A Different Kind of Animal

This clip is an 8-second excerpt of a short doc by Journey to the Microcosmos; this is almost exactly what I see under my little microscope

I am watching a couple of tardigrades — an animal quite distinct from any other in existence — under a microscope. They’re only about 1/2 mm long, but under the 150x lens of my $19 microscope they’re easy to see, and, if you start with wet moss, pretty easy to find too (they actively toss the moss around looking for food, so you just look for movement and there they are). They have 8 clawed legs, distinct heads, two ‘eyes’, brains, complete digestive and nervous systems, muscles (but no bones), and blood cells, but no one knows how they actually breathe or circulate blood and oxygen (they have no heart, lungs or veins). They’ve been around about a half billion years, can live over 100 years, and can contract into a dormant ‘tun’ state when living conditions are unfavourable, for an almost indefinite period, returning to life as conditions improve. And they are everywhere.

They give me pause, even though in many ways they’re much less strange than larger and equally ancient creatures like jellyfish and bats.

When I look at the tardigrades, I realize that, inside this body, there’s a similar world of billions of tiny creatures making me what I ‘am’. And that what ‘I’ am is not a creature, but a complicity of billions of creatures, gathered together in a shell called ‘skin’, just like the tardigrade. To call the collective within that skin a ‘creature’ is a mis-conception, a convenient naming convention, but nevertheless a lie. We apparent humans seem to use that convention in an honest and understandable attempt to make sense of things.

But that isn’t quite right. The thing that is trying to make sense of things, apparently, is the brain. The impossible complexity within what we label the digestive system also makes sense of things, usually quite brilliantly thanks to the billions of years of conditioned ‘knowledge’ in its DNA, and thanks to its experience (which, sadly, in the modern human body is horrifically limited due to the impoverished nutrition of homogenized and sterilized industrial agriculture, and to our equally sterilized, diminished living ‘environments’).

Making sense of things is what the brain does, and in very large and complex brains it does this in part by abstraction. It looks for patterns, invents models, and tries them out. Because this process is so slow, and so energy-intensive, it is unlikely it would have evolved as a survival system; until we fucked up their ecosystems, many species with large brain capacity thrived without any apparent need to abstract anything. Their brains instead serve almost exclusively (as ours used to) as what Stewart & Cohen call a centralized “feature detection system”.

Creatures like jellyfish have a highly-effective feature detection system, but it is distributed throughout their bodies rather than centred in one specialized processing ‘centre’. The fact they have been around for 650 million years while humans are still struggling with our first million, suggests their sense-making might be at least as good as ours.

As I’ve mentioned before, my hypothesis is that the abstracting capacity of large centralized brains was a spandrel, an unintended consequence of the growth of brains that occurred when we apes left our home in the trees of the rainforest and went to the sea, with its more moderate climate and its abundance of protein-rich foods. Human creatures never needed large brains in the rainforest that was our home for most of our million years on the planet — everything we needed was in abundance and in arms’ reach.

But when we left our forest Eden, likely because of drastic climate change (ice ages, catastrophic cosmic radiation etc), our survival depended now on a capacity to adapt to many different and new threats and environments. Early human ‘civilizations’ generally popped up in coastal and marine areas where there was an abundance of protein rich seafood. So my hypothesis is that our new protein-rich diets expanded our brains’ capacities, and that such expanded capacities were essential to our species’ survival (we apparently reached numbers as low as a few thousand humans in the transition, and lived almost exclusively by the sea).

These new larger brains would have some essential qualities — an ability to memorize more types of food, more places, and more diverse dangers. One such new memory would have been the discovery that after catastrophes (fires, floods etc) there would briefly be an abundance of a few homogenous plants, before successor species and the planet’s natural propensity for increasing diversity and complexity again took hold. What would have gone through the growing brains of prehistoric humans witnessing this? The fact that continually disturbing that diversity (via irrigation, the use of human-made fires, weeding etc) might allow that abundance of one type of food to continue indefinitely. Thence was born, I would posit, what is called catastrophic (monoculture, high-intervention) agriculture, enabling (indeed, requiring) the first human settlements. And in fact, this is seemingly how human civilizations began, independently in many places around the globe, and likely before language or other abstract inventions came into being.

So, I would argue, the capacity of abstraction wasn’t necessary for any of this to happen — just brains large enough to manage a greater diversity of memories, patterns and sense-making.

But such brains are capable of abstraction, and as long as the creatures with these brains were thriving on their new seafood diets, the capacity for abstraction was, I would suggest, inevitably going to be one of the experiments that nature tried out. Even if it was completely unnecessary, if it survived in these new larger brains, this new capacity was going to hang around. In that sense it’s analogous to sex and death — qualities that jellyfish and tardigrades show us really aren’t essential to a species’ or ecosystem’s capacity to thrive. They were never needed, but because the creatures that had them thrived, so did those amazing, dreadful characteristics.

So our brains evolved the capacity to abstract their environments in a very simplified model — to create the concepts of space and time as placeholders for their increasingly sophisticated memories, and then to begin to conceive of cause and effect — patterns that seemed correlated in space and time, and to start to ‘predict’ what might happen in an abstracted ‘future’. No matter that these models and predictions and the ideas, thoughts and feelings they provoked, were illusory and useless (too simplified, too slow) — the brain had evolved the capacity to notice features and patterns and make sense of them, regardless of their utility, and so it did.

And then came the pièce de résistance — in order to make these models more complete and satisfying, the brain invented, conceptualized, made up from nothing, the concept of a separate self, something to put in the ‘centre’ of the model which hopefully would make it more useful.

As I think most will admit, once the brain has decided something is true and real, it is very difficult to shift it. It has ‘made up its mind’. So, I would conjecture, ever since then, the brain has rationalized that everything that happens to that separate self is real, that this separate self actually controls the brain and body that invented it, and that everything else around this now-real separate self must perforce also be real — including space, time and other ‘people’ (abstractions of collections of cells and organs within a skin, including the brain that abstracts them and the ‘self’ that presumably sits at the centre of them).

Every decision that is apparently made by this collection, this complicity of cells and organs, is thereafter rationalized as being a decision ‘made’ by the self from its position in alleged control over the brain. And every conceived action of ‘other’ complicities of cells and organs is rationalized as being an action of that complicity’s controlling ‘self’.

This is of course what most of us ‘selves’ take for granted. But science is demonstrating that it just isn’t so. There is in fact, neuroscientists say, no such thing as a ‘self’, and the actions a particular complicity of cells and organs appears to take are in fact autonomous, merely being rationalized (made sense of) in the brain afterwards, as being the ‘self’s supposed action. And quantum science and astrophysics and philosophy are quickly converging on a consensus that there is no real ‘time’ or ‘space’ within which anything ‘real’ can happen — that these are just mental constructs, persuasive but illusory sense-making by the brain. And even more astonishingly, that there is no need for time or space or a separate ‘observer’ for the mathematics and physics to model with delicious precision what is actually apparently ‘happening’.

When this first occurred to me, I set it aside (like other things that seemed to make some sense but which I couldn’t make sense of). I started to explore ideas for ‘realizing’ the illusory nature of my ‘self’ and the apparent ‘unreality’ of time and space and everything separate. This naturally took me into spiritual studies, and then to self-proclaimed spiritual teachers (Eckhart Tolle, Adyashanti, ‘Direct Path’ non-dualists etc) who suggested pathways and practices that might lead to such realization, to a confirmation that this very strong intuition that there was ‘not two’ — nothing separate — was true.

I found the paths frustrating and fruitless (though this character is, by nature, impatient), and finally stumbled upon Tony Parsons and the other ‘messengers’ of what I (and some of them) have come to call Radical Non-duality, which posits this simple, hopeless, pathless statement:

There is no you. The sense of a separate person with free will and choice inhabiting a body is an illusion, an evolutionary misstep, a psychosomatic misunderstanding that arises in creatures with large brains. The brain and body have no need of a ‘self’ in order for the apparent human they are seemingly a part of to function perfectly well. Since there is no you, there is nothing you can do or learn or become to dispel or see through this illusion. It’s hopeless.

Nothing is real. Nothing is separate. There is no thing. There is only this (or everything, or whatever word you want to use), appearing as things and actions in (apparent) time and space. These appearances are not illusions like the self, and they’re not real, or unreal; they are just appearances. Inexplicably. For no reason or purpose. That’s it.

For the past four years I’ve been probing this, convinced that it’s too simple, too pat, and too outrageous to be correct. I am the definitive Doubting Thomas. But today I believe it more strongly, partly because it stands up intellectually so well to new discoveries and doubts, partly because there have been times when there has been a glimpse during which it was seen as obviously true, and partly because, well, it just seems intuitively correct. Something in me resonates with this statement of what is.

In some cases, it seems, the illusion of the separate self can just, without cause or reason, fall away, and, as in the ‘glimpses’, this truth is seen (but not ‘by’ me, not ‘by’ anyone) to be true. And in some cases the falling away of the self is apparently permanent. Frank McCaughey has now interviewed a number of apparent people who say this has apparently happened (but not ‘to’ anyone) and that there is no longer a sense of separation, self, or ‘reality’ ‘there’. Frank’s another Doubting Thomas like me, just as obsessed with this, and just as stubbornly and unwillingly imprisoned by his ‘self’ as I am.

When I first listened to (and later met) Tony and Jim, and then listened to Tim, Kenneth and others, I was suspicious that it was a con — they mostly know each other and in some cases have come to use many of the same words to describe the mystery that this message refers to. But it’s too consistent to be a con — no one could talk about this falsely for 20 years without making some mistake revealing it to be an invention. None of them is making any money communicating this message. And it’s not an easy gig, especially when some of the ‘messengers’ are struggling to make ends meet, continuing to work at terrible jobs, and in a few cases are not terribly well-read or articulate. Still, no matter how variably worded and described, it’s clearly the same message. I’m convinced that if Einstein were alive today he’d be on board with this, and people would be lamenting that he’d lost his edge, and his mind.

The reason that watching the tardigrades puts me in mind of this is that it brings home just how much of what is apparently happening is beyond our grasp, beyond our knowing, beyond our control, not just for now but always. For some, that might be enough to drive them to religion, or spirituality, or therapy, and leave it at that.

But this ‘I’ can’t leave it at that. There is something here, something obvious, something at once awesome and awful, something forever beyond our human selves’ reach. Something I’m guessing that, outside of selves, is universally and perpetually seen. The self does not stand in the way of the apparent complicities of creatures that appear, amazingly, out of nothing, without limit, without beginning or end or purpose or meaning, outside of time and space. Seeing what is is not an issue for the tardigrades, or the jellyfish, or the bats. There — everywhere — everything can see the wonder of everything that is. It is only the spandrel of the human self, that tragic cosmic accident, that cannot see.

Posted in Our Culture / Ourselves | 10 Comments

Links of the Month: January 2020

Too many great links to wait until the end of the quarter to post them all. So here we go with another Links of the Month:


cartoon by Michael Leunig

The Unnecessariat: A fascinating ‘future state’ scenario collaboration says that we are moving from a state of ‘precarity’ (everything is now precarious) to one of being ‘unnecessary’ (everything happens without the need of our labour, our votes, our actions, our decisions, or even our money — the ultra-rich have enough to keep computed GDP growing indefinitely). Of course, it’s all still built on faith in the economy’s ability to continue to grow unhampered forever, on the indefinite continuation of a very stable climate, and on our complacency. If we move from ‘reduce, reuse, recycle’ to ‘cease, dismantle, hack’, can we fight back against this “not with a bang, but a whimper” dystopia? (Thanks to John Thackara for the link).


photo by Katie Forrester last week at the Bandon OR Circles in the Sand

Intentional Community: The Next Generation: Mike Mariani profiles [paywall*]  the current state of Intentional Communities in the US and describes the changes they have gone through over the past few  decades. Thanks to Tree Bressen for the link.

Organized innovation is an illusion: Nina Kollars (who also reveals how you might be the inadvertent ‘mule’ in a ‘triangulation fraud’ when on-line shopping) explains how innovation actually occurs — organically, at the front lines of organizations, unaffected by top-down ‘initiatives’.

Taking all sides: Rosa Zubizarreta explains an approach called Dynamic Facilitation, which entails, instead of strict neutrality on the part of the facilitator, the capacity to intervene as ‘respondent’ when someone offers a criticism of what someone else has said. So instead of the criticism being ‘directed’ at the idea originator, it is instead listened to and responded to by the facilitator, so the idea originator can listen more objectively than might be possible if the criticism was ‘aimed at them’ and taken ‘personally’.

Why are poor countries poor?: Vlog brother John Green explains that it is colonial resource theft and bribes by rich nations, and foreign-financed civil wars that have impoverished and immiserated most poor nations, far more than domestic corruption and disease which just feeds on the dregs rich nations have left behind.

Watch out Ford, he’s coming there next: Terry Christenson, a 72-year-old Métis who has dedicated his life to climate change activism, will be released from his latest jail sentence next month and [paywall*] then heads to Ontario for his next action.

Jordan the “nutty professor”: Another brilliant critique of the misogynist Canadian Prof. Peterson, this time by a Scottish publication.


photo from I’m Not Right in the Head Facebook page

George Monbiot on gaming democracy: “The oligarchs have discovered the formula for persuading the poor to vote for the interests of the very rich”. Thanks to Jae Mather for the link.

The pipeline that keeps bleeding: Andrew Nikiforuk explains how the post-Kinder Morgan Trans Mountain Tar Sands pipeline deal was deliberately structured to compensate the corporate sellers at the expense of public taxpayers.

… as the Tar Sands keep gouging and poisoning: Get ready for Frontier — the newest and biggest yet (100 sq. mi., twice the size of Vancouver) bitumen sludge mine in the atrocity that is the Alberta Tar Sands. It’s absolutely game over for 2ºC-of-warming goals if it is approved. Expect it to get approved next month by the hypocritical and gutless Trudeau government.

How Google tries to have it both ways: Did you know Google maps “tailors” the national boundaries it shows you based on your ISP location?

The Ox-Bow Incident, redux: Those familiar with the novel will appreciate the irony in the residents of Oxbow, Saskatchewan seeking to discipline the schoolteacher who held a green-themed Christmas pageant for being “anti-oil”.

A taste for blood: US exports of blood products, mostly “donated” by poor Americans desperate for the small amounts of money they receive for them, now exceed US exports of corn and soybeans in value. Thanks to Ben Collver for the link, and the one that follows.

Fake news vs fiction: “Good, meaningful fiction does not confirm preexisting beliefs; its entire raison d’être is to disturb and challenge such beliefs.” Especially in India, deliberately provocative fake news is now causing an upswell in hate-killings, riots and other crimes. Coming soon to a place near you?

Homeless in Toronto: Four men describe what it’s like when the loss of a job, or your health, lands you, for years, on the street.

Banking while indigenous: An indigenous grandfather and his 12-year-old grand-daughter were publicly handcuffed in front of a Vancouver Bank of Montreal after trying to open an account there. A racist employee had called the police (falsely) claiming a “fraud” had been committed.

What’s ‘extreme’ to you..: US Homeland Security now lists non-violent climate protesters as equivalent ‘terrorist’ risks to mass murderers. Thanks to Ken Ward for the link. (British police apparently agree with DHS.)

Purpose-ly misleading: Hot on the heels of a “purpose-led life”, now we have business gurus and executives talking about “the purpose paradigm” and “purposeful careers”. It’s doublespeak for lauding over-paid, worthless billionaire “leaders” for throwing a few pennies of their obscene, mostly-inherited, unearned and untaxed wealth to philanthropic purpose, instead of dealing with the ghastly inequality of wealth, income and power that sucks any sense of real purpose out of the lives of the 99%. Thanks to Tree Bressen for the link.


another photo from I’m Not Right in the Head Facebook page

The theft of our autonomy: Jon Barnes explains how our patriarchal and self-domesticating culture (perhaps unintentionally) robs us of the capacity to self-manage and instead imposes dysfunctional hierarchies to make all but the most trivial decisions. Thanks to Tree Bressen for the link.

How to sound like…: Nahre Sol plays a happy-birthday-like motif in the style of ten different classical composers. Brilliant.

Things Parisians say: You never learned this stuff in high-school French class.

Pedalling with rail-bikes: Perhaps the ultimate cycling adventure is pedalling through the redwood forest on a cycle built for rails. Thanks to Beth Patterson for the link.

The Subjective Mood: Adam O’Fallon Price laments the marked shift in modern fiction from third person to first person narrative, and the lack of ‘objectivity’, the imaginative poverty and perhaps the narcissism that shift implies.

Kitbull: A charming and tear-jerking Pixar short, with a happy ending.

Seeing without eyes: Two sea creatures can ‘see’ without using eyes. Optical sensors in octopi’s skin detect changes in brightness and colour of surroundings and prompt changes in skin camouflage. And the brittle-star, a starfish cousin, has no eyes at all, and no brain, but still uses its skin sensors to perceive threats, safe hiding places, and prey.

False positives: There are a number of negative words like disgusted and ineffable that do not have corresponding positives (when the negative prefix is removed). Here’s a round-up of twelve of them.


image from Pixabay by aitoff (CC0)

Letting ‘you’ down gently: I’m working on a new blog article based on Frank McCaughey’s radical non-duality video podcast series called Can I Be Frank? (aka Behind the Curtain). But in the meantime, here are two superb new videos on the subject (transcripts of both to come):

Tony Parsons interviewed by Devasetu 

Tim Cliss interviewed by Frank McCaughey (18:57 on)

Donald Hoffman’s “conscious agent theory”: While not exactly non-dual, this theory holds that reality isn’t made up of “things” but rather non-physical “conscious agents” that invent a simulation of reality that optimizes survival; this is probably the most comprehensive interview on the subject to date.


Where did our languages come from? Probably not where you thought. Examples:

    • The Turkic languages (see map above; click on image to see full-size version) originated in what is now Mongolia before 500 BCE, and are now widely spoken in Siberia, in Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Azerbaijan, significant parts of Afghanistan and Iran, by the much-persecuted Uighur peoples of West China, and of course in Turkey. But the Turkish language was a late-comer to Turkey, being spoken in many Arabic nations and India before reaching modern-day Turkey around 1100 CE. Apparently the Uighur can understand speakers of modern Turkish.
    • The Indo-European Languages originated in the Caucasus mountain areas of Western Asia around 4000 BCE. By around 2000 BCE a separate branch, the Celtic Languages, emerged in the Alps; they spread west as far as Eire and then almost died out everywhere else by around 800 CE, before slowly expanding east again in Brittany, Cornwall, Wales and Scotland.
    • The Polynesian languages, including Hawaiian and Maori, all originated in what is now Taiwan, where they were nearly extinguished.
    • No one can agree on where the Uralic languages (Finnish, Hungarian, Estonian, the arctic Sami and Samoyed languages etc) originated. And the origins of the Kartvelian (Georgian) and Basque languages remain a mystery.
    • The lesson seems to be that new languages are best birthed and nurtured in isolated mountain areas and islands.

From Poetry Magazine (1921):

The Snow Man, by Wallace Stevens

One must have a mind of winter
To regard the frost and the boughs
Of the pine-trees crusted with snow;

And have been cold a long time
To behold the junipers shagged with ice,
The spruces rough in the distant glitter

Of the January sun; and not to think
Of any misery in the sound of the wind,
In the sound of a few leaves,

Which is the sound of the land
Full of the same wind
That is blowing in the same bare place

For the listener, who listens in the snow,
And, nothing himself, beholds
Nothing that is not there and the nothing that is.

*denotes paywall-blocked and ad-blocker-blocked articles: if you want to bother reading them, you can use text-only “reader” apps with your browser to circumvent the ‘wall’

Posted in How the World Really Works, Our Culture / Ourselves, Preparing for Civilization's End | 1 Comment

The Apology

photo by the author

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

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

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

Dear Mother,

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Eve Ensler

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

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

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

Collective Intelligence to Make Sense of Complexity

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

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

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

and then we charted that story:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Posted in How the World Really Works | 1 Comment

the ever-stranger


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

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

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

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

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

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

and still ‘I’ do not understand.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Posted in Creative Works | 3 Comments

Making Sense of Who We Are

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

Links of the Quarter: December 2019

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

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

cartoon by Scott Metzger from Facebook


cartoon by Michael Leunig

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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


another cartoon by Michael Leunig, of course

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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


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

From Nate Hagens & Rob Mielcarski:

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

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

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

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

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

Posted in How the World Really Works, Our Culture / Ourselves, Preparing for Civilization's End | 1 Comment

Understanding Collapse: A Physical Systems View

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

My thoughts on that, coming soon.


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

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

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

The World’s Most Blessed Agnostic

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

Posted in Our Culture / Ourselves | 8 Comments

Dave’s Favourite Songs of the 2010s

seal photo from a recent video by my friend Bob Turner

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

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

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

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

Happy exploring!

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