innocuous dance number into something irresistible.
25Mwen Bouke (BODO Remix)
BODO is Yves Clément Michel ex- of Haitian groups Zenglen and Disip, riffing off yet another Harmonik groove.
26Soon Be to Nothing
4:14/S 1999
The veteran Atlanta folk rock duo write a song that could be about non-duality, with an enchanting rhythm.
Indigo Girls
27Om Namo Bhagavate
7:12/N 2002
The classically-trained German mantra artist spins stunning melodic lines and harmonies that you never get tired of.
Deva Premal
28Good Morning
The long-time UK champion junior Steel Band plays the brilliant Trinidad master Duvone Stewart's arrangement of Barbadian Peter Ram's hit.
Ebony Steelband
29Swear Like a Sailor
Toronto tropical house master's breakout hit.
Tep No
30Angels (Kygo Remix)
The Norwegian superstar DJ brilliantly remixes the English band's hit with his signature instrumentations.
Kygo & The XX
31Moola Mantra - Part I II III
38:42/N 2007
Another classic from Deva, with layers and variations that go on for over half an hour; I first heard this in Second Life.
Deva Premal
32Kite Song
3:09/S 2004
It is, of course, not really about kites at all.
Patty Griffin
33Key to My Soul
2:34/F 1997
My favourite from Seattle Jim; the protest song king shows his heart. Catch him at fairs throughout the Pacific NW.
Jim Page
34Gouyad Addict
Gouyad is the provocative dance that accompanies kompa music; original work by the Haitian-American trio.
AlexCkj Ralph_MMG CamKeyz
35You're Free Now (feat. Sarah Jarosz)
This clever and brooding guitar virtuoso seems to flourish in collaborations with smart women singers.
Anthony da Costa
36The Deal Yo
4:53/W 2001
More complex rhythm, vocalization and instrumentation in this 'ghetto zouk' hit.
37My Best Friend (Cap-Verde)
The 'princess of Zouk' hails from Guyane Fr but sings in many languages and has an international following.
Tina Ly
38The Mhairi Bhan
6:37/F 1988
Another classic from the Scottish folk master, about a fishing boat of course.
Dougie MacLean
39Riding Shotgun (feat. Bonnie McKee)
Another smart collaboration by the Norwegian tropical house whiz, this time with the Swedish DJ Oliver Nelson.
Kygo & Oliver Nelson
40Ighvidzebs Chemi Tbilisi (Tbilisi Awakens)
A lovely folk song from the Georgian Republic sparkles thanks to Salome's jaw-droppingly powerful and nuanced voice.
Salome Tetiashvili
41Kickin' This Stone
4:23/F 2004
Wisconsin's Johnsmith tells a complex story tinged with double-meanings and clever, gentle social commentary.
42Time and Space
8:45/N 2007
A clever piece of electronica is sparked by the astonishing sultry voice of Lou Rhodes.
Cinematic Orchestra ft Lou Rhodes
4:03/S 2002
You'll never think of rain the same way after listening to this; watch the inspired animated video too.
Patty Griffin
44She's Saving Me
5:03/S 2002
Another love song from the Atlanta duo with an enchanting rhythm.
Indigo Girls
45Alberta is Her Name
The Small Glories' Cara Luft co-wrote this song with James Keelaghan. She and SG partner JD Edwards now live in Winnipeg. Gorgeous lyrics.
The Small Glories
46Small Of My Heart
This award-winning female duo from Cape Breton blend several genres to make savvy and penetrating songs.
Madison Violet
47Stress Release
Floridian Leo from the Haitian Kompa group Klimax does both remixes and laid back original songs like this one.
This Guadeloupe Zouk artist is one of the founders of Femmes Fatales, dedicated to supporting Caribbean women musicians.
49Alive and Well (feat. Bishop Anstey High School Choir)
A simple soca song by Trinidadian superstar Voice comes alive with a local school choir's inspired backing.
50Ou Diferan (feat. Maxiimus)
51Red & White & Blue & Gold (Live)
Aoife O'Donovan
52Go, Love
Mark Knopfler
53True Love (Harmonik remix)
DJ Willmixx, Bensky
54The Moon & St Christopher
Kate Rusby & Kathryn Roberts
55The Ransom
Madison Violet
56Domine'm (ft Jeff Konple)
Don Love
57Didn't We
Jim Page
58The Hurting Time
Annie Lennox
59Even If
60Toluca Lake
Tep No

Happy exploring!

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Why Music Is Like Sex

Ebony Steel Band Juniors — UK National Competition Champions 2017

In the process of putting together my list of “favourite 30-40 songs of the decade”, I’ve been listening to my favourite songs from other decades (I’ve been making these lists since the 60s). My objective is to try to make sure that my ‘scoring’ from decade to decade is reasonably consistent, so when I create playlists they’re of songs I like equally.

My list for 2010-19 currently has 78 songs on it, and I admit that trying to winnow the list down is a nice problem to have.

I have to say that these decennial lists are my favourite songs that I first heard in that decade, even if the song was actually released long before the decade began. That’s been the big challenge this decade — the explosion of music that has recently become available on YouTube, SoundCloud, Apple Music and Spotify (particularly with their increasingly-sophisticated ‘recommendation engines’) absolutely dwarfs what has been available in previous decades, and some of it, especially the ‘international’ (non-anglophone country) stuff, is decades-old, but was never available here in Canada until recently.

So I expected the 2010s list to be longer than usual, but as I’ve also found I have to listen to proportionally more music each year to find stuff I really like, I wanted to make sure I wasn’t scoring the songs inconsistently from those of previous decades.

That got me thinking about what it is that makes a song exceptional enough to make a favourites list. I put in some time researching what’s been written on the subject, and while of course musical tastes are highly subjective, I was dismayed at the dearth, and shallowness, of the research that’s been done on this subject. Apparently, pop music is preferred by “extroverts”, country music by “conservatives”, and rock by those “open to new experiences”. Really? This is the best that science can come up with?

On the basis of absolutely no scientific or empirical research, I would speculate as follows:

  1. What TS Eliot said about poetry is equally applicable to music: It must give us both pleasure and some fresh understanding; ie it must connect with us both emotionally and intellectually. Of course, what brings pleasure and understanding depends on the individual; where they’re coming from. TS was careful not to say that this applies only to ‘great’ poetry. If it doesn’t provide these two things, it’s just not poetry, just not music.
  2. While the emotional aspect of good creative writing often depends on the skilful use of imagery, this doesn’t necessarily apply to music. Even when a song has intelligible lyrics, it’s not a requirement of a great song that its lyrics, or title, or any other aspect of its composition evoke a particular image or story.
  3. Like poetry, with its cadences and varied repetitions, music can delight us with its ‘track’, its predictability and familiarity, but not too much — variability and some surprise are also important. In that way music is a bit like sex. We learn a song’s ins and outs and may even learn to play it, and as such we gain appreciation as we learn what makes it ‘work’ for us and why, which is different for each individual. But too much repetition and predictability can be deadly, though again, each person’s tolerance for variety is different.
  4. Also like sex and falling in love, enjoyment of music entails the release of chemicals in the body, mostly of pleasure, but also of tension, and of relaxation. I’m not surprised that many people who suffer from depression report that they find sad songs calming and that they help pull them out of their depressed state. The same internally-produced chemicals: oxytocin, dopamine and phenethylamine, are involved in both activities. And you can no more make yourself love a song than you can make yourself fall in love with someone.
  5. While research has suggested that listening to music “makes you smarter” (at tasks done immediately thereafter), I would suggest that listening to music focuses your attention, and it’s that focus that makes you more adept at subsequent tasks. Music can also, of course, be a distraction, focusing your attention on the qualities of the song instead of that tree you’re about to walk into.
  6. Music will often evoke memory and hence association, and that will inevitably colour your like or dislike of a particular song.
  7. What is considered “pleasant” sounding music depends far more on culture, learning and memory than on anything ‘magic’ about frequency ratios or anything intrinsic to the notes or their qualities themselves.

That’s as much as I’m prepared to speculate on this subject. I’m interested, of course, in why I passionately love some songs and absolutely loathe others. So today I listened to parts of 100 songs I really like, selected from many different genres, and as I did, I looked online for scores for each song that might suggest what they had in common.

Here’s what I discovered:

  • I like highly complex music that still has a discernible underlying pattern and is ultimately somewhat predictable. Even the superficially simple songs on my list have unusual chord sequences, challenging melodic and harmonic runs, novel and changing rhythms, and a lot of variation in notes, rhythm, harmonies and instrumentation.
  • I was surprised to discover how many of my favourite songs had complex orchestration behind them — far more than I would have guessed.
  • At the risk of overusing the metaphor to sex, I like to be teased, played with, kept guessing and kept on the edge for awhile. So for example I like chord sequences that involve many complex and varied steps but which ultimately reach a reliable resolution. Barber’s Adagio for Strings is an obvious example.
  • I like chords that have a certain amount of tension in them; in particular major sevenths, minor ninths, sixth+9 chords, suspended chords, augmented chords, added elevenths and even more complex chords often created by passing notes. Neil Young‘s early work and much of James Taylor‘s have a lot of such chords, as does Todd Rundgren’s Hello It’s Me. So does much of Rachmaninoff‘s work. The published scores of some of the more popular songs on my list often show relatively mundane chord sequences, but when I listen to the music carefully, I realize the performers are actually playing more notes, and adding more complexity, than the simplified score indicates.
  • I like variation. In my favourite songs no instrumental sequence (melody or harmony) longer than one or two bars is ever exactly repeated. They add a turn, a trill, an accidental, a hammer/pull, something different each time. The rhythm track has extra or different instruments substituted, or extra beats, rather than being exactly repeated.
  • Lyrics, interestingly, are important to me but not essential. If they’re clever or moving they can add a lot to a song, and sometimes one astonishing turn of phrase can ‘make’ a whole song. But quite a few of my favourite songs are instrumentals, and quite a few others have either inane or unintelligible lyrics that I just tune out to focus on the music.
  • Certain songs always make me cry, but never make me feel sad. Gonzo’s (Paul Williams’) I’m Going to Go Back There Some Day is one. My newly-discovered favourite Eric Whitacre’s The Seal Lullaby (words by Rudyard Kipling) is another. The former has some very lovely and unusual chord sequences. The latter is reportedly hugely difficult for choirs to master despite its innocent and simple appearance. Both have brilliant lyrics, composers renowned for their compositional skill, and amazing “builds” that then back off to a gentle resolution. Both are in 3/4 time. Why do they make me cry, every time? I don’t know.
  • I love the Haitian ‘kompa‘ rhythm. When the instrumentation and percussion are complex and varied enough, it’s impossible for me to keep from moving. Basically it’s various drums being played on the first, fourth, fifth and seventh beats of a two-bar, 4/4 section, about 80 bpm. But not quite. Play this on a drum machine and it sounds wooden, dead. I’m not sure if kompa is slightly ahead of or behind these beats, or some combination, but there it is. The same rhythm is found in quite a few of my other favourite songs, notably Joni Mitchell’s Just Like This Train (it’s described as a “three-against-four hemiola” rhythm and it has this amazing chord sequence: G13, Am7/G, C/G, Gmaj13, G7sus, G13sus, Fmaj9, Fmaj7 ). The rhythm mimics the “clickety-clack” of a train. You hear this rhythm as well in Zairian Soukous music (though it’s much faster — more like 120 bpm). I’m also a sucker for certain dance rhythms. My head can’t figure it out, but my body gets it.

The 2010-19 list, with links, is coming up soon. Even more eclectic than last decade’s.

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What Would Net Zero Emissions by 2025 Look Like?

graph by Our World in Data

The latest IPCC report says that in order to prevent catastrophic climate change global net CO2 emissions will have to reach net zero by 2050, from their current levels of 33-38B tons rising by nearly 2%/year. The IPCC’s past reports have been almost laughably conservative and optimistic, which is just one of the reasons Extinction Rebellion have set a net-zero deadline of 2025, just 6 years from now.

It should be noted that total greenhouse gases will continue to rise for at least another 15-20 years after net zero CO2 is achieved, due to the ongoing run-on effects of other greenhouse gases, notably methane, that have been unleashed ‘naturally’ as a result of the damage we have already done to the atmosphere. And it is at best a long shot that even if we were to achieve net zero CO2 by 2025, it isn’t already too late to prevent climate collapse. Our knowledge of the science remains abysmal and every new report paints a bleaker picture. Expect a fierce anti-science, anti-reality backlash as more and more climate scientists concur that runaway, civilization-ending climate change is inevitable no matter what we do, or don’t do.

So what would be required to reduce the course of the hockey-stick trajectory shown in the chart above and achieve net zero CO2 in just 6 years, for a population that will at current rates be 7% (at least 1/2 billion people) greater than it is now?

I think the reason that, while parliaments and political parties and scientists will readily accept XR’s first demand of proclaiming a climate emergency “and communicating the urgency for change”, for most the second demand of achieving net zero greenhouse gas emissions and biodiversity loss to zero by 2025 is simply absurd. Western economies have merely shifted production to Asia; their accelerating consumption of CO2-produced goods continues unabated. Our global economy depends utterly on cheap hydrocarbon energy. It’s completely preposterous to think a short-term shift is even vaguely possible. Renewables won’t help us; as the chart below shows, new solar energy isn’t even keeping up with the annual increases in demand, let alone cutting into the still-accelerating need for hydrocarbon energy:

graph by Pedro Prieto, cited by Bill Rees

So let’s be preposterous. What would have to happen, at a minimum, to achieve this valiant goal? Based on what I’ve read and on my understanding of complex systems, here’s just a few of the things that I think would have to happen:

  1. An immediate, complete and permanent grounding of all air traffic. That means no executive jets, no flying for diplomatic or business meetings or emergency family reasons — or military adventures. Achieving meaningful carbon reductions is simply impossible as long as planes are flying.
  2. Immediate rationing of liquid/gas hydrocarbons for essential and community purposes only. To get all the hydrocarbon-fuelled cars and trucks off the road in six years no more travel in personal hydrocarbon-burning vehicles could be permitted. And we’d have to work hard to convert all public buses, trains and ships to non-CO2 producing vehicles in that time. If you look at supply/demand curves for gasoline, we’d be looking at carbon taxes in the area of 1000% to ‘incent’ such conversions. My guess is that most shipping and much ‘privatized’ public transit would not be able to stay in business with these constraints. So say goodbye to most imported goods.
  3. All hydrocarbons in the ground would have to stay there, all over the world, effective immediately. We’d have to make do with existing reserves for a few years until everything had been converted to renewable resources.
  4. Industrial manufacturing based on fossil fuel use would have to convert in equal steps over the six year timeframe, and any plants failing to do so would have to be shuttered.
  5. Construction of new buildings and facilities would have to stop entirely. Existing buildings would have to phase out use of fossil fuels over the six years through rationing and cut-offs for non-compliance, and they would have to be remodelled to meet stringent net-zero energy standards and to accommodate all new building needs.
  6. Trillions of trees would have to be planted, and all forestry and forest clearing stopped entirely. Likewise, production of other new high-energy-use building materials (especially concrete) would have to cease. We’d have to quickly learn to re-use the wood and other building materials we have now.
  7. All this centralized, ‘unprofitable’ activity (and enforcement of the restrictions) would need to be funded through taxes. As during the great depression, the rich could expect tax rates north of 90% on income. And a very large wealth tax would be needed to quickly redistribute wealth so that the poor didn’t overwhelmingly suffer from the new restrictions.
  8. The consequences of the above would be an immediate and total collapse of stock and real estate markets and the flow of capital. The 90% of the world’s wealth that is purely financial and not real (stocks, bonds, pensions etc) would quickly become substantially worthless in a ‘negative-growth’ economy, adding a complete economic collapse to the crises the governments trying to administer the transition to net-zero were trying to manage. In such an economic collapse, many governments would simply fail, leaving communities in their jurisdictions to fend for themselves, and making it likely that much of the world would abandon the constraints of net-zero transition because they wouldn’t have the power or resources to even begin to enforce them.

Of course, none of this will happen. Even if governments had the power and wisdom to understand what was really required to make the net-zero transition, it would be political suicide for them to implement it. It won’t happen by 2025. It won’t happen by 2050. It won’t and wouldn’t happen by 2100 even if we had that long, which we do not.

The message of all this is that we cannot save our globalized civilization from the imminent end of stable climate, affordable energy, and the industrial economy — all of which are interdependent. No one (and no group) has the power to shift these massive global systems to a radically new trajectory, without which (and perhaps even with which) our world and its human civilization are soon going to look very different.

No one knows how and how quickly this will all play out, and the scenarios under which collapse will occur vary from humane, collaborative and relatively free from suffering, to the very dystopian. There is therefore no point dwelling on them, or even trying to plan for them. As always, we will continue to do our best, each of us, with the situation that presents itself each day, and our love for our planet and its wondrous diversity will play into that. Our best will not be enough, but we will do it anyway.

Posted in How the World Really Works, Our Culture / Ourselves, Preparing for Civilization's End | 30 Comments