Cartoon by Robert Leighton from this week’s New Yorker. Buy his prints and other products here.
QUESTION OF THE MONTH
What do we call ourselves now? The word “liberal” has been turned into a swear-word in the US and coopted by right-wing neoliberals elsewhere. The word “socialist” has fallen into disrepute and disuse. And the word “progressive” doesn’t work either — the whole idea of “progress” is what got us into much of the mess we face today. “Survivalist” is too military-cowboy-individualist. “Communitarian” isn’t bad, but is liable to be confused by illiterates with that other -ism starting with the same letters. I’ve taken to calling myself a “post-civilization writer” but that describes what I do not what I believe. “Collapsitarian” or “collapsnik” is too negative and dystopian, and likely to get us confused with conspiracy wingnuts and Rapturists. Likewise “anti-civilizationist” and “uncivilizationist”.
What do we believe in, after all? If we’re going to have a name we can self-identify and organize around, it should resonate with the belief that we have in common. We believe (or at least I think ‘we’ do) that trying to conquer nature and fill the world with humans and their industrial stuff was a bad idea, that since nature always bats last, the human experiment we call ‘civilization’ is collapsing, and is going to end badly, and that life will go on after civilization has ended, with many fewer humans living much simpler relocalized lives. How do we capture that in a word?
PREPARING FOR CIVILIZATION’S END
No Money for Skyscrapers: James Kunstler (writing in Orion) explains that what will make big cities unlivable once more rapid energy, economic and ecological crises befall us, is that there will simply be no money to spend on infrastructure, meaning that cities’ staggeringly expensive systems of roads, elevators, heating, cooling and building maintenance will start to crumble and then just be abandoned, like a million New Orleans’. Thanks to Tree for the link.
“The Essence of Tyranny is the Denial of Complexity”: Riffing off this quote by Jacob Burkhardt (the 19th century historian who introduced the term “Renaissance”), Flemming Funch explains how our penchant for oversimplification is killing us. Thanks to Seb Paquet for the link. Excerpt:
The part of our mind we’re conscious of, and that we usually identify with as “me”, typically has an extremely inflated idea of its own worth and its own independent existence. That despite that it can only solve extremely simple problems, and it doesn’t even know how. It over-simplifies everything, and it tends to think it is in charge. That simple mind is also the wondrous faculty for paying attention and appreciating life, and for consciously discovering the mysteries of the universe and of human existence.
But when the simple mind gets stuck in the idea that it is in charge, and one of those simple minds end up commanding armies of millions of men, and huge economies, guiding the lives of billions, we’re quite a bit in trouble. When the simple mind doesn’t accept the complexity that brought it about, and it actually believes that its simple ideas are facts, and it tries to act accordingly, then we’re in a lot of trouble. Yes, tyranny is when powerful rulers decide that the complexity simply is unacceptable, and it tries to control it, deny it, wipe it out. When a small group of people agree on a small list of small ideas as being the correct ones, validated by nothing much more than the voices in their heads, life is in danger.
Peak Oil Worsens Peak Debt: Gail Tverberg in an article in The Oil Drum explains the positive feedback loops that will continue to drive up debt to ever-more-unsustainable levels as oil production declines and becomes much more expensive to bring to market.
Well, That’s Not Going to Happen: Magical thinker James Speth of NRDC outlines 15 things that the US and the world need to do to transition to a sustainable “post-growth” society. They’re impossible, unaffordable, and unwanted by the corporatists with the money and power, who are moving politicians and laws in the exact opposite direction. Tell the people what they want to hear, I guess, that if we all get together, reverse course 180 degrees quickly and replicate what’s been done in a couple of small communities globally, everything will be fine. Sure it will.
Reading the Symptoms Wrong: I’ve given up reading and writing about the annual Davos gnomes’ risk assessment report (this gang is utterly immersed in groupthink and devoid of imagination and appreciation of history). But Rob Hopkins of the Transition Movement has written about this year’s global risks report. The gnomes have climate change as the top risk, with a bunch of related risks (storms, biodiversity loss, pollution) much lower down, but they don’t seem to have the foggiest idea what climate change means for the future of civilization. Likewise, they talk about oil price volatility but not peak oil, and about fiscal crises and economic disparity but not a great depression. And they suggest that all these risks are somehow interlinked, but don’t have sufficient grasp of complexity theory to know how to look at combined risks. It’s a case of “what gets measured doesn’t get done.” That would require courage and serious thinking. Thanks to David Hodgson for the link.
Bringing Dark Mountain and Transition Together: Dougald Hine, co-author of the brilliant Dark Mountain Manifesto, cites yours truly in an article inviting Transition UK members to the second Uncivilization festival in Hampshire, UK.
Which health supplements probably work for most people (top) and which probably don’t (bottom), per qualifying PubMed and Cochrane published scientific studies, from InformationIsBeautiful.
Bike Repair for Dummies: There’s an iPhone App for that.
Basic Website Design: A free video crash course in HTML and CSS.
POLITICS AND ECONOMICS AS USUAL
I’ll Have a Side of Unsustainability With That: “The Sure Cure for Debt Problems is Economic Growth” Huh? The NYT still doesn’t get it.
Why Americans Can’t Afford Good Food: David Sirota explains how government subsidies of unhealthy food are making us sick. Excerpt:
Lawmakers whose campaigns are underwritten by agribusinesses have used billions of taxpayer dollars to subsidize those agribusinesses’ specific commodities (corn, soybeans, wheat, etc.) that are the key ingredients of unhealthy food. Not surprisingly, the subsidies have manufactured a price inequality that helps junk food undersell nutritious-but-unsubsidized foodstuffs like fruits and vegetables. The end result is that recession-battered consumers are increasingly forced by economic circumstance to “choose” the lower-priced junk food that their taxes support.
DARPA Recruits Civilians to Build Starship: Yup, the budget-bloated US military technology agency has a new fun-and-games website to promote its plan to get civilians to help it build a “starship” within 100 years. DARPA’s sole stated mission (per its website): US military technology superiority. Bad enough the military is recruiting adolescents on World of Warcraft.
Obama Shows His Real Face: Ilargi predicted exactly what the last-minute US debt deal would be, and what it will mean: A faster and deeper depression, and another total capitulation to the rich and the corporatists pulling the strings of the GOP/Tea Party puppets. Will the downgrading of US government securities by S&P as a result make a difference? Probably not. Denial runs deep, and this deal merely ratchets the industrial economy a notch tighter, at a time it has nothing left to give.
Tar Sands Watch: You probably know that stopping the Alberta Tar Sands is one of my two (along with stopping factory farming) pet activist projects. Bill McKibben and the usual enviro protest gang are marching on Washington DC later this month to try to get Obama to block approval for the Keystone pipeline that will carry the sludge to US refineries. There’s a new anti-tar-sands website. And Earth First! demonstrators occupied the office of the Montana governor to protest road rights-of-way given to tar sands construction equipment. We need much more effective tactics.
Harper Censors Scientists and Artists Who Don’t Agree With Him: The extreme right-wing Canadian PM has put a gag order on scientists reporting findings that corporatists won’t like. This has become such a pattern that even the newspapers that support him are up in arms about this.
“Really Macho Molecular Biotech”: Biologists are messing with the DNA of E-Coli bacteria. Who knows what they’ll come up with? Or down with?
Wait, Did the USDA Just Deregulate All New Genetically Modified Crops?: Tom Philpott for Mother Jones: “In a surprise move, the agency green-lights Roundup Ready lawn grass—and perhaps much, much more.”
Did Murdoch Create Climategate?: Keith Olbermann reports (at the end of this report) that the criminal Murdoch empire appears to have been behind the hacking that led to the Climategate scandal that revealed alleged unprofessional e-mails sent between climate scientists, and gave (until it was debunked) unwarranted credibility to climate change deniers just before a major climate change conference. Thanks to Raffi Aftandelian for the link. Olbermann also had a scathing rant on the debt “settlement”.
The Curious Case of WTC Building 7: A decade after 9/11, the reason for the collapse, 8 hours after the twin towers came down, of the 47-story Building 7, remains unsolved. It was not even mentioned in the 9/11 commission report.
(Original source of this poster unknown, possibly Johnnie Moore.)
FUN AND INSPIRATION
Grade Creep: Why your kid’s A average means nothing these days.
Isaac Newton Invented the Cat Flap Door: And other things you probably don’t know about cats.
Citizen Forecloses on Deadbeat Bank: You probably heard about this by now, but a Florida family successfully foreclosed on a local Bank of America branch which owed them legal costs and punitive damages for wrongly issuing foreclosure proceedings against them (they had no mortgage), when the bank was tardy in paying up. Thanks to Raffi Aftandelian (and several others) for the link.
The Backfire Effect: David McRaney explains why, when we hear something that reinforces what we believe, we accept it uncritically, but when we hear something that contradicts what we believe, it actually reinforces our belief to the contrary. Thanks to Tree for the link.
That Truck Driver You Flipped Off? Let Me Tell You His Story: A moving, true story about one man’s tragic life, and about the need to think twice before we get angry at fellow citizens when so many are suffering. Thanks to Bill Tozier for the link.
THOUGHTS OF THE MONTH
From Jessica Hische: “The work you do while you procrastinate is probably the work you should be doing for the rest of your life.”
From Michael J. Fox in A Funny Thing Happened… (thanks to Marc Hudson and Edgerider for the link):
Before I continue with my own personal story, let me give you some idea of where I’m heading. It’s all about control. Control is illusory. No matter what university you go to, no matter what degree you hold, if your goal is to become master of your own destiny, you have more to learn. Parkinson’s is a perfect metaphor for lack of control. Every unwanted movement in my hand or arm, every twitch that I cannot anticipate or arrest, is a reminder that even in the domain of my own being, I am not calling the shots. I tried to exert control by drinking myself to a place of indifference, which just exacerbated the sense of miserable hopelessness.
I always find it ironic when people refer to me and my situation as “the fight of his life,” or describe me as a “battler” or “engaged in a struggle.” None of these terms apply to the way that I now approach my disease. The only way I could win – if winning means achieving and maintaining a happy and balanced life – was to surrender, and I took the first baby steps toward that victory by admitting powerlessness over alcohol.
Sober didn’t mean better, not right away. Far from it. There were periods of time when I spent hours and hours submerged in the bathtub, a sort of symbolic retreat back to the womb. When I wasn’t just trying to keep my head below water, the rest of those first couple of years without drinking were like a knife fight in a closet. With no escape from the disease, its symptoms and challenges, I was forced to resort to acceptance. A piece of wisdom I picked up along the way became the basis of a liberating new approach to life: “My happiness grows in direct proportion to my acceptance, and in inverse proportion to my expectation.”
How do we live our lives once we let go of the illusion [that we’re in control]?
We stop setting goals, and instead do what excites us.
We stop planning, and just do.
We stop looking at the future, and live in the moment.
We stop trying to control others, and focus instead on being kind to them.
We learn that trusting our values is more important to [deciding what we should do] than desiring and striving for certain outcomes.
We take each step lightly, with balance, in the moment, guided by those values and what we’re passionate about … rather than trying to plan the next 1,000 steps and where we’ll end up.
We learn to accept the world as it is, rather than being annoyed with it, stressed by it, mad at it, despaired by it, or trying to change it into what we want it to be.
We are never disappointed with how things turn out, because we never expected anything — we just accept what comes.
From Bill Tozier, about co-work as the essence of true, sustainable entrepreneurship:
It’s not about “work” at all. Real coworking is about the “co-” part, about being together. Pride. Like-mindedness. About avoiding the risks and vicissitudes of sitting at work by yourself, not being exposed to the externalities of real life by yourself, about not reinventing the wheel by yourself every time a computer acts weird or a contract gets confusing or a lawsuit pops up or your dog needs a play date or you have too much work.
And (because this comes up) it’s not about being some kind of consensus-driven co-op, either. We remain independent, or we lose our self-definition completely and fall back to being mere amateurs with “lifestyle businesses”.
Nope. Coworking is a way of eating entropy. Redirecting risk using community dynamics. If you want to think about it in a confrontational way, it’s about co-opting the same social design patterns—colocation, team formation, complementary skillsets, tacit knowledge banking, and collaborative risk balancing—that corporations bring to bear against us.
From Tim DeChristopher, outrageously sentenced to two years in jail for disrupting Bush’s crown land oil and mineral right sell-off auction by bidding amounts far beyond what he could afford to pay, at his sentencing (thanks to several readers for sending this link):
I’m not saying any of this to ask you for mercy, but to ask you to join me. If you side with Mr Huber and believe that your role is to discourage citizens from holding their government accountable, then you should follow his recommendations and lock me away. I certainly don’t want that. I have no desire to go to prison, and any assertion that I want to be even a temporary martyr is false. I want you to join me in standing up for the right and responsibility of citizens to challenge their government. I want you to join me in valuing this country’s rich history of nonviolent civil disobedience. If you share those values but think my tactics are mistaken, you have the power to redirect them. You can sentence me to a wide range of community service efforts that would point my commitment to a healthy and just world down a different path. You can have me work with troubled teens, as I spent most of my career doing. You can have me help disadvantaged communities or even just pull weeds for the BLM. You can steer that commitment if you agree with it, but you can’t kill it. This is not going away. At this point of unimaginable threats on the horizon, this is what hope looks like. In these times of a morally bankrupt government that has sold out its principles, this is what patriotism looks like. With countless lives on the line, this is what love looks like, and it will only grow. The choice you are making today is what side are you on.
Don’t talk, then, about the wildness in our rhetoric today, and its undeniable roots in that deep strain of political violence that runs through our national DNA, on a gene that is not always recessive. Don’t relate Centennial Park in Atlanta in 1996 to Oklahoma City to murdered doctors to Columbine, and then to Tucson and to the bag on the bench in Spokane. Ignore the patterns, deep and wide, that connect each event to the other like a slow-burning fuse to a charge. That there are among us rage-hardened, powerless people who resort to the gun and the bomb. That there are powerful people who deplore the gun and the bomb, but who do not hesitate to profit from their use. And when the gun goes off or the bomb explodes, the powerful will deplore the actions of the powerless, and they will reassure the rest of us that We are not like Them, who are violent and crazy and whose acts have no reason beyond unfathomable madness. But above all, they will say, Ignore the fact that there is still a horrible utility in political violence, the way there was during Reconstruction, or during the labor wars of the early twentieth century. If there were not, it wouldn’t be so hard to get an abortion in Kansas, and assault weapons would not have been accessories of choice at recent rallies purportedly held to discuss changes in the way the country organizes its health-care system.