Play’s the Thing

Midjourney AI’s take on kids playing tag; my own prompt

I did not realize at first what it was that I looked upon. As my wandering attention centered, I saw nothing but two small projecting ears lit by the morning sun. Beneath them, a small neat face looked shyly up at me. The ears moved at every sound, drank in a gull’s cry and the far horn of a ship. They crinkled, I began to realize, only with curiosity; they had not learned to fear. The creature was very young. He was alone in a dread universe. I crept on my knees around the prow and crouched beside him. It was a small fox pup from a den under the timbers who looked up at me. …

He innocently selected what I think was a chicken bone from an untidy pile of splintered rubbish and shook it at me invitingly. There was a vast and playful humor in his face. … I dropped even further and painfully away from human stature. It has been said repeatedly that one can never, try as he will, get around to the front of the universe. Man is destined to see only its far side, to realize nature only in retreat.

Yet here was the thing in the midst of the bones, the wide-eyed, innocent fox inviting me to play, with the innate courtesy of it two forepaws placed appealingly together, along with a mock shake of the head. The universe was swinging in some fantastic fashion around to present its face, and the face was so small that the universe itself was laughing.

It was not a time for human dignity. It was a time only for the careful observance of amenities written behind the stars. Gravely I arranged my forepaws while the puppy whimpered with ill-concealed excitement. I drew the breath of a fox’s den into my nostrils. On impulse, I picked up clumsily a whiter bone and shook it in teeth that had not entirely forgotten their original purpose. Round and round we tumbled for one ecstatic moment. We were the innocent thing in the midst of the bones, born in the egg, born in the den, born in the dark cave with the stone ax close to hand, born at last in human guise to grow coldly remote in the room with the rifle rack upon the wall.

But, I had seen my miracle. I had seen the universe as it begins for all things. It was, in reality, a child’s universe, a tiny and laughing universe. I rolled the pup on his back and ran, literally ran for the neared ridge. The sun was half out of the sea, and the world was swinging back to normal. The adult foxes would be already trotting home. …

For just a moment I had held the universe at bay by the simple expedient of sitting on my haunches before a fox den and tumbling about with a chicken bone. It is the gravest, most meaningful act I shall ever accomplish.

— The Innocent Fox, by Loren Eiseley (abridged)

Play is one of the behaviours that, I think, is biologically conditioned in us, rather than culturally conditioned. In fact, except within the constraints of rigid rule-based competitive games, my sense is that most human cultures now actually discourage play. We fear that play will interfere with our focus, our sense of responsibility, and our success in life. “Life is hard” is the refrain of many adults, everywhere. Play is frivolous, we are told, a waste of time. And, bereft of practice, we have largely forgotten how to do it.

Loren’s fox pup, we might rationalize, plays because it is an effective and relatively safe way to learn essential survival skills. But animal behaviour studies have identified lots of play behaviours that have absolutely no apparent “learning value”. Wild creatures seem to play, then, when other imperatives aren’t making demands on their time, just for fun. Just like the two little girls on the train I wrote about recently.

As I get older, I am more and more drawn to the very simple argument that the fundamental driver of almost all animal behaviour, including our species’, is to maximize pleasure and minimize pain. It explains so much, that more ‘utilitarian’ explanations cannot.

This pleasure/pain ‘logic’ to our behaviour is understandably disturbing to those who insist there must be a ‘higher’ meaning and purpose to our lives than this. But why need there be? My sense is that, for the devout and religious (including those who adhere to the modern religions of ‘free market’ economics and the inevitability of ‘progress’), there must be a higher meaning and purpose to justify all the suffering in the world ‘now’, even though most of that suffering is seemingly self-inflicted by our species. This suffering is necessary, we hear, in order to make the world better for future generations (or in the ‘afterlife’).

This seems to me an utterly threadbare and backwards argument. Despite attempts by moralists and misguided Hobbesians* to rewrite pre-civilization history to align with their narratives, there is abundant anthropological evidence that pre-civilization human cultures lived healthier, more peaceful, and hence presumably happier lives than anything our civilized cultures have ever produced. The problem is there is no way from where we are now back to that simple, easy, connected way of life — the way most wild creatures live, or lived until their ways of life were destroyed by human incursion. No way back, that is, except forward through collapse.

That’s not anyone’s fault, but it’s enough to ensure most of us are conditioned to believe that civilization’s current collapse must be prevented or at least mitigated, and that just accepting collapse (as inevitable, or even as a somewhat positive development) is deemed unacceptable ‘defeatism’. So we have to suffer, and work hard to keep things going as long as possible. No time for play, sorry.

I have met many people, mostly but not all of them young people, who seem to have retreated from the ‘real’ world into what some might call an escapist world of play and imagination, often immersed in online role-playing games. And there are others who are beginning to begrudge having to be part of a ‘work world’ that seems to them broken, unpleasant, unfair, and unnecessary. Doing work, they might be sensing, is not only disagreeable, it’s unnatural, especially work that does not give us pleasure. If our human population were much smaller, and if we used technology in effective and egalitarian ways, then theoretically at least only people who really wanted to work would (have to) do so. The rest of us could play all day.

This is what life is like for many bird species. You vie with others, if you’re so inclined, to be a ‘breeding pair’. That pair works hard because that’s what they’ve ‘signed up’ for. The others help out during breeding system, but the rest of the year they spend a small amount of time seeking and consuming food, and the remainder of their time in play, even as adults. I witness this outside my window every day. If we’re such a smart species, why can’t we manage to do this?

Why do we like to play, rather than doing something else, or nothing at all? We seem to be a naturally curious and imaginative — and social — species. Playing, including activities like making music, and art, and love, and dancing, seems to be in our DNA. We can conjure up evolutionary reasons for this behaviour, but there is no need to do so. We may just do it because it maximizes pleasure.

Play is important, not for what it might teach us that is of use to us in the rest of our lives (that seems to be mostly a by-product advantage of play), but because it keeps us healthy and happy. It’s good for our bodies and our psychological health. It produces and releases chemicals associated with happiness, peacefulness, and exhilaration.

I am very fortunate in that, especially in my retirement years, I am able to spend more and more of my time in play. Most of my ikigai — the list of things that get me up in the morning and eager to start my day — are playful activities.

And when we live in a society that disparages play as “kids’ stuff”, deforms it into prescriptive, competitive activity, and gives us so little practice at it that (as with most of the retired men I know) we lose the capacity to do it, that society is inevitably going to be unhealthy.

I’ve often described myself as a “joyful pessimist”, and much of what I think makes me joyful “in spite of everything”, is the pleasure I find in play. As I relayed in my short story about the young fortune-teller, I have learned that even the simple act of (unforced) smiling has an enormous effect on my attention skills, my level of self-awareness, and the amount of pleasure I experience each day. Smiling has a strange pleasure-multiplier effect, as I wrote about in my story:

Unforced smiling actually did affect my mood, and when I’m smiling, I notice things more often, and focus on them for longer, than when I’m just inside my head. It’s as if my brain is constantly saying “Hey, what is it that you’re smiling about?” and turning its attention to finding visual clues to justify the smile. It was my first realization that the brain’s incessant pattern-making is all about rationalizing what is already happening, not actually making anything happen, not actually deciding anything. And, looking (or, sometimes, listening), it is forced to find something worth smiling about…

That seems to me an inherently playful way of looking at the world. And smiling can also of course serve as an invitation to others to play, too, and can be infectious.

Since our behaviour is, I am convinced, fully conditioned, we cannot deliberately set out to include more play in our lives, or engage more playfully with the world. We are either inclined to do so, given the circumstances of each moment, or we are not. But I think our declining capacity for real (unstructured, not rules-bound) play bodes badly for our ability to cope with the accelerating collapse of our sad, suffering civilization. I’ve suggested that this incapacity may stem from an unfortunate entanglement of the circuits in our brain early in our species’ development, an evolutionary misstep.

But perhaps if we are able to find the opportunity to hang around more often with young children and wild creatures, we might witness, in Loren’s words, “the universe swinging around to present its face, a face so small that the universe itself is laughing”. And, at least for a moment, we might remember the joy and the astonishing pleasure of simple play, and laugh along with it.

* Hobbes’ “nasty, brutish, and short”, often misrepresented as referring to the lives of wild creatures, actually referred to human societies in the absence of strong central governments.

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The Sleep Cycle: Still Mostly in the Dark

Left image: How much of your night is spent in each phase of the sleep cycle; Stage 3 (N3/SWS) sleep is considered the most restorative and makes up about 20% of young people’s sleep, but as little as 10% of seniors’.
Right image: A typical young person’s five nightly sleep cycles; note that almost all N3/SWS sleep occurs in the first two cycles (the first three hours) of sleep.

As with most pseudosciences, the ‘medical’ research on the connection between ‘good’ sleep and good health is mostly anecdotal, reinforces ‘conventional wisdom’, tends to confirm the researchers’ hypotheses (research that doesn’t confirm their hypotheses generally doesn’t get published), is subject to multiple cognitive biases, and fails to meet rigorous scientific standards. In other words, it’s mostly just opinions.

The other problem with sleep ‘research’ is that there’s not much money to be made from it, so it’s underfunded relative to its importance to our health. And in any case it’s hard to test hypotheses about sleep since testing generally requires disrupting people’s normal sleep habits. And of course it’s almost impossible to compensate for all of the factors that might provide a better explanation for the test results, many of which the test subjects probably aren’t even aware of. For example, older people tend to overrate their sleep quality (compared to what researchers found) because they just expect poorer quality sleep in old age to be ‘normal’.

With those caveats, I’ve been looking at what we know about something called N3 (third-stage non-REM) sleep, also known as slow-wave sleep (SWS). My interest stems from some modestly-convincing evidence that this, the deepest stage of sleep, is the stage mostly associated with the body’s restorative systems — secretion of human growth hormone (to repair and replace worn cells and tissues) and a shift in the autonomic nervous system from a sympathetic (“fight/flight”-ready) state, towards a parasympathetic (“rest and digest”) state. It’s also allegedly the state most associated with the immune system’s self-healing processes. And some new research suggests a shortage of N3/SWS sleep correlates with a higher risk for memory loss and dementia.

I’m not sure I buy this — there’s a lot of room for confusing correlation with causation here — but I’ve noticed in my retirement years that I feel less ‘rested’ in the mornings than I used to, and specifically I hardly ever wake up in the mornings feeling like I’ve had a really great night’s sleep, which used to happen quite often. So I thought it was worth looking into. Apparently this feeling of having had a good night’s sleep correlates with the amount of N3/SMS sleep achieved.

I started with, since I trust Michael Greger’s skepticism about the quality of much medical research, and his insistence on relying only on the most credible reports and meta-analysis. Not surprisingly, that review didn’t turn up any great surprises (with the exception of the effect of pistachios, noted below).

So I read some other meta-analyses from relatively credible sources not linked to the “sleep industry” or obvious medical quacks. Here’s the unexciting consensus of how to maximize your SWS “deep” sleep:

  1. sleep in a dark and quiet room (sleep masks and earplugs work better than white noise machines)
  2. keep your bedroom between 18-21ºC, and well ventilated
  3. maintain the same bedtime every night, and aim to wake at the same time every morning
  4. get 90 minutes of moderate or 40 minutes of vigorous exercise a day; and exercising late in the day is fine
  5. no screens in bed, or less than an hour before sleep (and there is limited evidence that blue-filtering glasses work)
  6. eat foods rich in antioxidants, avoid foods that are inflammatory (saturated and trans fats and cholesterol), and avoid heavy meals just before bedtime
  7. get out of bed if you can’t fall asleep or if you awaken, rather than just lying there; in fact leave the bedroom and do something else (not involving screens) until you feel sleepy again
  8. occasional daytime naps are OK but avoid a regular habit of them
  9. don’t use your bed just for lounging
  10. eat just two pistachios if you’re suffering from insomnia or jet lag, one to two hours before sleep; just two pistachios has as much natural melatonin as a full dose of melatonin pills
  11. drink 6 eight-oz cups (1.5 litres) of water (men 8 cups — 2 litres) during the day, but minimize liquids in the evening; that will keep you healthily hydrated but minimize overnight awakenings to pee
  12. do about 5 minutes of Progressive Muscle Relaxation in bed just before sleeping, starting with your foot muscles and working up: inhale, contract muscles for 5 seconds, exhale and release, relax for 10 seconds, then move on to the next muscle group

Makes sense, I suppose. The problem with most of these findings is that they relate to a shortage of overall sleep (insomnia), rather than a shortage of N3/SWS sleep. As we age, our average hours of N3/SWS sleep drops by more than half, even when taking into account the sleep-affecting chronic illnesses and geriatric conditions that are more prevalent in older people.

What’s going on here? If N3/SWS sleep is when our body regenerates its cells and tissues, and restores its nervous and immune system, shouldn’t older people be getting more of this rather than less? And does it have something to do with the fact most N3/SWS sleep tends to occur in the first three hours of sleep, and the fact that older people tend to get up earlier in the morning, and wake more often and for longer periods at night, but often don’t go to bed that much earlier at night to compensate?

Another obvious question is whether frequency of sex in the evening improves your ability to fall asleep (hopefully afterwards) and the quality of that sleep. One study suggested that partnered sex with orgasm did modestly (but only by about 15%) improve both these things, while neither masturbation (with or without orgasm) nor sex without orgasm did (and the results were the same for men and women). Pretty subjective data, though. It basically relates to the type and volume of hormones that either promote or inhibit sleep, that are produced during different ‘kinds’ of sex.

My speculation is that part of the answer to these questions is the gap between perceived sleep quality and actual sleep quality, specifically the duration of N3/SWS sleep. Several studies suggest, for example, that exercisers often will report no improvement in sleep quality, while monitoring devices suggest they have achieved significant improvements. If the exercise makes your muscles stiff, you might feel unrested in the morning even though that exercise significantly increased your N3/SWS sleep.

I’d also speculate that getting up (eg to pee, or to deal with aches and pains) within a couple of hours of going to bed might prevent you from getting that essential N3/SWS sleep that mostly occurs early in your sleep. Rather than just ‘number of awakenings’ during the night, it might be worth tracking the timing of those awakenings, and studying how to shift those periods of awakening to later in the night, after the benefits of N3/SWS sleep have already been achieved. Or alternatively, perhaps, finding a process for ‘resetting’ your sleep cycle after awakening, so that you go more quickly into N3/SWS sleep.

Related to that, one might surmise from the research that ‘sleeping in’ (eg on weekends) to make up for a late night (or a week of late nights or bad sleep) might not help much, since later cycles feature less N3/SWS. I’ve found myself that when I just ‘sleep in’, the extra hour or so doesn’t seem to help my overall sleep quality, but if I get up, do something uncomplicated, and then go back to bad, the extra sleep seems much more beneficial.

My final speculation would be that it’s the quality of sex (including solo sex) that determines its benefit for your subsequent sleep. Not rushed, not done “just so I can get some sleep”, not feeling awkward or guilty, not an attempt at catharsis to address some stress or unhappiness in your life. I can’t imagine any sex that is really fun not having a positive effect on your mood, your body chemistry, and your sense of relaxation when you turn out the lights, which I think inevitably is going to improve the quality of your subsequent sleep.

The researchers may never be able to figure it out, but our bodies know what they like, want, and need. Listening to them might be the best advice for improving both the joy and the benefits of our sleep. And if that reduces the risk of cell and tissue breakdown, the diseases of chronic stress, immune system dysfunction, memory loss, Parkinson’s, and dementia, so much the better.

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What the “Rules Based International Order” Really Means

This map, from Multipolarista, shows the US-centred Empire bloc of nations (in red) that subscribe to the US-invented Rules Based International Order. The countries in green do not recognize that order, and they continue to support de facto a UN-centred international system governed by international law.

There was a meeting a couple of years ago between the US and China where the two sides — pro-Empire and pro-Multipolarity — each used their own coded language to express what they had been conditioned, very differently, to believe to be in the best interests of world order and security. Clinton Fernandez, an Australian professor and former intelligence officer, recounts the event in his book Sub-Imperial Power:

AT A HIGH-LEVEL SUMMIT between the United States and China in March 2021, the US Secretary of State said he was ‘committed to leading with diplomacy to advance the interests of the United States and to strengthen the rules-based international order’. The director of China’s Foreign Affairs Commission countered by saying that China and the international community upheld ‘the United Nations–centred international system and the international order underpinned by international law, not what is advocated by a small number of countries of the so-called rules-based international order’.

China was essentially saying that the ‘rules-based international order’ was simply a euphemism for the will of the (US) Empire, and that China would fiercely oppose that Empire in favour of an ‘international order’ underpinned by international law (ie governed, at least ostensibly, in the interests of the people, not that of corporate wealth and power, and based on bilateral negotiations between autonomous nations, not the edicts of Empire).

This is perhaps the ultimate expression of the 21st century’s greatest “clash of ideologies”, one that could quite conceivably end in nuclear annihilation. Each side wants, and each side stated in this conversation, what it believes is in the best interests of its people. While both reflect selfish interests, what underlies them are diametrically opposed ideologies bordering (thanks to generations of consistent conditioning, xenophobia, and hate-mongering) on religions.

The Empire sincerely believes that its model, with the appearance or at least promise of ‘representative democracy’ and ‘free enterprise’, is the best model. It’s a model that presumes the rich and powerful (who presumably became so by virtue of personal merit) know better than the ‘average citizen’ what’s best for everyone. It’s a top-down ideological model, an essentially military one. A “crusade” model.

The Multipolarists, on the other hand, sincerely believe that individual nations are best suited to determine and act in the best interests of their citizens, and that those interests are best identified through continuous negotiation with, and education of, their citizens, at the most local level, leading then to bilateral agreements between nations. It’s a bottom-up ideological model, though the route up from the bottom may often be onerous, opaque, bureaucratic and even impervious.

Ideologies have never worked at any scale in our civilization’s political systems. Both models are fatally flawed, and both are on a collision course with the limits to growth, the inherent frailties in all large systems, and the accelerating multi-faceted collapse of most of the world’s economic and ecological systems.

So, to translate: Rules Based International Order means, essentially, the order established by the US Empire, which is itself exempt from the ‘rules’ it makes. It is the order that assumes that the only means of preventing global chaos and collapse is for the Empire to control the whole world, and remake all societies in its image, which is manifestly exceptional and inherently superior to all others. It is maintained by an overwhelming show of force — nearly 1,000 massive, nuclear-armed US/NATO Empire military bases perched on the doorstop of all nations not aligned with the Empire, and by direct intervention in the politics of these unaligned nations to coerce them to join the Empire or smash them so they can be dismantled and expropriated.

It doesn’t sound all that palatable when you put it that way. And it’s hard to believe that what China, the largest trading partner of, and investor in, most of the world’s nations, offers could possibly be worse.

That’s how it seems to me, anyway.

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

Why We Can’t See How Others See Things

A recent front page from one of Canada’s largest-circulation ‘newspapers’, the extreme-right-wing National Post. The publication has been owned by a series of lunatic-fringe ultraconservatives since it was founded. Racist and hate-mongering editorials appear unabashedly on the front page of this ‘newspaper’. Thanks to Indrajit Samarajiva for the image.

I was asked recently for my thoughts on why we seem so locked into our ideological silos that we can’t begin to understand how ‘Others’ see things, to the point we often simply throw up our hands and conclude that they must be either ‘evil’ or ‘insane’. Or both.

My answer was that while I think social media have amplified this blindness, they, and the mainstream media, are not in themselves the cause. As much as the media would like to believe they have a strong impact on our worldviews, my sense is that they tend to reflect and coddle this blindness rather than create it. The mainstream media write what they’re ‘paid’ to write, of course, but they also write what they think readers want to (pay to) read. As often as anything, what readers want is reassurance that what they already believe is correct. The media and their readers co-condition each other and hence entrench each other’s thinking.

I think our incapacity to understand others’ thinking and feelings actually stems largely from a confluence of three things:

  1. Imaginative poverty: Most of us have grown up in a world where technologies and entertainments do our imagining for us, so we get no practice doing it ourselves. Toys and games come complete with detailed instructions. Children’s time is managed so there is no ‘idle’ time. Never having to imagine anything means our imagining ‘muscle’ is undeveloped, so we can’t imagine how others live and why they feel what they do.
  2. A decline in critical thinking capacity: At one time, students and journalists were trained to challenge what we were told, and to expect evidence, not hearsay, before believing or reporting the facts. We had enough exposure to other points of view (I was a shortwave radio listener back in the day) that we had no choice but to try to balance conflicting reports and opinions to make sense of the dissonance. But now we live in a world where most people of all ages do not read very much, almost never read history or in-depth background books on any subject, never encounter investigative journalism in their reading (it’s too expensive for the media to do, and it’s unprofitable), rarely engage in political conversation except at the most shallow, reactive level, and often read no works of fiction at all. No surprise then that most of us never learned, or have forgotten, how to think critically. So now opinions, like the eight page full front-section editorial illustrated above, actually pass for ‘facts’ and ‘news’ in many people’s minds, and go unquestioned.
  3. A lack of curiosity: As young children, we are preoccupied with playing and exploring and asking ‘why’; curiosity is nature’s way of getting us to learn things that will help us broaden our experiences and hence be better able to cope with challenging situations. So why are we so much less curious as adults? One recent study described curiosity as the drive to fill the gap between what we know and what we want to know. But if we’re driven mostly by fear, and overwhelmed by what’s happening in the world, we probably don’t want to know what we don’t already (think we) know. But paradoxically, one of our greatest fears is the unknown — what we don’t know. So the less we know, the more fearful we become, and the less we want to know that might heighten those fears. So we squelch our curiosity. Most of the Americans I know have very little curiosity, and hence no knowledge, about history, or about the ways other cultures live; most don’t even own passports. Most Canadians I know aren’t much better.

The upshot of these three ‘incapacities’, I think, is that the strident ideologies and deluge of propaganda we encounter every day end up largely unchallenged by most people, because most people simply lack these essential capacities needed to challenge them.

American exceptionalism, which I have witnessed across the political spectrum, is even more pervasive in business environments than political ones. If you believe you are inherently superior to any other group or culture, and that your worldview is of necessity the correct one, and destined to prevail globally (the alternative if it doesn’t, as Blinken recently blandly reasserted, is “chaos”), then why would you ever try to see anything any other way? If it’s not the American (Empire’s) way, then it’s either evil or insane, and by definition wrong.

That same exceptionalism prevails in various Empire subcultures that have devolved into insular echo chambers, left and (mostly) right. (The British privileged class has its own particularly smug version of exceptionalism, that largely enabled the debacle of Brexit.)

Exceptionalism means never having to say you’re sorry. More importantly, it requires no imagination, no critical thinking, and no curiosity — in fact, like most religions, it makes a virtue of their absence.

I think exceptionalism is an extreme manifestation of the growing paucity of imagination, critical thinking, and curiosity in our world, which has, I believe, arisen for the reasons outlined above, having to do mostly with “how we live, now”. But these three incapacities seem increasingly present in almost every form of public discourse I see, and they may in fact be increasingly a global phenomenon.

If that’s the case, it doesn’t bode well for our ability to deal with growing economic, political, social and ecological crises in the coming decades. If we can’t see points of view other than our own, we’re going to have a hellish time when governments collapse and we have to learn to work together in a radically relocalized world, in community. With people we don’t know, and can’t possibly understand.

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Who’s Actually in Power in the Empire

This map, from Multipolarista, shows how ‘western’ countries, in repeated UN votes last month, have consistently refused to condemn sanctions as human rights violations, opposed the principle of a democratic and equitable world order, opposed the promotion of human rights and cultural diversity, and opposed restrictions on the use of mercenaries. These votes are not just symbolic, meaningless rhetorical statements of principle. The lockstep ‘no’ votes illustrate precisely the map of Empire, including its Sub-Imperial Powers (in red) versus non-Empire nations committed to multipolarity and the international rule of law (in green). These are the battle lines in the struggle to control the planet’s political power structure and its remaining resources, as our civilization slides into global chaos and collapse.

Billmon at Moon of Alabama recently reposted a review by Arnaud Bertrand of a new short book by Clinton Fernandez, an Australian professor and former intelligence officer. The book is called Sub-Imperial Power and it attempts to explain the position and role of countries like Australia, Canada, Japan, Israel, and Germany in the current political order. The UK is a bit of a special case Sub-Imperial Power, as the sort of ‘lieutenant’ in the order.

In the book, Clinton acknowledges that the US is the current Imperial Power in the world, struggling to obstruct attempts by many countries (and, by its mandate, the UN) to establish a multipolar world in the face of the Empire’s growing and increasingly belligerent hegemony (political, economic and military dominance). Sub-Imperial Powers, he asserts, are not the vassals or client-states we imagine, but rather they have struck a bargain with the Imperial Power to enforce the Imperial Power’s rule in their geographic region, in return for political, economic and military favours (including “security”).

This makes considerable sense to me, as a Canadian with a typical fear-respect relationship with our southern neighbours. American corporations own the majority of Canadian public companies, and with that, substantial control over our economy, our natural resources, and much of our land and infrastructure.

Like many Canadians, I have always felt a combination of anxiety and resentment about this dependence, which always struck me as a devil’s bargain. When the US runs low on oil and water, which it will soon enough, it will have no hesitation in taking Canada’s, not by military force (though that remains a background threat), but by simply using its economic control to move resources it already effectively owns, south, as a ‘business decision’, without even asking permission. For example, US regulators actually control a number of critical Canadian dams, for the purpose of regulating cross-border water flow in the best interests of Americans. This control was quietly negotiated in return for — of course — cash. Like the cash that bought them control of Canada’s oil & gas industry.

It will do the same to Australia to access its mineral needs and to second the Australian military forces (recently equipped with US-standard planes and other war equipment) for its planned war against China. Sub-Imperial Powers do what they’re told, by the Empire’s boss, until they’re no longer needed or useful, or misbehave, and they are then summarily ‘terminated’.

What do Canadians actually get in terms of concessions and “security” in return for our dependence and subservience? Basically, we don’t get invaded by the US, as they’ve invaded and destroyed so many other countries that didn’t toe the line. Both major Canadian parties have toadied to the US consistently for the past 75 years. We (Canada’s government and mainstream media) quickly supported the Empire’s decision to fight a proxy war, through NATO, in Ukraine, and have been unflagging in our support for continuing that insane war. We (Canada’s government and mainstream media) likewise condemned Hamas for its attack on Israel (like Canada, Israel is a Sub-Imperial Power), and have enthusiastically supported Netanyahu’s retributive siege, genocide and ethnic cleansing of Palestine.

When you’re just a junior partner, you don’t argue with the boss. And you don’t criticize other Sub-Imperial Powers. Only the boss is allowed to do that.

It’s quite a revelation, when you’ve been scoffing at the gutlessness of Canadian ‘leaders’ to criticize the US for half a century, to realize that our ‘leaders’ have been conditioned, indoctrinated, and carefully ‘taught’ by their administrations to never openly challenge or criticize what the massive, ruthless, temperamental nuclear power next door commands. They’ll remind you of what happened to Gough Whitlam in Australia, or Jeremy Corbyn in the UK, or Salvador Allende in Chile, or dozens of other critics of the Empire.

But the real eye-opener of Clinton’s book IMO is that, if you really want to understand why the Empire and its governments are acting the way they are, even when those actions seem totally out of step with most citizens’ opinions, despite massive and systematic propaganda programs, you need to look beyond the state and government to the corpocracy that actually rules it. That is where the real power lies. That is who is actually making the decisions.

I know this is not a new idea, but it’s the first time I’ve seen it articulated so well, and used to help make much more sense of seemingly utterly illogical western government decisions.

The argument is that the US government, which is always portrayed as the bogeyman in international interventionist political and military actions and as a stooge for domestic corporate campaign donors, is actually, for all its staggering arrogance and hubris, just the ‘executive front’ for the US (Empire’s) corporate interests. Above the President, the corpocracy is pulling all the strings, telling the President what to say. Telling him what policies and programs to approve and veto. Writing many of the laws for him, especially on deregulation. Telling him what wars to launch and what governments to sanction, blockade, and overthrow. Telling him what countries and pipelines to bomb and giving him (barring a few intrepid investigative reporters) plausible deniability. Telling him which elected members of his party to shut up, on threat of primarying or defeating them in the next election.

Why doesn’t he object? Because he’s a good Company man. The Company, and on a larger scale the Corpocracy, speaks with one voice, through its President and Chair. It brooks no messy public dissent among its members. The President is mostly a figure head, preferably with good hair, who convincingly announces the Executive Committee’s consensus, even if he fervently disagrees with it.

So what is this corpocracy (my term, not Clinton’s)? It is absolutely not a secretive all-powerful group. Corpocracy is government by and in the interests of collective moneyed interests whose goals are entrenched in their corporate charters, and those goals are always to maximize growth and profit of the collective, the “shareholders”. Not in order to be mean and miserly and greedy, but to acquire as much wealth a possible and distribute it, not immorally but amorally, to its members. As Joel Bakan argues in The Corporation, corporations (and corpocracies) behave in inherently pathological ways, and they do so by design.

Indrajit Samarajiva has argued that the corporation was the first form of AI, and remains its dominant form. It has a life of its own, and through intensive lobbying and other ‘means’ it now has all the rights and privileges of ‘personhood’. And unlike messy democracies, it arrives at its consensus on how to amass and distribute wealth and profit (and the spoils of war) not on a one-person-one-vote basis, but on a one-investor-dollar-one-vote basis. It is unapologetically undemocratic. We invented it because it’s efficient.

It’s so efficient that the corpocracy — the large set of corporate oligopolies that now collectively dominate every significant industry in the Empire’s economy — has now amassed power that is vastly greater than that of any political group or party, to the point that it can and does now control all political parties with any chance of being elected to govern. And while campaign contributions play a role in this, what plays a far greater role is the ability of this collective to condition the leaders, administrators, and parties to believe that their in-group — the political and economic elite groomed to lead and run things and make important decisions — knows better than the citizenry what is best for the world, and that a corpocratic-style loyalty to this in-group and to behaviours and practices that have emerged in corporate culture over five centuries is what is needed to prevent chaos and tyranny from prevailing.

Biden recently put it this way: “American leadership is what holds the world together”. And Blinken followed it up in case that wasn’t clear enough: “The world doesn’t organize itself. When we’re not engaged, when we don’t lead, then one of two things happens: either some other country tries to take our place, but probably not in a way that advances our interests and values, or no one does, and then you get chaos.”

So if you want to understand why the US government does things that the citizens absolutely don’t like or want, this is the reason — the government doesn’t actually report to the citizens, if it ever did, and the citizens can easily be propagandized to fight among themselves when they threaten corporate interests anyway. And in the process, the befuddled citizens can be brought around to the “correct” ways of thinking (eg that China is now the principal enemy of Empire and an existential threat to “our” security) with sufficient propaganda and conditioning. And they’re right about that — Modern media are astonishingly effective at propagandizing and conditioning the beliefs and “values” of a largely ignorant, distracted and disinterested citizenry that lacks even basic critical thinking skills.

The government actually reports to the corpocracy, which now has far more power than the government, and the corpocracy’s power is growing as the US government sinks deeper into technical bankruptcy and as public resources become increasingly privatized, to the point government can finally be, as was infamously said by an arch-neocon, “drowned in a bathtub”.

But the corpocracy doesn’t actually want to run government, a messy, unpalatable and unprofitable business. Instead, having a crypto-democratic government doing the corpocracy’s bidding has its PR advantages, and so it will be tolerated unless one of the Tweedle parties puts forward a Bernie Sanders or some other figure who threatens to misbehave. The American Empire is not an empire of a government and its people. It is an empire of corporate interests, for whom the government and the people are just pawns to be manipulated.

I wrote an article a while ago, suggesting that once a corporate oligopoly has subdued all its competitors, it then turns on the remaining ‘enemies’ it can’t control — first, the government, that sometimes dares to offer services that could be run profitably by the oligopoly; second, foreign competitors (which have to be bought cheaply, or discredited and crushed à la Huawei or TikTok); and finally, the customers, who sometimes misbehave and complain about prices, service, or the shoddy quality of products, but whom a sufficiently large army of expensive corporate lawyers can subdue and silence without too much difficulty.

The corpocracy collectively operates the same way. It seeks to privatize (or dismantle or deregulate) just about everything governments do, because that maximizes its profit and growth. It seeks to dismantle foreign governments it doesn’t control and divide up those countries’ resources among its own members, and develop them for profit to be repatriated to the Empire. And it seeks to stifle political and other dissent among the citizens (its ostensible “customers”) and condition them (us) all to be obedient little consumers, mindful of what their advertising and PR and other forms of propaganda (through the mainstream and social media that they completely control) tells us is true, and tells us to do.

This is absolutely not a conspiracy theory. There is no secret cabal ‘controlling’ the corpocracy. It’s simply the effect of millions of shareholders independently doing what they’re incented and conditioned to do — buy up and shut down all competition, form oligopolies, and use their immense economic (and hence political) power to advance their own (profit and control) interests, all over the world.

This is not coordinated. The corpocracy is the complex, unorganized expression of the collective (conditioned) will of millions of shareholders and ‘stakeholders’, using the undemocratic leverage of wealth and power to do what they have been conditioned to believe is the right thing to do, and what the corporations that aggregate that wealth and power are absolutely compelled by their corporate charters to do. No one and no group is in charge of it. The corpocracy is simply a very effective vehicle for conditioning large numbers of people — within the oligopoly corporations, within the governments and administrations they have effectively indoctrinated over generations, and among the populace at large.

And perhaps what is most amazing is that while the corpocracy is conditioning all of us, we are in turn conditioning it, each in our own little ways. Sometimes, like in ending the Vietnam War, that conditioning can take some surprising turns. But mostly it is pretty sclerotic — like any mechanistic, uncontrolled behemoth, the larger a corporation or corpocracy gets, the less innovative and resilient it becomes, and the less able to change course.

This driving of the Empire’s political and economic decision-making by the preferences of the corpocracy, rather than the will of its citizens, is one of two overarching, complex political realities that, I think, currently dominate the precarious state of our contemporary political reality. Now I want to say a bit about the second overarching reality, which is the longing for people everywhere for stability and security in an increasingly insecure, precarious, collapsing world, and our propensity to be easily and totally conditioned in what we believe by our peer group and by the information we are exposed to.

Aurélien has written extensively on this subject, but one of his essential arguments, which he reiterates again in his most recent post, is that most people will support whatever political power group offers them the most security and stability in their lives, whether that is a democratically elected government (or a corpocracy masquerading as one), a populist or military dictatorship, a theocracy, an organized crime syndicate, or a street gang. Most people are, understandably, suspicious of large and opaque power structures of all kinds, and more aware of how much they are lied to by those in power than many would like to admit, but they will take what they can get.

In addition to that, their political sensitivities, fears, and hatreds, are conditioned over generations and centuries by the relentless stories (often, stories of outrage) that they have been saturated with for their entire lives. Part of human nature is the natural desire to belong to a group (humans don’t fare well in the wild outside of the protection of community), and belonging means adapting your worldview and “values” to those of the group.

So, trying to put this all together: What is driving our current human ‘political’ behaviour and its underlying power structure in these times of global polycrisis seems to be a complex mix of three things:

  1. In the dominant western Empire, actual power to make political decisions has been de facto transferred from ostensibly democratic political leaders and parties to an uncoordinated corpocracy that has very different “values” and priorities to those of the Empire’s citizens.
  2. In these increasingly precarious times, most people are willing to pledge allegiance to whatever political group offers them the most security and stability, even though they don’t really trust any group to represent their interests.
  3. Centuries of conditioning have propagated fear and hate in the majority of people who have lived struggling lives throughout most of the world, and that fear and hate inevitably expresses itself in various forms of violence against the perceived Others who they have come to believe threaten their security and stability.

Applying these three political ‘drivers’, can we make sense of some of the seemingly senseless things going on in our world? Let’s see:

Please note that the thinking in the bullet points below is absolutely not my perspective on these issues. I’m trying to understand and reflect the thinking and feelings that might underlie decisions that have been made that I otherwise cannot make sense of, especially the thinking of corporate interests using their power and influence to affect government decisions. [December 1 edit]
  • Trump, and other populist sociopaths in many countries: Many citizens of most countries, if you believe the surveys, believe their government doesn’t represent them, and nostalgically want to a return to simpler times when there was apparent order and homogeneity of beliefs, so they vote for whoever offers to throw out the current government (and the immigrant ‘Others’ they hold largely responsible) and make their lives easier/better. They’re right that the government doesn’t represent them. But having never studied history, most don’t realize that populists do not (and in fact usually cannot) represent their interests either. The result is often civil war, in the back rooms of power and possibly in the streets.
  • Biden & co’s bloodthirstiness for war against Russia, China, and any of the other non-Empire countries that are seen to threaten the Empire: A good Company Man speaks for the corpocracy. The corpocracy wants to control Russia’s (and other countries’) resources, especially now that the Empire’s are running short, and it wants to control China’s manufacturing industries (having offshored its own capacity to the point it no longer knows how to make anything of value itself except munitions — oops!). So, in their minds, those Other countries’ governments need to be labelled as enemies to allow the corpocracy’s Empire to dismantle them and take over economically — a simple, sound business decision to deal with pesky ‘competitors’ through ‘liquidation’. And the hegemony of the corpocracy’s Empire depends on the continuation of the exorbitant privilege of the US dollar as the world’s reserve currency, to command all nations to settle accounts in Empire money, and to be able to uniquely print unlimited amounts of Empire money without consequence. So, in their minds, any country that threatens that privilege must likewise be neutralized.
  • America’s incapacity to provide basic universal health care for its citizens: To do this makes some sense in the long run — healthier, happier citizens are likely going to buy more stuff. But corporations and corpocracies are designed to think only about the short-run, the next year at most. Universal health care would cost money and require the raising of taxes, and make citizens less dependent on the corpocracy as well as hurting its bottom line. Not acceptable to corporate interests.
  • The 2008 financial collapse and bailout: Well, the corpocracy doesn’t care if citizens go bankrupt, but they can’t allow their corporate members to go bankrupt, even as a result of their own stupidity. Their thinking: “Tell the President what to do. He knows what will happen if he disobeys.”
  • Canada’s obsequious obedience to the US, despite its history as a neutral, peace-loving country: The Empire’s thinking: “You’re a junior partner in this organization, Canada. But play your cards right, and do what you’re told, and we’ll make space for you here in the corpocracy’s Empire. Lots of money in it for you if you do. Lots of grief for you if you don’t.”
  • The Ukraine War: The Empire’s thinking: “Hmmm. Great opportunity to destabilize Russia and get access to their natural resources, and eliminate one of our biggest competitors. Should have finished the job in 1991 when we had the chance! Get rid of that Ukrainian government (2014), put in our own guy, and have him abolish the pro-Russian political parties, remove Russian as an official language, hire some Russophobes to bomb the Donbas, and apply to join NATO. That will get Russia to invade, and then we can use the Ukrainians to fight the war for us. Great opportunity to sell the corpocracy’s arms to the Ukrainians, and we won’t have to risk a single Empire body to get the Russians to overthrow their government, so we can then move in. Ukraine? Meh; it’s a hopelessly corrupt, failed state and not worth anything to us.”
  • The War in Palestine: The Empire’s thinking: “Israel is a Sub-Imperial Power in our Empire. The Empire has always had Israel’s unconditional support, and they’ll do whatever we say. The least we can do is give them our unconditional support in return. After all, they’re our permanent aircraft carrier in the midst of those oil-rich Arab states who we just can’t manage to destroy or coerce into joining the Empire. So they’re committing genocide? Probably not terribly wise to do so so overtly, and it’s a dubious strategy in any case. But we need them, to help prevent the Arabs’ oil from falling out of our grasp. So hold your nose, don’t look, and don’t tell the Empire’s citizens what’s really going on. The Israelis have been abusing the Palestinians since we put them in charge of that department of Empire 75 years ago, and there’s no money in it for us to intervene. Not our problem to solve. Get HR and PR to deal with the fallout. It’ll blow over. Bad timing though, damn it.”

Of course this is a huge oversimplification of a set of massively complex political challenges. But it does seem to explain a lot.

And, once again, I’m not saying that the Empire (or the corpocracy) is ‘evil’. Their behaviour is pathological, for sure, but in our precarious, horrifically overpopulated, collapsing civilization some form of mental illness is inevitably present everywhere, in all of us. Some of the countries in green in the chart above have long histories of pathological behaviour themselves, and in some cases it is ongoing. All I’m saying is that human behaviour is entirely conditioned, and hugely driven by fear, and what it has led to in the world we find ourselves dealing with today can largely be explained by understanding that conditioning. Not condoning, understanding. There are no good guys and bad guys.

And the rise to power of the corpocracy as the driving force and muscle behind the power of the current western Empire, unintended as it most surely was, is also understandable. We thought it was for the best. Many of us still think it is.

But if the growing battle between the Empire (the red countries in the chart) and the Other countries (in green), leads us into WW3, you won’t see me taking sides. I’m just chronicling collapse, as best I can, telling it as I see it.

Posted in Collapse Watch, How the World Really Works, Our Culture / Ourselves | 10 Comments


This is #24 in a series of month-end reflections on the state of the world, and other things that come to mind, as I walk, hike, and explore in my local community. 

fall colours in Coquitlam; all the (mostly awful) photos in this post are my own

To my delight, the little girl who ‘drove’ the commuter Skytrain, whom I wrote about in my month-end post in June, was also on board for my trip to “the city” a few days ago, where I had to go to run some errands.

Since I board the train on one of its first stops on the route, I was able to grab the single front seat for this trip. But they — the girl and her mother, this time with a little friend in tow — were waiting on the platform a couple of stops later. I could already see the looks of dismay as they realized their prized ‘driver’ seat was taken, and as they entered her mother motioned the two girls to the second row of seats and shushed them. They did as they were told, but I had already started to repack my bag to give them my seat. I signalled ‘mom’ to ask if it was OK to let them share the front seat, and she nodded thanks. The girls squeaked excitedly and quickly took up positions on each side of the empty seat, and the ‘adventure’ began.

The little girl pulled a round pink cushion from her bag, and placed it on the ‘dashboard’ in front of the seat — the steering wheel for the train’s new ‘drivers’.

“We have to decide what all these buttons on the console are for”, she said to her friend. There were of course no buttons, but for the ‘drivers’ that didn’t matter.

“This big cabinet beside the driver’s seat — it’s locked. Do you have the key?” the friend replied.

“You don’t need a key. It’s this button. But be careful. This cabinet is actually the bathroom for the exclusive use of the train’s drivers. It’s a very tight fit, but there’s room if you hunch down and don’t take too long.”

“I’m back already. So where are we going today? And eek! why aren’t you steering?!

“It’s on auto-pilot. I just have to think about where we want to go, and when I push this button it reads my mind and takes us there.”

“What if where you want to go isn’t on the train route?”

“Then you have to push this button. It’s the worm-hole button, and it will take you instantly to the closest train track to where you want to go. You try it.”

“OK, then… I want to go to China.”

“Wow, I’ve never been there. What do you want to go there for?”

“Um… to see the circus. And the castles. And to buy silk robes, one for each of us.”

“You have to close your eyes through the worm-hole, so you don’t get seasick… What kind of robes are you looking for?”

“The ones that the Daughters of Heaven wear. Not like the King and Queen, of course. Theirs are yellow, and no one else can wear that colour. Ours will be red. Red is a lucky colour. In China brides wear red, and they get money in red envelopes. That’s the colour red I’m looking for.”

Several of the passengers seated nearby were, I think, of Chinese ancestry. When they heard the girls’ story, they smiled. I’m not sure what that smile meant.

Much of the rest of the trip passed in silence. Up front, there was a lot of pointing, and steering, and closing of eyes. And apparently trying on of red robes. The real world, or at least what we think it to be, kind of just faded away for a while. We were transported, to a world of magic and beauty and wonder.

My most interesting train trip ever.

So now it’s a few days later, and this body, restless as the rain and clouds are finally receding, takes this self for a wander along the creek to look at the astonishing fall colours. As usual these days, I’m determined to get better at paying attention.

The trees are sheathed, royally, in robes of yellow and red.

Ahead of me there are two middle-aged couples, intermittently holding hands and chatting. One of the men is talking about his sense that “women are never entirely satisfied” with their lot and their partners, always wanting a little more. His partner replies sarcastically “That’s because we know we could always do better. Whereas we’re the women of your dreams, better than you could ever have hoped for.”

The laughter that follows is a bit awkward. The hand-holding temporarily stops, and there is an uncomfortable silence.

Then the other guy chimes in: “I think it’s because women grow up with better imaginations. They have more practice at it. So they can imagine things being better. While most men just accept things as they are.”

I think about the girls in the train.

The couples nod, shrug. They rejoin hands.

A few blocks later I come to an intersection. Like many where I live, this one has Accessible Pedestrian Signals (APS). These are sounds that accompany the “walk” sign, for the blind and visually impaired. A two-tone ‘cuckoo’ sound signals it’s safe to walk across the intersection in a north-south direction. A ‘chirp’ sound (or in some places a four-tone declining ‘Canadian melody’) signals it’s safe to walk across the intersection in an east-west direction. (The four-tone is used in areas where nearby chirping birds might send the wrong message.) The crossing box contains a raised arrow that points in the direction of crossing that also vibrates during the walk signal, for the deaf-blind. And that box emits a steady tone to help those blind or visually impaired to find it.

I’m standing waiting for the light to change. Beside me is a couple with an adorable small furball of a dog (apparently a “mini goldendoodle”) on a leash. When the walk signal sounds, it’s the east-west chirp and not the north-south cuckoo that we’re waiting for. Nevertheless, the dog, whose name is Luna, lunges in the direction we’re headed, only to be restrained by the leash.

“Sorry Luna — cuckoo!” the man holding the leash says. Then he turns to me and explains that Luna has figured out that these two sounds mean ‘cross’, but hasn’t yet figured out how to distinguished them. He’s now training her which sound to cross with, by saying “cuckoo” or “chirp” to her at each intersection. But he got distracted talking with me and failed to give her the prompt.

The woman with him says “She also knows you have to press the button to get the signal, so now when we get to each intersection she jumps up to try to hit the button.”


At the end of my walk, I wander into my favourite local café. The barista (a young guy whose girlfriend sometimes waits patiently at one of the tables until his weekend shift ends — and no, a male barista is not called a baristo) starts my regular matcha order, which he knows by heart. I sit at my ‘regular’ table, perfect for people-watching.

There is a group of (I’m guessing) Persian-Canadians sitting in the comfy seats in the corner (room for six). I have no idea what they’re saying, until I see one of the men bow and say “mersi” (the borrowed-French word for “thank you”). And what follows is a comical, and, had my friend Raffi not told me about it, utterly mysterious ritual, called ta’arof. The words are impossible to translate, but if you tried to do so literally, it would be something like: “May your hand not hurt” (presumably “from all your hard work leading to this kindness”). “May your flower-like hand not hurt.” “I would sacrifice myself for your hand.” “May your head not hurt.” And so on. It is apparently a common way to show appreciation and respect, and quite a lovely one. But they may have carried it a little too far, since at the end of it one of the women in the group threw a plastic spoon at them and wagged her finger at them.

May we in our struggling cultures discover similar acts of grace.

Each year the City of Coquitlam puts up a Christmas light display all around the Lafarge Lake pathway. It now consists of over a million LED lights.

I make my way from the café to the lake, a seven-minute walk. It’s cold — -2ºC — but windless and there has been no snow so far this year, which makes the paths, because of the effect of so many lights on your cornea, I guess, seem especially dark.

It’s busy here on a weekend night, with lots of families, kids, dogs and strollers, and I find myself behind an older couple walking slowly, so I just slow to match their pace. The man has apparently recently retired, and like many men with long careers, he’s not quite sure what to do with himself.

“I don’t like golf”, he tells her, “and with my knee I can’t play tennis. Roger goes to the Legion all the time, now, but it’s too noisy there for me. I don’t want to take up a hobby. I want to do something that’s important, useful. Something I do well.”

His partner laughs, a delightful, appreciative laugh. She says: “You’re going to have to learn, my dear, the important and useful value of doing nothing. You’re no good at it right now, because it takes practice to do nothing well.”

This is a gob-smackingly brilliant insight to me, one that stops me in my tracks. But I start walking again, leaning in to hear how he will respond. Finally, he replies, rather morosely:

“I think I’m too old to learn that.” But then he smiles and pats her hand.

A little further along there is a substantial display of lights and characters from Alice in Wonderland. I wonder: Has there been a remake of the movie, or are kids still reading the book, or has the book and theme just entered the collective zeitgeist? Whatever the reason, the kids seem to like the display, especially the bug-eyed caterpillar characters that flash on and off at random intervals in the dark. One little girl is dancing around the characters, talking to them and singing a very breathy version of the Unbirthday Song.

A man pausing by the display says to his companion: “I still remember when, as a child, I first saw Fantasia, The Sorcerer’s Apprentice. It captivated and terrified me. I was afraid to go to the movies for a while. But that film taught me about the power of imagination, and it taught me what film music ‘should’ sound like. It transported me.

The little girl dances on. I smile when I realize that kids pick their own entertainment, and prefer participating, rather than passively watching as we older people have been so conditioned to do with our entertainments. At one point in our walk, there is a logjam of people, and I wonder what’s happening as it’s an area with relatively few lights. And then I see: There are hundreds of ducks sleeping and chattering quietly at the edge of the lake here, in the dark, and the kids are mesmerized. The lights are just lights. The ducks are alive.

A little further on this becomes even clearer — a little boy is ignoring his parents’ pleas asking for him to look at a particularly large light display, while he plays with a small dog. And just past them, a little girl, barely old enough to walk, is pushing what is seemingly her own stroller, paying no attention to what is going on around her, watching raptly a little dog that is contentedly sitting inside the stroller. Her mother looks resigned. Whatever makes you happy, dear.

As we* enter one of the ‘light tunnels’, two women ahead of me slow and appear to be fumbling with something. I slow and look down in case I see something that they’ve dropped, but as they exit the ‘tunnel’ I see that they are just moving their hands and arms around together, and realize that it’s some kind of language.

As I watch, I notice that one of the women is looking all around, taking it all in, while the second looks straight ahead. The woman doing the looking is apparently describing this incredible light display, and the sounds of music and conversation and laughter to the second woman, who, I realize, is deaf-blind. (I later learn this is called Tactile Sign Language and I’ve actually seen it used before; it uses touch in various places on the body to convey not only words and ideas, but expressions and ‘body language’ as well.) The deaf-blind woman is laughing at the descriptions.

It was pretty humbling to observe. We are, at least sometimes, more adaptable than we might think. Amazing what you can learn to do when you have no choice.

Nearing the end of the ‘main loop’ around the lake, I stop to plan my exit from the park. I overhear a group of five female teenagers guessing what the next Christmas song will be that will come over the speakers placed around the lake.

One of them remarks that most Christmas songs are pretty kitschy, and another asks the group what song they most associate with Christmas. Three of them say, almost in one voice, “Mariah Carey“, and then nod and laugh, and start to sing the song.

But one of them turns away and starts to cry. The others, aghast, huddle around her to ask what’s wrong.

“The John Lennon song — Happy Christmas (War is Over If You Want It)“, she says.

The group is silent. And then one of them starts to sing, and the others start to sing along. They don’t make a big thing about it. This isn’t a flash-mob performance. They just walk up the side path, away from the crowd, singing quietly, until they’re out of sight.

Now I’m in tears, thinking about all the wars raging in our world. I’m suddenly filled with outrage and grief and fear and despair. Look at what we’ve become. Look at what we’re doing to each other, and to this planet, our home.

By the time I walk home I’ve recovered, kind of. We’re all just playing out our conditioning, I tell myself. We’re all doing our best. Such a tragedy, though. Such a waste. It seems a bit like watching a play or a movie where you can guess the ending and it’s not a happy one, and where you wish the writers had made some different script decisions. It shouldn’t have to end this way.

May we all be suddenly transported to a world where John Lennon’s admonition just might be true.

Best of the season to everyone. Peace.

* ‘We’ being this body, the self that presumes to inhabit it, and the many hundreds of people and pets caught up in the massive one-way movement around the lake. Here, you’re just part of the crowd, part of the experience.

Posted in Creative Works, Month-End Reflections | 2 Comments

Hard to Be Compassionate Sometimes

a mosaic watercolour portrait of David Foster Wallace, by Midjourney AI; not my prompt

I‘ve argued endlessly that we are simply the products of our biological and cultural conditioning, given the circumstances of the moment, and that hence we’re all doing our ‘best’, and no one is to ‘blame’. Since coming to that conclusion, I think I’ve become a more compassionate person, more equanimous and accepting. And better able to accept the inevitability of the accelerating collapse of our civilization and the ecological systems that regulate life on our little planet.

Still, there are many things that annoy me, despite all efforts to see them through this lens. I have little tolerance for reckless, cruel, ‘unfair’, bullying, coercive, controlling, humiliating, abusive, oppressive, murderous and violent behaviour of all kinds; for dishonesty and deceit and propaganda and censorship; for manipulation, exploitation and deprivation; for feelings and actions born of hatred, greed, prejudice, judgement, unreasonable expectations, and jealousy; for ignorance and stupidity; for waste and contamination and destruction; and for incompetence.

That’s a long list of things to get upset about, when it’s all just the universe acting everything out the only way it possibly could!

Try as I may, my brain immediately attempts to attribute these behaviours to something deliberate, wilful, intentional, as if anything could be deliberate in a world with no free will.

Some of these reactions are instinctive, like my reaction (which is fear masked by anger) to dangerous and aggressive drivers. Even now, once the immediate danger has passed, I have a tendency to hold on to the anger for a long time, and even to rehash the event in my mind, and in subsequent conversations. And to ascribe deliberate intent, aimed at me personally, to the behaviours. I can read David Foster Wallace’s What is Water commencement speech a million times, about how that driver might have been on the way to hospital with a sick child or pregnant spouse, and it does me no good.

Likewise I can appreciate that the current wars, sieges, ethnic cleansing, genocides and nuclear brinksmanship (and the press’ blatant dishonesty in reporting about them) stem from centuries of exhaustively, endlessly, and mutually conditioned fear, hate, rage, grief, jealousy, and shame, and recognize that my reaction to them is, more than anything else, about my fear of how they could lead to global warfare producing endless, immense suffering (especially for me and those I care about).

But this self has been conditioned to try to understand such behaviours as a means to identify corrective actions (leading to peace and reconciliation etc). And that conditioning normally ‘understands’ behaviours in terms like cause, blame, provocation, responsibility, mental derangement, or ‘evil’. It is hard to just accept that these horrific behaviours were the inevitable, uncontrollable results of centuries of conditioning of the actors. It’s just too hopeless. We ‘solved’ the problem with Germany, didn’t we? And the “Troubles” in Northern Ireland? How can we ‘fix things’ so that everyone behaves responsibly and respectfully and peacefully and gets along with everyone else?

Well, of course, we cannot. But if all the large and small atrocities (according to each of our individual assessments and judgements) are just the inevitable result of our conditioning, can we at least be compassionate towards all parties, setting aside our judgements and distress about  them?

Could we attempt to piece together, from a study of history, and human nature under extreme and chronic stress, and the limits to growth, and how mental illness affects and debilitates us, combined with an acknowledgement of our complete lack of free will, and from that, learn to accept and not judge these atrocities and their perpetrators?

Not a chance, I think. One could certainly put together a ‘case’ for what (might have) led to these atrocities and how their perpetrators, given their conditioning and the circumstances of the moment, had no choice but to commit them. But that is not going to relieve the sense of outrage, of righteous indignation, or the fear and anger and grief that learning of or witnessing these atrocities instils.

The most that might be possible is that my instinctive (fear etc) and conditioned (“that’s so unfair!” etc) reactions to learning of or witnessing an outrage gradually become less intense, less enduring, and less likely to result in me contributing some of the same dysfunctional behaviours (eg honking loud and long at an aggressive driver; or calling for revenge against a group that seems clearly to have perpetrated an atrocity).

If I am seemingly not directly and personally affected by the atrocity, I might even be able to say to myself: This awful behaviour was conditioned; isn’t that tragic? and leave it at that, acknowledging that there is no way I can really know what led to it, but something did, and it was not ‘pure evil’ or some other simplistic explanation. My judgement of fault, blame, or simple cause is at best useless, and at worst dangerous (to my mental health, if nothing more).

I can, after all, be outraged by awful events even if I hold no one ‘to blame’ for them (eg the driver who gets a sudden heart attack and crashes into a crowd of people). I can say isn’t that tragic? and leave it at that, in those situations.

And (sorry, religious folks) this has absolutely nothing to do with ‘forgiveness’. That pretension is all about you saying that you hold someone to blame but don’t hate them anymore. Ugh. If everything is conditioned, there is nothing to ‘forgive’!

While I may be unable to feel any compassion for the perpetrator of a particular atrocity, I can, with some attention and effort, manage to spark and sustain my compassion for all life on earth, and acknowledge my biophilia for those, whether living in endless wonder and delight, or under ghastly oppression and coping with hideous, endless suffering, with whom I share this afflicted little blue planet.

And perhaps sometimes that’s the ‘best’ we struggling, conditioned humans can do, the closest we can come to approaching the grace and equanimity of wild creatures who simply accept what they can’t possibly hope to understand or change. Who witness tragedy with emotions probably profounder than our own, but without judgement. Who perhaps demonstrate an ‘intelligence’ and a capacity for unconditional love and compassion that seems to elude our large-brained species.

Though that, of course, is not our fault.

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

Why Humans Are Probably Uniquely Afflicted With ‘Selves’

more ruminations trying to make sense of what cannot make sense

four worldviews of the nature of reality: (I) conventional wisdom, (II) emerging scientific consensus, (III) limbo, (IV) radical non-duality

In a recent comment, Vera asked me why I asserted that animals have no “selves”.

As an animal lover and a believer that animals feel pain and feel emotions, this is a subject that bothered me a lot when I first came upon the message of radical non-duality. How could those speaking about this subject be so sure that only humans have the (illusory) sense of self and separation? And how can any creature function without a sense of self and separation from everything else?

When I spoke to Jim Newman and Tim Cliss about this, their answer was that no creatures (humans included) actually ‘have’ selves, and that nothing is really separate. They suggested that it takes a very large brain and a lot of constantly reinforced conditioning from birth to create and sustain the illusion of the separate self, and only humans seem to have the proclivity to do so.

How can we even function without a sense of self and separation from everything else? Solely by our conditioning, it would seem. Jim and Tim assert that there is no sense of a self or separation ‘there’, and there doesn’t need to be. This model we have of a separate body under our control, with a self at its core as its ‘managing director’, is just an invention. The self doesn’t actually do anything. In the story of the person, the body acts (as a result of its conditioning, given the circumstances of the moment), and the ‘self’ then rationalizes that action as being its decision, after the fact. The self is completely non-essential to the effective functioning of the body, and it (the self, the ‘me’) is just a “useless piece of software” as Tony Parsons has described it.

Everything is already whole and complete. There is only ‘everything’, which is actually an appearance of nothing. ‘Everything’ has no parts, nothing separate, no direction or purpose or meaning or intention, and it is not going anywhere in time or space.

How did our brain manage this astounding trick of the imagination, inventing the idea of self and separation and convincing other human brains that these ideas were really true? One could argue that it was an evolutionary misstep, a spandrel — “let’s try out this model to see if it helps our species survive” — that went terribly wrong. But that would suggest that evolution in time is real, and it isn’t, since there is no time, no causality and nothing really happening. Evolution is just another attempt to make sense of patterns our brains perceive and conceive. It’s just another story.

The jump to the uncompromising message of radical non-duality — that there is no reason, purpose or meaning for anything — is just a ‘bridge too far’ for our apparently thoroughly conditioned separate brains in separate selves to countenance. And even that assertion is another story, another step across non-existent stepping stones in the sea of everything-just-as-it-is. Conditioning, after all, implies causality and change over time, and these are just appearances and illusions born of faulty sensemaking.

About seven years ago, I ‘had’ what is often described as a ‘glimpse’ — the sudden disappearance of ‘me’ and the obvious realization that there is nothing real, nothing really happening, nothing separate, only appearances. It was astonishing, unarguable, and the thought over and over was “How could I not have noticed this before?” At the time, I wrote about this:

  • It felt more like a ‘remembering’ than an ‘awakening’. Some memories of very early childhood (some of which had been just a blur until then) and a few memories from more recent, very peaceful times, flooded through my body, which felt ‘flushed’ in the way it feels during a sudden ‘aha’ moment, or during feelings of intense love.
  • It felt amazingly free of anxiety or fear, very peaceful and joyful in a ‘boundless’ kind of way. Everything was awesome, more-than-real, unveiled, unfiltered and just, in a way, ‘perfect’, exactly as it was. Not blissful, just… this.
  • There was no temptation to grasp onto it lest it be quickly lost again. It was clearly always here, everywhere, not ‘going’ anywhere, accessible always. My self would have been anxious not to lose it, but my self was, in that moment, not present. The glimpse was completely impersonal, not happening to anyone. A silly grin came over me, and stayed for hours.
  • If this is a glimpse, it is not my first, though this one seemed to connect, through those suddenly recalled memories, to past glimpses. It felt wonderful, but also completely ordinary and obvious. Oh, that! Of course; how could I not have noticed?

At the time, the story I made up to try to make sense of this is that somehow the normal ‘default’ neural sensemaking pathways of my brain had been circumvented, and instead what was being revealed was what actually was, story-less.

Over the intervening period, there have been two significant shifts in my worldview. The first, prompted largely by Melissa Holbrook Pierson’s book The Secret History of Kindness, was giving up my strongly-held belief in free will. Robert Sapolski’s new book Determined reassured me that that shift made sense.

In parallel, I was delving deeper into, and thinking more about, the message of radical non-duality (I call it a message, rather than a theory or worldview, because it’s just in-your-face obvious to those who have ‘lost’ their sense of self, and hence cannot and need not be defended with ‘evidence’ or ‘logic’). The cold-sober ‘glimpses’ were all the evidence I needed. And I realized that if there is no ‘one’, no separate self, then there can’t possibly be any free will either. My instincts, and my various explorations, seemed to be converging on agreement with the radical non-duality worldview, even if it had only been ‘obvious’ during the ‘glimpses’.

Except. Except my sensemaking mind is conditioned, driven, compelled to try to make sense of this worldview. And it cannot. No one will ever convince anyone else that the illusion of the ‘me’ and of things being separate are just what are apparently happening, without any reason or purpose or meaning. It’s just too bald, too pat, too empty, too useless. And totally unsupported by what we consider ‘evidence’.

So I’m left in a kind of limbo state, intuitively and intellectually drawn by the message of radical non-duality as a worldview, but still compelled to try to reconcile this message with emerging science and logic. Like most limbos, it’s unsustainable and precarious. All the science in the world can only produce additional stories that, while they may seem to align with the radical non-duality message, are actually completely incompatible with it.

So, neuroscientists may provide evidence that there is no ‘self’, but that evidence is just a story about events that happened in time to bodies and brains; radical non-duality asserts that there are no ‘real’ bodies or brains or time or things really happening. And physicists may provide evidence that there is no real time, but that evidence is just a story about particles and waves and quantum states; radical non-duality asserts that there are no ‘real’ particles or waves or states or things really happening.

Stories are at the crux of what I describe as the ‘limbo’ state, shown as worldview III in the chart above. Stories are how we make sense of the world, how we explain causality, and the past, and imagine the future. But these stories are all fictions — there is no real causality, no time, no separate ‘actors’ really doing anything, no evolution. There are not even real brains, because there is nothing separate at all. ‘Brain’ is just an artificial label we use to tell our stories. I have shifted my worldview from I to II to III, but the limbo worldview is impossible to sustain. And there is no bridge, no ‘path’ to the radical non-duality worldview IV. Not even ‘faith’. I can’t just decide to see what I can’t see. And without seeing it, it’s impossible to believe. No matter how intuitive or elegant it is. No matter how much I want to believe it. I’m caught in limbo, perhaps until I die. (There may be no cure for the self, but there are much worse fates imaginable.)

Although it’s just another story, one can make sense of the ‘fact’ that our illusory sense of self and separation emerged, and that this “useless piece of software” has endured for millennia (not long in terms of the history of life on earth, or even the history of our species), and (in the story) this ’caused’ a huge amount of suffering to all the creatures of the planet ever since. But my Entanglement Hypothesis provides no solace, no way out of the limbo. Just another story.

So back to Vera’s question: A ‘self’ is just an invention, a story, a fictional character, dreamed up in large brains to try to make sense of the brain’s sensory perceptions and conceptions, something to put at the centre of its entirely imaginary model of what reality actually is. No more real than a character in a play or movie that we presume to depict some real happening.

Wild creatures have no ‘selves’ because they have neither the capacity nor the need to concoct such a fanciful fiction. Like humans they have well-honed instincts and are conditioned and feel, intensely, sensations like pain and pleasure, and emotions like fear and anger and sadness, and probably others like enthusiasm and equanimity. But they probably don’t feel emotions like hatred or chronic anxiety about the future, or shame or guilt or envy, since these emotions require a sense of linear time, a sense of permanent disconnection from ‘everything’, and a propensity to judge things as good or evil. I think they are fortunate to have been spared the curse of believing in a separate self that underlies these suffering-filled emotions. And they are no less sensate than humans for that (probably more sensate than us, without the veil of self and separation to keep them from really being in the world). Melissa’s book, which describes animal behaviour in detail from the perspective of an animal lover, has convinced me of that.

Of course, they can be conditioned, just as we can, to react in ways that we might anthropomorphically construe as revealing the existence of a ‘self’ in them. But instinctive and entrained reactions of fear and joy and responding to one’s given name do not require the affliction of a self. Just ask Tim, or Jim, or Tony, or the other messengers of radical non-duality who are, like wild creatures, not so afflicted.

Posted in Illusion of the Separate Self and Free Will | 15 Comments

Links of the Month: November 2023

Fridge magnet by, from Salt Spring Island BC

Why do we build the wall, my children, my children?
Why do we build the wall? We build the wall to keep us free.
That’s why we build the wall. We build the wall to keep us free.

How does the wall keep us free, my children, my children?
How does the wall keep us free? The wall keeps out the enemy,
and we build the wall to keep us free.
That’s why we build the wall. We build the wall to keep us free.

Who do we call the enemy, my children, my children?
Who do we call the enemy? The enemy is poverty,
and the wall keeps out the enemy, and we build the wall to keep us free.
That’s why we build the wall. We build the wall to keep us free.

Because we have and they have not, my children, my children!
Because they want what we have got!
Because we have and they have not! Because they want what we have got!
The enemy is poverty, and the wall keeps out the enemy,
and we build the wall to keep us free.
That’s why we build the wall. We build the wall to keep us free.

What do we have that they should want, my children, my children?
What do we have that they should want? We have a wall to work upon!
We have work and they have none.
And our work is never done, my children, my children,
and the war is never won.
The enemy is poverty, and the wall keeps out the enemy.
And we build the wall to keep us free
That’s why we build the wall. We build the wall to keep us free!

Why We Build the Wall, Anaïs Mitchell, from Hadestown

Well, another month’s passed. We’re now up to as many as 500,000 “casualties” (the war industry loves euphemisms) in the NATO-Russia proxy war in Ukraine, with no end in sight. And we have both of the US Tweedle parties cheering the deranged career criminal Netanyahu’s genocide and ethnic cleansing of Palestine, with upwards of 12,000 dead, half of them children, almost all of them civilians, and a couple of million to go. The 2024 US presidential election seems almost certain to be a rematch of the two demented thugs from 2020, with the choice between a slide into fascism, or a ratcheting up of brinksmanship and war with nuclear powers, or maybe both, depending on who ‘wins’. Meanwhile 2024 looks almost certain to be a year of multiple climate catastrophes, the hottest year on record by a margin worse than even the worst estimates of climate scientists a year ago, and another record year for carbon emissions, ecosystem destruction, and biodiversity loss. And global productivity of real goods, which has eked out a few more (wildly unequally distributed) gains at a staggering cost to the environment, is now stuttering, with nowhere to go but down.

Good thing we’re all doing our best.


The IMF totals up the cost of continuing to subsidize and prop up a dying and massively destructive industry. Thanks to Just Collapse for the link.

Bracing for impact: John Michael Greer encourages us to “collapse now and avoid the rush“.

Antarctica is melting: We were far too optimistic about the pace of polar ice loss, as usual.

Otis, harbinger of the future: No one knows how tropical storm Otis became a Cat 5 hurricane so fast. Maybe because parts of the ocean are now the same temperature as a hot tub?

First of the water wars: As the US west and central states run out of water, they’re starting to look at Canada’s dams and glaciers, and demanding their share.

Methane release cycle is accelerating: Just what we didn’t need. Tropics and wetlands are the main sources of the increase. Thanks to Just Collapse for the link.

The global economy stalls out: Tim Morgan explains once more why our economic systems will collapse faster than the ecological ones.

Corporatism meets the limits to growth: Tim Watkins explains how the relentless neoliberal/neoconservative agenda being pursued today mirrors the rise of corporatism (fascism) in the 1930s, and is on a collision course with our accelerating economic and ecological systems collapse. And nobody has a plan. A reading of the first chapter of his new book Death Cult, which draws heavily on John Ralston Saul’s The Unconscious Civilization.

The religion of perpetual growth: Jonathan Cook explains the divergence between the economic and ecological realities we are now facing, and the utter myths that the neocorporatists are spinning, which we’d love to believe are true.


cartoon from Andrew Marlton’s First Dog on the Moon

Understanding what’s really going on: Aurélien suggests a mountain of books to help you understand current events and the history behind them, so you don’t have to rely on the bullshit from the MSM, the spooks, and the op-ed columnists. And he explains why each book is worth reading.

Circumventing the paywalls: FamousDrScanlon suggests using Spaywall to read articles buried behind corporate paywalls. Here’s an example of how it works.

How to die a good death: A compassionate and nuanced explanation by Michael Greger of the process called VSED: Voluntarily stopping eating and drinking. It’s legal, and not agonizing as the religious right would have you believe. But it is not a DIY process and does pose ethical challenges to sort through before you need to apply it. Part 1. Part 2. Part 3. You can read the transcripts below the videos if you don’t like watching videos.

Citizens’ assemblies to deal with polarization and political gridlock: A good summary of the uses of this direct democracy technique. Thanks to Kavana Tree Bressen for the link.


The 1 megaton tonne MK-84 bombs the US is sending to Israel to facilitate the siege and genocide of Gaza; thanks to Indrajit for the link. In what must be the cleverest wordplay of the year, and drawing on how rich corporations are financially benefiting from the proxy wars, Indrajit calls this “Capital Punishment”.

“American leadership is what holds the world together”: That’s the highlight of Biden’s latest deluded White House speech, filled with a litany of inflammatory, propagandized untruths about his avowed “evil” “enemies”. This man really believes it — the very idea of a multipolar world, such as the United Nations was designed to facilitate, is completely anathema to him. His toady Blinken added in a subsequent speech: “The world doesn’t organize itself. When we’re not engaged, when we don’t lead, then one of two things happens: either some other country tries to take our place, but probably not in a way that advances our interests and values, or no one does, and then you get chaos.” What utter fucking arrogance! The rest of the world can only hope that America’s massive and insoluble domestic problems will soon cause it to vacate the world stage to address its own hopeless incompetence at home, and leave the rest of us to collaboratively sort out the problems of the world, most of them caused or exacerbated by America’s “leadership”, in a relatively sane manner. /rant

The bozos driving the bus: Aurélien explains why most of the world no longer cares much about how western “leaders” or their compliant media “explain” what (they think) is happening in the world. He also explains why genocide is so often a mumbled but real strategy for “resolving” conflict (even though it has almost never been successfully carried out). Excerpts:

The prevailing [neo]Liberal discourse of conflict at the moment is this uncomfortable and unattractive mixture of normative moral hysteria and half-understood technical legal concepts, which accounts for the incoherent, and frequently incomprehensible, way in which [the current] conflicts are reported and commented on. Worse, it also affects the way in which western governments see the options for management of crisis and conflict itself. For example, western governments cannot comprehend that what they say about the Gaza fighting is of no interest to Hamas, whose political and propaganda targets lie elsewhere, and for that matter of very limited interest to the Global South generally. Indeed, the West’s incapacity to understand the reality of conflict and atrocity, unwillingness to learn, and insistence on loudly trying to impose its mixture of moral bluster and legal fussiness pretty much rules it out as a credible actor.

It is not as if these things were actually that difficult to understand. We do know a great deal, from first-hand observation, about how conflicts arise and atrocities happen. The briefest possible summary would say that they typically occur because people feel themselves justified in acting that way—even to have no choice—and usually because they are scared

The “us or them” discourse has fear as its starting-point, and fear is a major component in the advent of war and conflict. Fear that if I don’t kill my rival, he or she will kill me. Fear of the minority surrounded by a majority. Fear of the majority with a minority inside it. Fear that minorities will combine against you, perhaps orchestrated by an outside power. Fear that the Other will want revenge for what you did to them last time. Fear that the Other will do what they did to you last time, but worse. Fear that the weaker will become strong enough to challenge you. Fear that the stronger will attack just because they are stronger. In such circumstances, the only solution is to get your blow in first and hardest Only when you have completely wiped out the enemy can you be sure that there can never be a threat.

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

Propaganda, Censorship, Misinformation and Disinformation: Short takes:

CoVid-19 the endless saga: Short takes:

  • Slight dip in the numbers this month, though on average the number of deaths and the number of people in hospital has been pretty constant throughout 2023. Cases are up (judging by water sampling), though the new variants seem slightly less deadly than previous ones. I’d guess the pandemic continues to kill about 1 person per million per day, and that in countries with decent hospital systems about 40 people per million are in hospital with CoVid-19 on any particular day. Of course these numbers are wildly skewed by age, so your risk is as much a 50x greater if you’re over 80. So I have the latest booster, mask in crowded public places, and will test if I have symptoms, and isolate if I test positive. It seems the least I can do for a top-5 killer of people my age.


from the memebrary

Why Shakespeare didn’t care about getting his plays published: A fascinating review of the bard’s First Folio, with the argument that in those days, most communication, including learning play scripts, happened orally from those who’d memorized the lines, not from printed copy. And, he might have thought, a little improvisation might actually have made the show even better. There was a play about this, by the celebrated American playwright Lauren Gunderson, called “The Book of Will“. I saw it in Ashland Oregon, and it was one of the most extraordinary performances I have ever seen. Brilliantly written, and performed by a true ensemble cast. This all reminded me of an earlier post of mine on the pre-corporate model of how groups get things done, in the arts at least: by ensemble, which is like an enriched version of consensus, and through rehearsal, not textbook learning. So many corporate terms (players, roles, ‘staging’, ‘company’, performance reviews) actually came from the world of theatre.

More than just “production values”: Naked Capitalism’s Lambert Strether admits that, like me, he stans for K-Pop. But as much as I like Twice, I think XG is even better.

Talking to nobody: Radical Non-Duality speaker Tim Cliss delivers the impossible message and answers questions at a meeting in Copenhagen. Best parts are Friday and Sunday sessions. This is the reason I am so intrigued by the Entanglement Hypothesis. Favourite quote: “Life still appears to be the same hamster wheel. The only difference is, the hamster is dead.”

Freakonomics falsehoods: Rebecca Watson exposes the highly dubious arguments in the best-seller, especially the Roe vs Wade leading to lower violent crime rates 20 years later ‘correlation’. Heaven save us from pseudoscientists.

Cutting through the shit in online dating: Alicia Bunyan-Sampson asks potential dates to answer 30 questions of her own formulation, before she will date them. Some of them are serious, some of them are funny, and filling it in informs both parties what they might be in for in dating the other. Way better than the commercial ‘profiles’ of most dating services. There is no magic to the questions, and she suggests you create your own, to get the answers you really want to know before you meet someone new.


cartoon by Barry Blitt in the New Yorker

From Canadian living in China Daniel Dumbrill: “In the west you can change the party but not the policies; in China you can change the policies but not the party. Which is more important?”

From Caitlin Johnstone: “I feel sorry for Zelenskyy. The US abandoning your country for Israel is like your husband leaving you for his first wife.”

From my friend John Whiting on the state of America (reprinted with his permission):

An American academic friend who lives in a good neighborhood near D.C. recently wrote to me:

My wife told me this morning that if she didn’t have children, she’d emigrate somewhere else. It is becoming really unpleasant to be in public in the United States. The level of hostility is startling. The disparity of wealth is depressing. The struggle is ongoing. The roads are falling apart. Fewer and fewer human beings relate to customers anymore. I am flooded with commercials everywhere I turn, including on public radio. I have 100 to 130 emails every morning when I wake up and only five or six are from someone I want to hear from. Facebook is much the same. Instagram is gone. TikTok is a joke. I survive with self-medication.

From Aurélien on the schism in the Professional-Managerial Caste (PMC) in the west [slightly paraphrased]:

So there’s actually a deep and irreconcilable conflict between the interests of the main body of the PMC, and those of the real elites; often described as the “one per cent.” The main body of the PMC is subject to discipline, loyalty checks and compulsory ideological conformity, yet seems to enjoy little extra status or concrete advantages over ordinary people. The main body of the PMC is the historical descendant of the intellectual servant class: the tutors and secretaries, the functionaries in great houses, the lawyers and intellectuals. It is significant, perhaps, that this is the class which hijacked the French Revolution from ordinary people and took it to its conclusion. Like the intellectuals of the eighteenth century, today’s members of the main body of the PMC, prize (or affect to prize) logic, science and rationality. And like those intellectuals, they are, I suspect, boiling with frustrated ambition and anger, hating both the aristocracy [the elite portion of the PMC] on the one hand, and the common [working class] people on the other.

From Indrajit Samarajiva, on genocide:

The truth is it’s all one genocide, and we are all Palestinians.

It’s the same imperative as American colonizers attacking ‘merciless savages’ in their Declaration of Independence. Kill the native people and take their land… The Original Genociders are human rights experts now; their founding genocides are covered up and the money’s long-since laundered… White supremacism and human supremacism are one continuum, the separation of us from each other, from our animal kin, and from the land. It is, in the short run, the genocide of the Palestinians, but in the long run, it’s the ecocide of us all.

From my colleague Daniel Cowper, from Grotesque Tenderness:

Last Wishes

From the white void
hiding the sea,
familiar foghorns roll.

Why are they so worried?
There’s no better way to be buried.
When it’s my turn, wrap

my failed body in linen straps,
between the loops slip
skipping stones for weight.

Send me down the thermoclines
with silver dollars on my eyes,
watch me become a brightness,

shrinking and fading
as I sink. I’ll take
my Thieves’ Communion

with the crabs, bless them.
Let my meat repay the sea for meat
I’ve taken out with line, with net and trap.

No doubt, the dogfish
will find me and weasel
their fill from the loosening linen,

but bless them too. If I leave
debts behind,
and nothing in the till

to make them good, don’t pay the banks.
No, pay them, if you like,
it’s no concern of mine. By then

my only business will be
with sharks and crabs
and worms, the ocean’s undertakers,

among bottles and sunken
deadheads from which fishhooks
float translucent lines.

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

The Entanglement Hypothesis Revisited

image adapted from Pixabay, CC0

“I think human consciousness is a tragic misstep in evolution. We became too self-aware, nature created an aspect of nature separate from itself, we are creatures that should not exist by natural law. We are things that labor under the illusion of having a self; an accretion of sensory experience and feeling, programmed with total assurance that we are each somebody, when in fact everybody is nobody. Maybe the honorable thing for our species to do is deny our programming, stop reproducing, walk hand in hand into extinction, one last midnight – brothers and sisters opting out of a raw deal.”  — Rust Cohle – character in the TV series True Detective

Three years ago, I added a third ‘law’ to the small set of ‘important things I’ve learned over the years’ and codified on this blog. The three laws are:

Pollard’s Law of Human Behaviour: Humans have evolved to do what’s personally urgent for them (the unavoidable imperatives of the moment), then to do what’s easy, and then to do what’s fun. There is never time left for things that are seen as merely important. Social, political and economic change happens only when the old generation dies and a new generation with different entrained beliefs and imperatives fills the power vacuum. We have evolved to be a collaborative and caring species, and we are all doing our best — we cannot do otherwise. We have no free will — our behaviour is entirely the product of our biological and cultural conditioning, given the ever-changing and unpredictable circumstances of each moment.

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 (and it frequently is), success at truly understanding and changing it is unlikely, and developing workarounds and adapting to it is probably a better strategy. Complex systems evolve to self-sustain and resist reform until they finally collapse. For that reason, the systems of global industrial civilization culture, having precipitated the sixth great extinction of life on Earth, are now collapsing rapidly and inevitably.

Pollard’s Law of Human Beliefs: We believe what we want to believe, not what is actually true. We want to believe in happy endings, simple answers, the inevitability of progress, self-control, karma, responsibility, destiny, miracles, a proper order of things, the power of love, and infinite human capacity and agency. Most of us want to believe in a higher power that can step in when we falter. We want to believe what those in our circles of trust believe (even if it’s crazy, gaslighting or propaganda). So we tend to seek sources that reinforce those beliefs and ignore those that undermine or unsettle them. Our hopes and expectations are determined by those beliefs. Our worldview is the sum of those beliefs, hopes and expectations, and bears no necessary resemblance to truth or reality. This invented reality is the only way we can make sense of a world that is impossible to grasp, to understand, or to ever really make sense of.

When I put forward the third “law” I was starting to ask myself why these things seem to be true. The Law of Human Behaviour would seem to make sense in the context of our evolution — these behaviours have helped propagate our species and enabled us to navigate through very difficult times. The Law of Complexity seems to make sense at a meta level for the same reason — life appears to evolve towards greater complexity until it cannot anymore, and then it collapses and the whole cycle starts again.

The Law of Human Beliefs seems to me mostly a means of maximizing our species’ social cohesion, and it also serves as a coping mechanism when we get overwhelmed. Our species had to evolve as a social species, since we don’t have the raw stuff to survive as lone individuals, at least once we jump down from the trees of the tropical rainforest that was our home for a million years. If we hadn’t developed this capacity to conform our beliefs and sense-making to those of our fellow humans (including the invention of abstract languages to reinforce that conformity), it is doubtful whether we would have been able to domesticate ourselves and each other to be able to get along and collaborate in anywhere near the numbers and varied ecosystems that we do.

Those three ‘laws’, however, have seemingly not served us well. Our beliefs (third law) and behaviours (first law) have seemingly precipitated an accelerating massive collapse (second law) of all the complex systems upon which we depend for our survival.

What went wrong?

At the time, I drew upon the work of Julian Jaynes to formulate what I called the Entanglement Hypothesis. This is not another ‘law’ because it cannot be supported or confirmed by observations. It is instead just a hypothesis of how and where we went wrong to get to this point of global violence and polysystem collapse. Here’s how I put it when I first articulated it:

Suppose Julian Jaynes, in his 1976 book The Origin of Consciousness, was correct, and it was only in our recent evolution that the human brain evolved the capacity to integrate its sensemaking activities (responding to signals perceived by the senses) with its imagining activities (creating/conceptualizing mental images). This integration, or ‘entanglement’, of brain activities is, he says, necessary for what we call ‘consciousness’, the experience of having a separate self.

In other words, it was only then that the brain was able to imagine that what it imagined made sense — and especially that its idea of the self and everything else as real and separate was ‘true’. Prior to that, Julian argues, there could be no self-consciousness and hence no sense of self, and no sense of ‘other’, or of time or space or other ‘places’ where separate ‘things’ could really be and really ‘happen’. He supports his thesis with an analysis of ancient written records and ancient human activities that show evidence of a lack of any sense of self or of self-consciousness. (Even the word ‘self’ is an etymologically recent coinage.)

The sensemaking part of the brain would therefore, back then, operate purely on instinct — eg fast yellow thing is perceived ⇒ brain “makes sense” that there is danger ⇒ flee, fight, or freeze. There would already be primary and immediate feelings: fear (⇒ flee), anger (⇒ fight), and/or sadness/hopelessness/resignation (⇒ freeze).

In the imagining part of the brain secondary thoughts (perhaps of gods, or monsters, anything that might be imagined) and secondary feelings (perhaps akin to anxiety, hatred, grief or shame) might arise, but there would be no way (yet) to act on or react to them, as there would be no context for ‘making sense’ of them. These thoughts and feelings wouldn’t ‘belong’ to anyone, so they’d just arise and fall away.

Michael Graziano hypothesizes that what prompted the evolution of the human capacity to synthesize the brain’s sensemaking/perceiving and imagining/conceiving activities was not the need for a self. The “unconscious” human species, like many others, had apparently thrived for a million years without this capacity.

Instead, what he thinks prompted this capacity for synthesis was humans’ primal survival need to socialize with other humans. We are maladapted to a solitary existence. In collaborating ‘unconsciously’ with other humans, as many creatures do, perhaps in the search for food or in attempting to escape from a predator, there is a need to communicate. For most creatures, body language, pheromones and rudimentary vocalizations were and are sufficient communication for essential social activity.

But as we moved farther and farther from our comfortable natural habitat in the trees of the tropical rainforest, we had both the need and the capacity to evolve a more sophisticated means of communication (abstract language). And we had the need and capacity to imagine a new way of modelling reality (‘consciousness’ of the self and ‘other’), that might enable us to adapt to hostile and unfamiliar new habitats and situations.

These new evolutionary features required the capacity to integrate the brain’s sensemakingperceptual abilities with its imaginingconceptual abilities. And so, in successful survivors in these new habitats this capacity emerged, was apparently evolutionarily favoured, and has been with us ever since.

So, here, reduced to its basics, is the Entanglement Hypothesis:

For almost all of our existence, like other animals, we thrived despite having no sense of self, self-consciousness, or sense of separation from everything else. Then at some point, either by an evolutionary accident (a spandrel), or as a consequence of our need and capacity to form more complex relationships with fellow humans in new and hostile environments, our brains’ processing mechanisms became entangled, enabling us for the first time to imagine ourselves as real and separate from everything else. But, while this evolution enabled the development of language, civilization and other mechanisms for social cohesion and domestication, it also enabled us to imagine previously unimaginable fearsome and distressing dangers and terrors, the consequence of which is severe species-wide mental illness (constantly reinforced by stress, fear, anguish, and endless cycles of violence). So our brains’ entanglement has turned out to be a terrible maladaptation, one that has created a mad, chronically stressed and anxious, often hateful, disconnected, rogue species, which is unintentionally killing everything on earth in its desperate, misguided search for personal safety, security, and freedom from precarity. When there actually is no separate person to be protected from anything!

That is my elaboration of Julian Jaynes’ theory, which I have called the Entanglement Hypothesis. If it’s correct, it might explain how our unfolding global human tragedy came about, and the accelerating polysystem collapse it has led to. It is also consistent with our complete lack of free will — since there is actually no separate person to have one.

We may have become a rogue species, but that is not our inherent nature. Nature, it seems, made a dreadful error in evolving us as it did, and collapse is how she is now correcting it. And when we’re gone, all that will be left (and all that has ever really been) is this — this astonishing, indivisible, unknowable, at once real and unreal, purposeless, meaningless, need-less, timeless, complete, empty, motionless nothing-being-everything. Already. Obviously. Rust Cohle got this, but he was a fictional character, a nobody. Just like us.

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