Accepting Incoherence and “Unknowingness”

Notes from a reformed sense-maker.

For much of my life, I was paid, and rewarded, to make sense of complex situations. I was told I was pretty good at it, especially for my ability to “imagine possibilities” that drew on a broad (if somewhat shallow) understanding of many diverse subjects.

Now I think that what I did, and what most of us do, when we try to make sense of things, is to oversimplify, often dangerously and misleadingly. I’m no longer sure we understand anything, beyond simple mechanical things. Our proudly held beliefs are little more than opinions, and we all know how useful they are.

I once thought that the secret of understanding lay in listening, really listening, to stories that provided a deep context, and appreciation for what is supposedly known but also what is clearly felt. Much has been written about the importance of ‘communities’ having a shared story about their culture — about what they collectively believe and do. But increasingly I see stories used to manipulate, to misinform, and, for those who don’t buy into the story, to exclude.

I think we may have arrived at a place and time where we have a multiplicity of stories that co-exist, some well, some poorly, in the same physical spaces. Many of us are oblivious to most of these stories, and if we were honest we’d have to admit that we ‘hear’ and respond only to the ones to which we can personally relate. It takes far more time and energy than most people have to really listen to the whole spectrum of stories, and to appreciate that it’s impossible to ‘make sense’ of them as all being part of some coherent whole. In our astonishingly mobile and transient world, almost all local cultures, and their stories, are now, I think, incoherent.

This is far more evident here where I live now, in Coquitlam, where there is a pandemonium of radically different stories, strongly shaped by the enormous ethnic and cultural diversity of its people, the majority of whose families migrated here from Asian, not European nations, and mostly relatively recently. As a New Yorker article this month explained about the Taiwanese-American ‘culture’, even that cultural microcosm is an amalgam, not a melting pot, of vastly different stories, most of them divergent, unfamiliar and unappreciated even among members of that micro-culture.

So how do we now collect, Dave Snowden style, enough stories to be able to do anything more than oversimplify, generalize and reflect our own cognitive and cultural biases in what stories we really ‘hear’ and how we understand them? Is there a danger that, in our eagerness to find patterns and meaning in our dizzying array of stories, we will see patterns that don’t really exist, see patterns because we want to see them or believe them to be real when they are actually not? That we will tell people, including ourselves, what we and they want to believe is true rather than what is really true?

That in our determination to paint a portrait of the vast forest we will overlook most of the beautiful, distinctive, essential nuances of each individual tree?

Perhaps today’s community doesn’t have a shared story, a voice or a soul, but rather a multiplicity of stories, voices and souls with more gaps and inexplicable inconsistencies between them than synergies and overlaps. Perhaps our real goal, then, is not to arrive at coherence about all these stories, but just to become better at listening to them, and appreciating their incoherence? And rather than trying to parse meaning out of the cacophony, perhaps we would be wiser to just appreciate, and even revel, in the dissonance, the unknowingness, the sheer impossibility of making sense of it?

My sense is that in extremely complex and rapidly-changing situations, humility might dictate that we simply cannot make sense of the situation in any appropriately thorough, actionable way. Instead, we might find it more fruitful to just listen (in the Bohm Dialogue sense), without judging, evaluating, reacting, filtering, and consciously ‘making sense’ and meaning of what we hear. That would entail listening ‘with our whole bodies’, and ‘hearing’ the feelings as well as the thoughts — feelings that probably make no ‘logical’ sense but are just as important as the thoughts that seemingly do. Perhaps that’s sufficient. Perhaps that’s the best that we can do.

In other words, maybe it’s time to:

  1. Acknowledge that we cannot “know” enough to suggest that any patterns are clear, or that any particular action/response is appropriate.
  2. Accept that the value of listening to stories is simply learning something new, opening ourselves up to new understandings, not in synthesizing what we hear into some pattern or product that is certainly an oversimplification and possibly dangerously wrong.
  3. Give up on the very human proclivity to try to make sense of everything, and accept that nothing has to make sense.
  4. Dispense with the idea that ‘effective’ learning about a situation necessarily entails (i) a groan zone (where we struggle to synthesize or make sense) and (ii) convergence (where we force everyone to agree on what makes sense from a wildly disparate collection of knowledge and possibilities). What’s left isn’t chaotic “divergence”; it’s opening ourselves to new information, ideas, perspectives and possibilities. Just sitting with them, and allowing insight and understanding to emerge, or not, may be enough. That seems to me to be what quite a few First Nations approaches do.

Of course, if we were to do that honestly, many of us would find ourselves out of a job, including a lot of ‘pundits’, op-ed writers, bad journalists, bloggers, ‘experts’, and consultants.

When the only tool at your disposal is sense-making, there is perhaps a danger that every situation starts to look like a problem that has to be made sense of.

If we were able to put that fraught tool aside, would we be able to see the world with more equanimity, less distress, and better focus? Do our bodies, with their instincts and subconscious skills at dealing with the world — skills and capacities that have evolved over millions of years — ‘know’ better how we can best ‘fit’ in this unfathomable world, than our furiously sense-making brains could ever hope to?

Posted in How the World Really Works, Our Culture / Ourselves | 4 Comments

Nothing Has to Make Sense

image of Hoy Creek Trail; screenshot from the video linked below from KWG Vids

One of my favourite walks, just a couple of minutes from home, is the Hoy Creek trail that runs from the “city centre” (which is actually in the NE corner of the city) in a meandering course about 8km to the north edge of city centre park, with its many sports grounds and Lafarge Lake (a well-maintained and night-lit artificial lake named after the cement company that ‘donated’ it).

It’s a bit like going back in time — suddenly all the modern high-rises become invisible through the foliage. The trail is surrounded by trees, a small park buffer on one side, and the creek which it criss-crosses several times. The housing that is visible is mostly older but well-maintained (what might be called ‘stately’) low-rise apartment buildings whose visible balconies are full of shrubs and plants and easy chairs.

These apartments give me flashbacks to my very first home on Middle Gate in Winnipeg, when I was only one or two years old. I vaguely remember the ornate heating vents and plush carpets (eye level at that age, I guess), and somehow I remember the walk to the Assiniboine River, on a narrow forest pathway that still exists today. I sensed the forest and river as something magical, incongruous with everything else I perceived in the world. These are my earliest memories of trying to make sense of what made no sense, finding that attempt to be unhelpful, and resigning myself to just accept, and wonder. That felt right, back then.

As I walk I am ruminating on the habit of sense-making. The human self, I am coming to accept, is even less than an illusion — it is a process, the obsessive process of sense-making, which the brain has personified to provide a conceptual centre from which to map all its frenzied sense-making. 

The brain is conditioned, by the examples of other humans’ brains, to consider sense-making a good and necessary thing, when it is actually neither. We do not, and cannot, ever know even a tiny fraction of what is actually happening, so we cannot possibly really make sense of anything. Yet we are compelled to try, and that compulsion is the basis for humans’ limitless anxieties, hatreds, jealousies, envies, despair, sadness and depression. We believe, erroneously, that we have made sense of things, and we do not like what that sense-making tells us is true.

Most of us, in fact, depend for our reputations, our social status, and our jobs, on our apparent facility at sense-making. Executives, decision-makers, analysts, op-ed writers, ‘pundits’ and consultants are mostly paid and listened to on the basis they make sense better than we could without them. It’s a farce, but as long as we all believe it, it will remain ‘true’.

It is beginning to dawn on me (as, perhaps, it did when I was two) that not only does nothing ‘make sense’ in the way we want to believe it does, nothing has to make sense. Everything that is apparently happening in the world is happening despite all our sense-making, which is just after-the-fact rationalization of what has inevitably, and only apparently, happened. Our sense-making has affected, influenced and changed nothing.

We are all frauds, pretending to play important roles when all we’ve really done is dress up, climb on stage and read the important- and knowledgeable-sounding lines of the characters assigned to us. Somehow, as a very young child, I ‘knew’ that. And then I forgot.

My walk has taken me to the salmon hatchery, an innocuous looking shed run by the local volunteer watershed conservation society. These volunteers also label local storm drains with salmon logos to remind residents not to allow oil, paint, soap, detergents, herbicides, insecticides, antifreeze or fertilizers to be washed into these drains, which empty into fish-bearing creeks and rivers.

The path is frequented by raccoons and deer and the occasional bear, and at certain times of day and night by small congregations of people, both neighbours gathered to eat or smoke together, and some others who look pretty down on their luck. They all seem to coexist with the apartment dwellers, I suppose as long as everyone minds their own business. 

All of this — the creation and maintenance of the trail, my walking along it, the fish in the creek, the bears and raccoons that wade into the water to catch them, the people gathered together around the trail benches, and those that sleep by the creek, out of sight — is happening for no reason, not because anyone has made a conscious choice or decision. We are all just acting out our conditioning.

There are no limits to what our conditioning will bring us to do. I think about Ukraine, Afghanistan, Yemen, propaganda, lies, horrific and preplanned violence.

No choice. No limits. 

I think about the word ‘maintenance’, which is, it seems, everyone’s job these days, foolishly trying to hold off the inevitable collapse of everything. The word comes from the Latin words meaning ‘to hold in your hand’. No one can hold anything in their hand for very long. The French word maintenant, from the same root, means ‘now’. Of course, there is no ‘now’. Time is just a construct, a way of making sense. The moment we sense that there is something in our hand, that moment has already gone.

I pick up a leaf, and toss it into the air. The leaf, my hand, all of it, is no longer there.

Back on the bustling city streets, I try to listen to the voices of the people I pass. I have started to learn to distinguish Chinese languages from Japanese and Korean, by the lilt, the length of words, and the stresses of syllables (Korean has no stressed syllables, which, when carried over to their pronunciation of English, is quite striking). And I’m starting to be able to distinguish Farsi, especially when I hear French words sprinkled into conversations (French was the second official language of Iran for many years).

But of course I don’t know what they are saying. So instead I pay attention in other ways: body language, facial expressions, tone of voice, hand movements. I am not trying to make sense of it, just listening, noticing. The nuance of a touch, a snort, a leaning in, or a leaning away. We say so much, even when we are not speaking.

Back in the apartment, staring out at the garish spectacle of thousands of lights within my amazing, panoramic view of this beautiful, terrible city, I listen to a YouTube video of Khatia Buniatishvili playing Rachmaninoff’s Second Piano Concerto. I occasionally glance down, through my tears, at the video, and marvel at the movement of her hands. And more than that, though she is mostly playing with eyes closed, I marvel at how intently she is listening to, and speaking through her hands with, the members of the orchestra. This is not just an astonishing performance; It is a conversation.

I will spend the rest of my life trying, mostly badly, to learn to listen better, to pay attention to the wonders that my sense-making brain quickly, automatically, and uselessly, replaces with their ‘meaning’. This exquisite territory, this everything, papered over with the brain’s representation, its dull, drab, two-dimensional map. 

It makes no sense.

Posted in Creative Works, How the World Really Works, Our Culture / Ourselves | 4 Comments

Our Unique Human Capacity for Hatred

My favourite Michael Leunig cartoon, and one of his darkest.

Just about all living species, it seems, feel fear, rage, and grief. These biologically and culturally conditioned emotional responses serve important evolutionary purposes. They are all emotions of the moment — they don’t endure, and pass quickly when the cause of the distress has past.

Studies on rats and other creatures have indicated that when the cause of the distress is chronic, the creature, and often its entire group, tribe, or flock, become dysfunctional — they are no longer a ‘fit’ for where they are, and it is time to flee, shut down, and stop procreating. The alphas will hoard, so that at least a few will survive the crisis, and the others will cease eating, or, if things get bad enough, eat their own young. And if the problem is excess numbers or lack of diversity, opportunistic diseases will come in to cull the herd. Nature imposes these extreme solutions only as a last resort, when other more gentle, autonomic, moderating instincts have failed to rebalance the ecosystem.

We are at this stage in human civilization, and nature, who always bats last, is now pulling out all the stops.

But there is something unique going on with our uniquely intelligent and fierce species. A few millennia of chronic stress has led to the evolution of new conditioned emotions in humans that, I believe, creatures of the the more-than-human world do not feel. Endless fear has produced in us chronic anxiety. Endless grief has produced chronic shame, guilt, longing, despair and depression. And endless rage has produced chronic envy, jealousy, and hatred.

These are not natural emotions. They require an environment of abnormal and continuous stress, and they require cultivating, sustained conditioning, modelling, encouraging, and reinforcing. We have to learn to hate. Wild creatures will explode with rage and anger, but they will not hate. That takes a capacity for abstraction and judgement they don’t have.

But when others of our species tell us, through stories and ‘news’ reports and TV dramas and movies, from an early age, how certain identified ‘others’ are deliberately and wilfully cruel, evil, and/or dangerously insane, then we’ll be conditioned to hate these ‘others’, even if we’ve never met them.

And we have to hate in order to kill, threaten, injure, harm, or incarcerate another creature other than in the immediate passion of a rage-filled moment. We have to hate in order to prepare and plan and organize to do these things. And yet hate is completely unnatural, and it has to be carefully and steadfastly sustained or it dissipates.

I’m not preaching here — I’ve done my share of hating and hate-mongering, even in recent years when I’ve started to learn the pointlessness of it. Even my blog posts in the earlier years of writing it were tinged with hate: Hatred of climate-deniers and oil executives, of violent and self-righteous right-wingers, and of mega-polluters and producers of junk, just for a start. Some of my rants have been almost legendary.

Like others, I was also guilty of hating completely abstract things, like nations, corporations, governments and organizations, and still often fall into that trap. Hatred of abstractions can never heal the way hatred of an individual can, by addressing that animosity head-on with the object of one’s animosity and mutually discharging it. In that sense abstract hatred is more dangerous than personal hatred. It’s deranged. It’s unhealthy. It’s useless. That’s true even if, as is often the case, that hatred is mutual among members of the ‘other’ group towards you and your group or community.

That’s where it starts — when those in self-identifying communities identify and foster hatred of identified, labelled outsiders for something real or imagined that one or more of the ‘other’ group has done to one or more of ‘ours’. It can lead to life-long and irrational resentment and loathing, and to vendettas and other violence that is self-perpetuating and inculcated in future generations.

My sense is that we are capable of this hatred solely because we have accepted the ubiquitous, conditioned illusion that we are separate individuals, apart from the rest of life on earth and its environment, and that we are in charge of, in control over, and responsible for these bodies we presume to inhabit. I think the reason that even other large-brained creatures exhibit rage and fear but not hate, is that they lack this illusory sense of self and separation. But that’s a conversation for another day.

Rhyd Wildermuth just wrote a remarkable essay called Human Shields and Imagined Communities, which explores two aspects of this unique and, I think, distressing human proclivity.

The first part of his essay is about the strategy of haters (in war, in protest, and in other contexts) to deliberately provoke a violent, terrifying and excessive response from ‘the other’ in order to stir up further hatred and blood-fury among their ‘own’ community.

He talks about how the despicable military tactic of using civilians as human shields (as the US-advised Ukrainian army have been doing against the Russians, and as Hamas, Hezbollah, and the Taliban have also done extensively). This tactic has also been used, Rhyd says (and he was there), by the Black Bloc against the cops during the Black Lives Matter protests.

“Especially in countries occupied by a more powerful foreign military, resistance usually requires operating from non-military buildings.” And likewise, in areas controlled by more heavily armed enemy combatants, like the new US paramilitary police forces, resistance requires hiding among other opponents and drawing them into the line of fire through violent actions, to be able to say “See — told you they were crazy violent”.

This is not of course to condone the behaviour of occupying military forces and racist, xenophobic police, security forces, and incarceration authorities. But it’s a staggeringly effective way to amplify existing fear, rage and distrust and harden it into hatred. As Rhyd puts it:

There’s a psychological strategy in this use of human shields and civilian buildings. When a school or a hospital gets blown up, the aggressor looks really, really bad. When images and videos of children with missing limbs or old women with charred skin start circulating throughout the world, it gets harder for the military who caused those acts to claim to be reasonable or have a justified grievance.

The propaganda coup won by such events isn’t just external, however. Civilian casualties tend to work very well in the favor of the defending military as well. Every time Israel sends a retaliatory rocket into Palestinian territory and kills innocents, more Palestinians are radicalized to fight Israel. The US invasion of Afghanistan and Iraq followed this same pattern, turning the local populace even more against the US each time an innocent kid was killed in an attempt against a resistance leader.

That’s why Ukraine is doing this, though they deny completely the details of the Amnesty report.

The use of human shields isn’t the only such tactic; “scorched earth” is another.

The second part of Rhyd’s essay refers to the stirring up of the “false collective consciousness” of “imagined communities”.

Once you’ve been persuaded, perhaps drawing on your very human proclivity to hate when persuaded by a blood-curdling (true or false) story, to identify yourself with a particular partisan community in opposition to another, your collective imagined community can become what’s called an egregore, a conjured-up idea (often an antipathy) that “becomes an autonomous entity with the power to influence. A group with a common purpose like a family, a club, a political party, a church, or a country can create an egregore, for better or worse depending upon the type of thought that created it”. Perhaps “boogeyman” is a more familiar term for this.

Much of our identity politics, he argues, is about creating these false us/them distinctions and then using them, through falsely-created “communities” (‘you’re with us, or you’re with them, which is it?’) as hate-fuelled weapons to attack the “other” side.

Before you know it, you’ve put a yellow and blue flag on your lawn. Before you know it, you’re suddenly terrified of China and softening to the idea of military action against its people. Before you know it, your pacifism has evaporated and you’re ready to take up arms against some imagined community that doesn’t even exist, to defend or revenge your imagined community that doesn’t even exist. Rhyd writes:

To fight for an actual community that is being threatened—your family, your friends, your neighbors—seems to be a very human thing. I’d fight to the last breath for my husband, my sisters, my nephews, and my friends, and I think most of you would all say the same thing. But I’ll be honest: I cannot think of a single abstract concept or imagined community worth risking anything for.

That is why putting civilians in harm’s way, why using residences, hospitals, and schools as military bases is a brilliant and horrible tactic. It’s how you might be able to turn a pacifist like me into a raging nationalist hell bent on sacrificing myself and strangers to avenge someone I love.

That is why the military of Ukraine is doing it.

And to take this all out of Ukraine for a moment, it seems to me that this was exactly the point of Nancy Pelosi’s visit to Taiwan. Just like the spoiled little middle class American brat throwing a bottle at the police is meant to trigger a hoped-for aggressive reaction that will turn the crowd against the police, her visit there feels calculated to have turned public opinion against China. I highly expect anti-Asian sentiment in the US to increase, and maybe we’ll soon hear beating of war drums.

We are now discovering just how effective propaganda, censorship, mis- and disinformation is at creating imagined communities and false collective consciousness. And hatred is the bedrock on which it is built.

Eastern Europe and Russia have a deep-seated hatred of each other that dates back to the atrocities of the Stalinist era and the ghastly years of the Great Depression. It was child’s play stirring it up, and in so doing bringing us to the precipice, again, of nuclear war.

Hatred, I think, is our species’ Achilles’ heel. What a hellish world it would be if it were common among other species. Fortunately, the more-than-human world seems ill-disposed to hate. Rhyd asks:

I think the forest asks a different question that humans don’t know how to ask any longer: at what point do you just live? At what point do all the ideas humans have about what is just and righteous stop and life itself takes over? And when do we finally choose to nurture, shelter, and grow the life around us rather than destroy everything at hand for someone else’s imagining?

Rhyd concludes he doesn’t know how to answer that question.

And neither do I.

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

The Importance of Listening

Yeah, I know, we all need to learn to listen better. And I promise, this isn’t a patronizing homily-filled preachy post. It’s actually about two aha! moments that happened to me today. They may not be news to you, but to me, an incurably slow learner, they hit me like a ton of bricks.

The first of these came when I watched YouTube vlogbrother Hank Green’s regular weekly four-minute (Friday) post ostensibly directed to his brother John, who lives across the country from him.

The message was straightforward: We think we listen well, but often our presuppositions, biases, judgements, beliefs/worldviews, predispositions, and expectations get in the way of really listening. And especially if we’re in the role of key decision-maker (eg politician or organizational ‘leader’), there’s a temptation to rush to judgement, or not to really listen to people we know we don’t agree with us, and instead surround ourselves with like-minded people (especially rich and powerful ones, for those who are politicians) who will make our decisions fast and easy.

Hank talks about a recently-deceased local mayor with whom he often disagreed, but always respected because of his willingness to invite people with radically different perspectives and beliefs to talk with him, and his capacity to truly listen, even though he knew that would make his decision harder. I have known lots of people in municipal leadership roles, and their jobs are awful and usually thankless. The ones I most respect, across the political spectrum, are the good listeners. And the good listeners, almost without exception, are the ones who are consciously aware of their own biases, and who don’t take the (often emotional) arguments they listen to personally — instead they listen to understand and appreciate where the speaker is coming from, both intellectually and emotionally.

I realized that, being both conflict-averse and reasonably informed on most issues (and also easily stirred up into an anxious state), my propensity is to listen principally to coherent voices that confirm my beliefs, and only check out one or two sources that conflict with them. My argument is that if I spent enough time to really understand the often incoherent and vexatious arguments that run contrary to my worldview, I would have no time for anything else, including critical thinking. But that argument is not true: When I do allow time to understand arguments I initially find outrageous or ludicrous (and sometimes deliberately provocative, overstated and unhelpful), I almost invariably learn something valuable about why they believe what they do (and it’s not because they’re dumb, evil, or cluelessly taken in by propaganda and misinformation).

Despite the fact that ‘pay attention and listen’ is part of the mantra that sits just below my laptop keyboard, I am still, too often, prone to do neither. When I do actually slow down and really listen, I am always reminded that We’re all doing our best, that We’re conditioned to do what we do (and hence it’s useful to understand how and where that conditioning arose), and that No one is to blame for the atrocities and blunders that define much of what is going on in the world, and especially in the news. And often, it’s the emotion behind what is said (often fear, anxiety, or grief) that is most important to ‘listen’ to and understand, than the argument itself.

Hank’s video also reminded me of the importance of really listening to ourselves. As a conditioned creature, I don’t believe I have any choice in what I believe or what I do. But he made me realize that I’m often not even aware that what I am doing is entirely inconsistent with what I believe. It takes a certain innate curiosity and effort to become self-aware enough to recognize and think about the cognitive dissonance that that inconsistency between belief and action brings up.

So this morning I had been lamenting the fact that there are three groups that I am a pivotal member of, which, despite my deep appreciation of most of their members and the work they do, simply are no longer enjoyable to me. So why was I still doing them?

I should have gotten a clue from the colour coding I use in my Google Calendar. I use one colour for events and activities that I love, and a different colour for those that I consider “important duties” (mostly volunteer work). When I thought about it, I discovered that the work I do for these three groups, events that used to be labelled as “activities I love”, have gradually become labelled instead as “important duties”. Yet still, I was investing a lot of time doing them. Why?

I realized that at one point, I really cared about the work these organizations were doing, and got great joy co-organizing activities with their members. But now I was doing this out of duty. I had no idea why what they were now doing was uninteresting to me, because I had simply stopped listening to their members. And I was still doing this because I had stopped listening to my own inner voice saying Why are you still doing this when you don’t enjoy it?

So today I made what for me is a momentous decision, one I should have made long ago: I am withdrawing from two of these groups entirely, and ratcheting back what I am doing for a third group to just the routine activities I actually enjoy. When I decided this, I felt an enormous sense of relief and liberation. And I reflected about why this had been so hard, which really comes back to my conditioning and my lack of listening and self-attentiveness. And the realization that my ‘belonging’ to these groups had become part of my identity. What will fill the vacuum? I have no idea.

That was my first aha! of the day.

Then a couple of hours later I was reading the latest New Yorker magazine, specifically a gruelling article about how religious-right Republicans have used gerrymandering in Ohio to achieve a permanent, guaranteed veto-proof 60% super-majority in the state legislature despite having only about 35-40% of the popular vote. They have introduced the most extreme anti-abortion (allowing no exceptions whatsoever) and extreme pro-gun (no restrictions on open carry even of automatic weapons, even without a permit, even in schools) in the US and perhaps in the world, and they’re gleefully saying that they always win no matter what the majority wants (which is, overwhelmingly, less restrictions on abortion and much stricter gun control).

My initial reaction was, of course, outrage. But as I read, I ‘listened’ to the quotes the author provided from the Ohio Republicans. And their essential message was: Fuck democracy — the will of God (as they understand it) completely outweighs the will of the voters. Might makes right. The end justifies the means. The reason the majority doesn’t agree with us is because they’re immoral foolish sinners, and their opinions don’t count. Disenfranchising them just makes sense.

Well, duh! How was it I only just figured this out? My worldview could not accept the fact that those currently engineering a Christian Fascist takeover of the nation don’t care whether what they’re doing is democratic, fair, or popular. To them, it’s moral, and that’s all that counts.

And I realized that this is the thinking and feeling (mostly the latter) that underlies just about every brutal totalitarian regime that gets into power, whether that be the Nazis, the Stalinists, the McCarthyists, the Maoists, the Taliban, the Wall Street Corporatists, or the current Republican Christian Fascists. The only difference between any of them is the particular brand of moral absolutism they adhere to. They don’t want to do ‘evil’, they want to do what they believe passionately is right, even if the majority are opposed to it.

How, as a reasonably intelligent, informed, well-read, critical thinking individual, could I have lived this long and not realized that? How could I not have understood that pointing out the unfairness or anti-democratic nature of their regimes and plans was, to them, entirely beside the point? How could I not have understood that they have used weaknesses in “the system” to get what they want, and feel no remorse, only joy, for having successfully done so? And that, having irreparably broken the system, they have left us, the majority, with no recourse but to smash the system, no recourse but revolution, which few of us have the stomach for, at least until the brutality becomes too unbearable?

My instincts have long told me that “the system” cannot be reformed, but I thought that was because of inertia, the sheer clunky enormity of it. Now I see that the reason it cannot be reformed is because it’s been deliberately exploited (broken) to be dysfunctional and then to be unchangeable. That’s true of our political system, our economic system, our educational system, our health care system, and all the rest. The people who benefit from its dysfunction don’t want it fixed, and have rigged it to be permanently broken. Because they think that’s the right, moral, end-justifies-the-means thing to do.

The only way out now is to blow it up or wait for it to collapse. Until then it will not serve the vast majority of us, if it was ever intended to. Just thinking about what would be needed to “blow it up” — to scrap the existing systems entirely and create fair, democratic and just ones from scratch, against the wishes of those who have deliberately broken them, makes my head hurt. But that’s what it’s going to take.

That was my second aha! Like the first, it was about listening, impersonally, and in a self-aware manner — but not in order to necessarily appreciate or agree with the arguments of people with whom I disagree, but rather to appreciate and understand why they believe, and act, as they do. Those reasons are usually emotional, not rational, and stem from fear (and its mask, anger), anxiety, shame and grief. We are all damaged by civilization culture, and are all healing, the best ways we can.


image above from Group Works
Thanks to Kavana Tree Bressen for talking this through with me.

Posted in How the World Really Works, Our Culture / Ourselves | 4 Comments

BC’s Mysterious CoVid-19 Deaths Underreporting

Cumulative CoVid-19 deaths for BC, three sources: BC CDC (blue), BC CoVid-19 Modelling Group (green), U of Washington IHME (grey)

Early in the pandemic, there was some statistical evidence that BC had been slow on the uptake in capturing and reporting CoVid-19 deaths in the province, and had missed 300-400 deaths in the first months of the pandemic. The health officers shrugged it off, and there is of course always some debate about whether the “cause” of a death was CoVid-19, just because the patient happened to have the disease when they died.

Since the provincial health officer, Dr Bonnie Henry, seemed to be providing candid and complete disclosures about the pandemic (she has won several awards, and commendations bordering on adulation from her peers and fans) I was inclined to give her the benefit of the doubt.

I was one of the earliest advocates of using “excess deaths” as a more reliable way of computing the pandemic’s true toll. It can be dicey of course: In the case of BC, the skyrocketing increase of deaths from toxic street drugs has outpaced the reported CoVid-19 death rate, and severely skewed the “excess deaths” number, as did the 2021 “heat dome” that took a minimum of 600 and perhaps double that number of lives, largely among the same demographic dying of CoVid-19.

And there are people who would have died if there’d been no pandemic (auto accident and industrial accident victims in 2020 and 2021 for example were down sharply). And there were people who died because they delayed surgery and other health interventions because they were afraid of getting the disease or because the hospitals were full.

There has been a fair bit of evidence that, on balance, the excess deaths number is probably a much better surrogate for actual CoVid-19 deaths than the reported deaths number, especially in jurisdictions with poor health reporting or which deliberately suppressed CoVid-19 numbers for political reasons. Over a large enough population, any significant deviation from past year’s average total death tolls almost certainly has a reason, and CoVid-19 is the obvious one.

Sure enough, when you look at global excess deaths data, the patterns and numbers, based on each country’s political, economic, and health care system, start to look not only consistent but predictable. These excess death numbers also align much better with seroprevalence and other data on the actual proportion of the country that’s been infected and inoculated.

It’s when you get down to the sub-national level that these data start to get a bit mind-boggling. In Canada, for instance, excess deaths in the three westernmost provinces have been on average twice the number of reported CoVid-19 deaths, while in Québec and some Atlantic provinces excess deaths have been less than reported CoVid-19 numbers. Québec has a very different reporting system, but the other provinces purport to follow consistent reporting standards.

So are the three westernmost provinces radically underreporting actual CoVid-19 deaths, or not, and if they are, how and why? Alberta has an extreme right-wing CoVid-19-denying and -minimizing government, while BC appeared to be letting Dr Henry lay it all out there and call the shots on what to mandate, at least in the early part of the pandemic. Yet the two provinces have very similar discrepancies between excess deaths (even adjusting for the toxic street drug epidemic and the ‘heat dome’) and reported CoVid-19 deaths. So what’s going on here?

Dr Henry continues to say that, while she doesn’t deny the Statistics Canada excess deaths data, she believes the reported numbers are quite accurate, and that there may be other, perfectly valid reasons for the discrepancy.

But a few months ago, BC changed both the frequency (to once a week, with a 10-day lag) and method of computing deaths, and pretty much stopped reporting case data entirely, using ‘surrogates’ in lieu of precise tabulations. They stressed that data before the change was not comparable to data after the changes, so they should not be combined. In other words, if you want to know how many people have actually died of CoVid-19 in BC, you’re pretty much out of luck.

Unless you use “excess deaths”, that is. At the same time the politicians have shrugged off the use of excess deaths as a most likely estimate of CoVid-19 deaths, and basically taken the podium away from health officers, they have failed to provide any useful data to use instead.

The chart for cumulative reported CoVid-19 deaths versus cumulative excess deaths since the pandemic began is shown above.

It suggests 10,000 British Columbians, not 4,000, have perished from CoVid-19 so far, rising at an annual rate of 3,000, unless you assume, as IHME does, that we’ve seen the last wave. That’s 1 in 7 British Columbians over age 80.

So sorry, Dr Henry, but until you actually present some data to show otherwise, I have to think that your estimate of the province’s CoVid-19 deaths is wildly wrong. Eight people per day, not four, are dying of CoVid-19 in BC this month, and this level of understatement has been going on since the pandemic began. How, and why? I think we need some answers from you.

Turning from deaths to cases: Here’s the chart of seroprevalence data showing how the percentage of British Columbians catching the disease is skyrocketing since Omicron emerged:

data from BC COVID-19 Modelling Group and CoVid-29 Immunity Task Force

As of August 13, total reported cases in BC equate to 7% of the population, while seroprevalence studies suggest 56% of the population, 8 times this number, has actually contracted the disease at some point during the pandemic. Current reported daily new cases in the province average about 125, while the seroprevalence data suggests actual new cases in BC are currently running about 13,500 per day.

As this data shows, the BC CDC only catches and reports a tiny percentage of new cases (about 1%, according to most recent estimates). They are now forcing us to use seroprevalence data (mostly from regular blood donors, demographically adjusted) or sewer water prevalence, to figure out how many people are now getting the disease. This data suggests that about 8% of the population, or 400,000 British Columbians are catching the disease or being reinfected each month, and about 2% of the population, or 100,000 British Columbians, are actively infectious today.

In other words, if you are a British Columbian, it is likely that one out of every 50 people you work with, or share a restaurant or bus or train ride with, each day, is actively infectious, and that number is not declining. And more than one out of every 12 of us will be infected, or reinfected, this month. That means your chances of getting it, or getting it again, this month, are, unless you take unusual precautions, one in 12 this month. And probably next month. And the month after that.


The good news, if there is any, is that estimates of the proportion of the infected population (which will soon be just about everyone) getting significant ‘Long CoVid’ symptoms have come down from as high as 1-in-3 to about 1-in-8-or-10, and for those previously fully vaccinated and boostered, the risk is significantly lower again (as is the risk of hospitalization or death when you do get the disease).

That’s still a staggering number of Long Covid patients, one that threatens to wreak long-term havoc on our already-teetering health care system, and on participation in our labour force.

The data for most other provinces and states in North America are comparable to the above BC data — it’s just that, until we took a closer look, we thought we in BC had been doing so much better than everyone else.

So, of course, with that high risk of infection, we should be N95 masking in all indoor locations outside the home, and whenever we’re in a crowded location. And testing and isolating and letting people know when learn we’ve been exposed to someone with the disease until we again test negative or have no fever or symptoms remaining. We’re still only at half-time in this pandemic.

And with the still-unacceptably-high risk of death (at least for those over 60, or obese, or immunocompromised) and of Long Covid, we should be taking extra precautions, avoiding crowds and risky environments (like restaurants and parties) where there is no testing and low mask use. And, of course, getting all our vaccinations and boosters.

As a recent report in the Tyee put it, quoting the above new research: “If the public knew just how much BA5 we have at the moment, we’d see a lot more masking than we currently have.”

So why doesn’t the public know this? And why is our province apparently understating its CoVid-19 death toll by more than half? And what are we going to do when we get yet another surge this coming winter?

I don’t have any answers. And I can’t seem to find anyone that has.

Posted in How the World Really Works, Our Culture / Ourselves | 3 Comments


This is a work of fiction.

newsroom photo by Adam Tinworth on flickr, (CC BY-ND 2.0)

I had been very lucky to land the job at The New Yorker. I had friends of friends who knew their editors. One of their senior staff had emailed me about my blog, saying he’d never run into someone with the capacity I have for coming up with so many interesting ideas drawing on material from multiple, vastly disparate disciplines. So one day I got a letter from them asking me “If you could pick ten story ideas that you’d like to read in our magazine, what would they be? These should not be just topics — we’d like to know the angle, thesis, or people/organizations to talk to, if we assigned it. If any of your ideas are picked up by the magazine, you will of course be compensated.”

And the rest was history. Four of my story ideas ran in subsequent editions, I was asked for another set, and finally I was offered a position on staff, where my job was just to come up with ideas, insights, interesting findings worth pursuing, novel perspectives, and provocative hypotheses, every day.

Some of my colleagues, who considered this a dream job without all the hard slogging and writing they had to do, were rather unfriendly, but eventually I became like part of the furniture, and just blended in.

One day I overheard a senior editor with a small group of my co-workers, speaking rather excitedly in hushed tones. I only heard a few words, but they filled me with dread. Two of the words were “Pulitzer” and the name of a small Eastern European town I knew most people had never heard of. But that was enough. I knew what was up. It was inevitable given how things were going.

As the senior editor, who I knew only slightly, passed by my desk rather nonchalantly, I could not help myself: I said “You’re not going to go along with it, are you? You’re not going to say yes?”

“What the fuck are you talking about? Not going to go along with what?”

I spoke softly enough that only he could hear me: “With another war embedding project. With putting people at risk for a story that will inevitably be dangerous, horrifically biased and used as propaganda.”

The editor was apoplectic. “Who the hell have you been talking with? What do you know about all of this? This is a maximum security project!” He then grabbed me and ordered his staff to alert the company’s management, and building security.

For the next four hours I was sequestered in a small room and grilled about everything I knew and how I had come to know it. What confidential company records had I infiltrated and how? Who was I reporting to? I kept telling them that I had talked to no one, had no access to any company records, and reported only to my boss at the magazine.

Then I was left alone with someone who appeared to be from the Pentagon, the CIA or military intelligence. He dressed the part, anyway. He was evidently a lot smarter than the others, and he actually listened to what I said. I told him that any idiot who had studied the history of recent disastrous American military adventures, would surmise that the US had already given up on the locals and decided to take the war into their own hands. The question was, how they would do it without provoking an outcry or worse. And the answer to that, just as obviously, was to embed American reporters from reputable organizations to flood the media with stories and photos about how ghastly things were on the front lines, and how that left no option but the “defensive” one of involving American “experts”, not only in “non-combat” military intelligence and training, but in directing the entire war effort, including managing the staggeringly powerful and expensive military technologies that had mostly been sold off by the local military forces to the black market, or misused so badly they had been either quickly and completely destroyed, or had fallen into the hands of the army they were fighting.

“So you’re telling me you just made an educated guess?”, he said.

“I’m sure hundreds of people following the war have already been anticipating this and are surprised it’s taken so long. Fifty billion dollars is a lot of money to throw away on a disastrous, losing effort. This was really the only option that the Pentagon and NATO had left, and embedding journalists is the only way they’ve been able to sell such an effort in past.”

“What makes you think the effort so far has been ‘disastrous’ as you put it?”

“I don’t limit my reading to the New York Times and The New Yorker. With a little digging, and a little critical thinking, you can get a pretty clear picture of what’s actually happening despite the propaganda and censorship.”

“Has it occurred to you that this ‘picture’ you’ve been getting is just the enemy’s propaganda and censorship?”

“Of course. I always consider the source before I make up my mind even tentatively about whether it’s credible, based on the balance of evidence. If you look at my writing, you’ll see that my position on the fight against CoVid-19, for example, was pretty orthodox, supporting lockdowns and mandatory vaccines and masking, to the point I lost a lot of readers who just believe everything government does is evil.”

“So you now have this speculation about what may or may not happen in terms of ‘US/NATO’ military strategy, without evidence other than a few words overheard from some hushed voices in a newsroom. What would you plan to do with that speculation?”

“If you recall my answers to my employer’s questions, what I said to them was simply a question: About whether or not the magazine would go along with ‘it’. Their outraged answer was pretty clear, even though I wasn’t clear, and can still only speculate, on what ‘it’ is. So if your question is ‘Am I going to go to other media with a scoop about embedding journalists in a newly US/NATO-led war’ my answer would be ‘Who’d believe me?’ ”

“So you’re not planning on saying anything about this?”

“I like to write speculative fiction, so I might write a novel about it, or even a short story. I would of course preface it by saying ‘This is a work of fiction’.”

He grinned at me. “I think we’re done here.” He opened the door and my co-workers almost fell in when he did so.

He turned to my editor. “I have no reason to believe anything illegal has transpired here. Thank you for contacting us. Up to you what action you choose to take, but as far as the military is concerned, nothing happened here.”

“So you’re just going to let him go? What are we supposed to do, just go on as if no breach of highly confidential information has occurred?”, my editor replied.

“If there was a breach, and I’m not convinced there was, it didn’t originate with this gentleman. I will of course have to report my concerns about your magazine’s security protocols to my superiors, but I don’t see a need for any change in strategy. As for what you’re supposed to do with him, my understanding is that you hired him as a kind of ‘idea guy’, what’s the term you used — ‘to imagine possibilities’. I think that’s his job, and he does have a pretty good imagination. Good afternoon gentlemen.”

The military guy left, and there was a long silence. Finally, my editor said to me “You’re on suspension, until an investigation on your conduct has been conducted. Any more questions, talk to HR.”

I shrugged, and, taking my jacket from the back of my chair, walked to the exit, replying “I promise not to have any more ideas until further notice.”

Posted in Creative Works | 1 Comment

Links of the Month: August 2022

cartoon by Michael Leunig, of course

August in many countries is the month for holidays, for rest, for reflection and preparation for the slog ahead. At one time it was the month where you were most likely to see people outside, enjoying the year’s best weather. Now, it’s become the month of scurrying to get things done before the heat, the month for seeking shade, and the month for blackouts.

It’s starting. This is how it goes.


screen cap from new Guardian ‘explainer’ on climate collapse

Soon the world will be unrecognizable: Robin McKie, science editor for The Observer, writes: “The crucial point [according to climate scientist Bill McGuire] is that there is now no chance of us avoiding a perilous, all-pervasive climate breakdown. We have passed the point of no return and can expect a future in which lethal heatwaves and temperatures in excess of 50C (120F) are common in the tropics; where summers at temperate latitudes will invariably be baking hot, and where our oceans are destined to become warm and acidic.” Countering some of the climate scientists he knows who are afraid to tell the truth, Bill says:

In confidence, they are all much more scared about the future we face, but they won’t admit that in public. I call this climate appeasement and I believe it only makes things worse. The world needs to know how bad things are going to get before we can hope to start to tackle the crisis.

Richard Heinberg’s defensive pessimism: “The most helpful attitude from here on will be a refusal to accept the inevitability of the very worst outcomes. It is a stubborn insistence on imagining alternatives to growth and working hard to realize them—while acknowledging that most of our existing technological and social structures were designed during the era of expansion and will likely fail under conditions that are now emerging… This century, as those centralized systems fail due to lack of energy, broken supply chains, and the consequences of climate change, new grassroots social structures will need to spring up to meet basic community needs.” He goes on to list the types of new structures this will require.

Blistering summers are the future:Will our children grow up being scared of summer?” Thanks to John Whiting for the link.

Rainwater everywhere is unsafe to drink: New guidelines for toxic human-made chemicals that never degrade suggest that rainwater everywhere on the planet is now unsafe to drink. Thanks to Kavana Tree Bressen for the link.

Sri Lanka continues to be the canary in the mineshaft: Building on last month’s series of articles, Indrajit Samarajiva explains what is happening there:

Now that global empire—standing athwart history yelling ‘stop!’—is collapsing, its two legs of capitalism and democracy are both crumbling. In Sri Lanka you can see them fall. But don’t take my word for it. Read (non-vulgar) economist Michael Hudson’s article, The End of Western Civilization. It tells you a lot about where we are. [Michael’s article is a long read, but it’s important. It explains why economic collapse will precede ecological collapse, leading to the end of our human civilization. Indrajit goes on to explain how this is playing out there now. And in a separate article, he describes the overwhelming mental illness that accompanies the fall.]


stones glued on canvas; from Relax It’s Only Art, original source and artist Marksense

Our epidemic of malnutrition: David Oke describes the source of the failings of our industrial food and medical systems, that have led to less healthy lives even as medical costs spiral out of control, and suggests some solutions (thanks to Flatcaps and Fatalism for the link, and the one that follows):

The twentieth-century shift in mortality from infectious to noncommunicable disease—what demographers call the “epidemiological transition,” linked to the “nutrition transition” that reshaped global diets—largely eradicated diseases like polio and yellow fever, but it did not lead to conditions of general health. Instead, it created populations that are chronically ill, and thus require near-constant medical attention; in turn, healthcare systems shifted from treating acute diseases to managing populations that are permanently, but “manageably,” ill. More medicine than ever, but less health.

Seventeen theses on disability: Freddie deBoer’s blunt and powerful explanation of the realities of disability and how modern identity politics makes everything worse for those actually dealing with it.

The possibility of direct democracy: Indrajit explains how political collapse in Sri Lanka has given its citizens a brief taste of what a system of real, direct democracy might look like.

Free up doctors (and pharmacists) to prescribe safe drugs to replace street drugs: Canada’s associate Minister of Health seems to finally get it. Sadly, her boss and her department are still resisting the radical changes needed to address Canada’s toxic street drug death toll, which remains higher than our CoVid-19 death toll each year, and is still rising.


propaganda posters used as covers by The Economist; exposé by Indrajit Samarajiva

Patrick Lawrence on the decline of western media: The long-time foreign correspondent writes passionately, articulately and courageously (enough that Twitter has “cancelled” him) about how media once devoted to critical thinking and investigative reporting have become zealous scribes and propagandists for western political and corporate interests. Some recent examples of his work:

Noam Chomsky and the larger picture: Speaking of history and context, Noam (another guy who’s basically blacklisted from western mainstream media) is taking every opportunity he can to provide some clarity and background on what is happening, especially when it comes to ecological collapse. Some of his recent takes:

It’s not hypocrisy, you’re just powerless: NS Lyons is the pseudonym for an established conservative commentator, who often addresses conservative conferences. When I first stumbled on his recent satirical article about castism/classism, I thought it was written by a leftie lamenting the stranglehold on power held by the war-mongering, corporatist, fuck-the-environment white empire that controls all the major parties in the west, leaving the left as a powerless “Class B”. It was only when I read further (including the comments and some of his other writings) that I discovered that his Class A is actually “Woke” America, which apparently includes all liberals, universities, uppity minorities, the angry poor, criminals, atheists and other non-Christians, illegals, and soft-on-crime Democrats. His poor oppressed Class B? Aggrieved over-taxed capitalists, Republicans, Christians, conservatives, and the working class. Mind-bending.

Corpocracy, Imperialism & Fascism: Short takes:

Misinformation, Disinformation, Censorship & Propaganda: Short takes:

CoVid-19 continues to rage on, out of control: Short takes:

  • Verbatim from last month: Nothing has changed. Deaths and hospitalizations are continuing at the same pace as the previous two summers, and wave 7 has begun. This fall and winter could be as bad, in death toll, as the previous two horrific winters (waves 3 and 5), when US deaths were running at over 3,000/day and global deaths over 15,000/day. Most of the hospitalized and dying continue to be older and immune-compromised people, though there’s now a huge spike in reinfections, sometimes mere weeks apart, as the effect of vaccines continues to diminish as variants get ‘smarter’. So the advice is the same: mask indoors and in crowded places, get all the shots you can, and test, trace and isolate when you or loved ones get symptoms.
  • Biden abandons the last of the US’s metrics and preventative measures for dealing with CoVid-19
  • Indrajit outlines the four lies that allowed CoVid-19 to kill and sicken so many millions
  • A CoVid-19 sufferer laments our incapacity to allow time for rest and recovery; thanks to Kavana Tree Bressen for the link.

*In their own words: Terrifying excerpts from recent actual speeches made by senescent US leaders. The US desperately needs a mental competency test for its current and aspiring political leaders:

  • Nancy Pelosi: “In our earliest days at our founding of our country, Benjamin Franklin, our presidency, said, freedom and democracy. Freedom and democracy, one thing, security here. If we don’t have- we can’t have either, if we don’t have both.”
  • Joe Biden: “[I have] made it clear that no American president, at least one did, but no American president had ever backed down from speaking out of what’s happening in the Uyghurs… So I see stiff competition with China. China has an overall goal, and I don’t criticize them for the goal, but they have an overall goal to become the leading country in the world, the wealthiest country in the world and the most powerful country in the world. That’s not going to happen on my watch because the United States is going to continue to grow and expand.”
  • Donald Trump: “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.”


cartoon by John Atkinson

The ability to see what’s useful and what is not: Interesting review of David Foster Wallace’s writing and the “attempt to make art moral”.

Why there are no stock market experts: Canadian YouTuber Veritasium defines the four things it takes to be an expert, and explains why when it comes to complex systems, there can be no experts. (They are: A ‘valid’, predictable, rules-based, finite-variables environment; Many repetitions to learn from mistakes; Timely feedback on where you’ve made mistakes; Deliberate practice focused on areas where you most need improvement.) Also from Veritasium, Fritz Haber, the man who killed millions (chemical poisons) and saved billions (chemical fertilizers).

Lost letters of the alphabet: How English jettisoned some letters you still see traces of in old documents.

They’re lying to us: From reader and friend Djô Rudigoz, a brilliant French protest song by Gérard Manset. Also from Djô: A song from Phoenix backed by animated art classics. And from there: Stunning CGI visuals to a song by Sagans.

How some people learn just from YouTube demos: An astonishing dub-step performance by a young woman, entirely self-taught.

Road signs for your co-workers: A clever “re-working” of common road signs.

What you dance to: For me, it’s Haitian Kompa/Zouk music and K-POP. For my friend Dave Smith, author of the wonderful To Be Of Use, it’s self-composed Electro-Swing.

The essence of all great music is surprise: Rick Beato explains how to achieve it.

Learning to compose music: Canadian pianist-composer Nahre Sol demonstrates some useful time-constrained exercises.

How to survive a heatwave: Cartoonist First Dog On the Moon tells us how, hilariously. Advice for Brits, but it applies to us all. Thanks to Hilary Neilson for the link.


cartoon by Grant Snider from I Will Judge You By Your Bookshelf

From Caitlin Johnstone, Trapped in the Slaughterhouse:

Western civilization is a story of full bellies and starving hearts. Of a feast of information and a famine of truth. Of conveyor belts churning out processed food, conformity-enforcing media and power-serving culture. Enough food to stay alive but not enough sustenance to live.

They keep us alive but they don’t let us live. They give us enough carbohydrate to turn the gears of industry, but they keep us too busy, poor, propagandized, confused and crazy to actually drink from the waters of life. To actually experience the beauty of this world. To let the crackling potentiality of advanced terrestrial life blossom to fruition within us.

The modern empire rules us by filling our markets with Wonder Bread and our schools and media with lies. By filling our bellies and starving our souls. By churning out mountains of useless landfill without ever producing anything of real value. By making more while providing less.

They improve food production and medicine just enough to lengthen our lifespans, only so that they have more life to drain us of. They let us populate the earth with more humans only to drain us of our humanity. We’re not people to them. We are batteries. We are fuel.

This is no civilization. It’s a slaughterhouse. A fake plastic performance staged to funnel human life into the gears of an insatiable machine. A fake plastic culture designed to keep us on the conveyor belt so that our life force can be converted into fuel for a soulless empire. A fake plastic society built to keep us marching into the food processor.

From Indrajit Samarajiva, on Protest and Democracy:

The ruling classes have tried their best to bury the People’s Assembly, but it’s still there, and it still spontaneously reforms in town squares when it’s needed. We have to look deeper at our democracies and really struggle to constitute them beyond a constitution. We have to fight for them, we have to question them and we have to quite honestly tear liberal democracy up and start over, from first principles. We’ve also got to get rid of this idea that there’s one perfect form of democracy for all and that white people found it and can bomb it into everyone. Democracy is a constant struggle, an Aragalaya in Sinhala. The struggle must go on.

From my friend PS Pirro, It’s Just What Was:

Yesterday I spent time on the Abandoned America website, scrolling through images of places that are no longer one thing but are not yet something else. Shopping malls and amusement parks and roadside attractions re-absorbing into the body of the world. I’ve heard people denigrate these images as ruins porn. Yet nobody calls it ruins porn when we visit the Roman Coliseum. We call that cultural enrichment.

Maybe we’re too close, maybe it’s too soon. We walked through those malls. We worked in those factories. It wasn’t great. It’s just what was, and now it isn’t anymore.



Posted in How the World Really Works, Our Culture / Ourselves, Preparing for Civilization's End | 2 Comments

We Already Live on Mars

cartoon by Shizzblatt on TAHT comics on reddit

It’s easy to ridicule the techno-utopians who, in their ongoing denial and defiance of civilization’s accelerating collapse, talk and scheme about leaving this planet and building a new civilization on another one.

But in many ways, we already live on a foreign planet, or, rather, we live in an artificial, prosthetic world, one that is utterly and irrevocably dependent on and embedded in the natural world it is aggressively destroying to manage its day-to-day functioning.

There have been many studies showing that the impact of collapse, especially economic and financial collapse and the resulting incapacity to maintain even basic infrastructure, will be especially severe in cities and suburbs. Our urbanized civilization requires vast amounts of resources — including rare goods from far away, and cheap labour to deliver things and fix things that break (like pipes and downed wires and cars and appliances and elevators), which they are always doing. A review of past economic depressions reveals that many things simply became more-or-less permanently unavailable, and people just learned to do without. Of course, if what you’re waiting for is food, heating fuel, fuel for transportation, and electricity for your lights, businesses and elevators, you can’t afford to wait long. Eventually you give up waiting and move where the things you need are still available.

It’s doubtful that most of the utopian scenarios that see suburbanites turning their lawns into gardens, and abandoning their jobs for work walking distance from home, will ever see the light of day. Those lawns have mostly already been stripped of their usable soils. There are not nearly enough jobs, especially when the collapse of the internet takes telework off the table. And when the power lines and water lines go down, they will have to wait ages for their restoration, since more concentrated urban dwellers will be served first.

Things will not be any better in rural areas. Most farm acreage is now monoculture, heavily dependent on fertilizers and irrigation and pesticides and other foreign inputs, and is owned by soon-to-be-bankrupt Big Ag mega-corporations, and as markets for their cheap-transport-dependent  products dry up, the single-product farm workers will abandon the farms, as they did in droves during the Great Depression, and join the swelling ranks of the unemployed in the cities.

I could go on, but you get the idea. The only people who are not living in an unsustainable, prosthetic world these days are a tiny number of hardworking self-sufficient independent polyculture farmers. That tiny number includes a surprising number of this blog’s readers, as I keep discovering. But they’re going to be overwhelmed by the vast numbers turning to them for jobs and handouts, and there will be far too little to go around.

While it is true that this is a Long Emergency that we’re now entering, one that will unfold over decades, our economy is so tightly wound that supply chain collapses many orders of magnitude greater than what we’re now witnessing could arrive overnight and change our living conditions very quickly. As the people of Sri Lanka have discovered, your money’s not of much help when there is no food in the shops, no fuel in the service stations, and the power, and lights, keep going out for longer and longer periods.

One recent study suggested that the average amount of time a family in the west could survive (ie keep their home, possessions and food on the table) if they were suddenly without a paycheque, is sixty days. After that they are essentially bankrupt, and without the largesse of others, they’re out on the street begging. That seems extreme, but anyone who’s lived through a depression will tell you that’s exactly how, and how quickly, it happens.

While panic is certainly no answer, our current complacency about the vulnerability of our current way of life is rather alarming. We are living on a knife age, in this era of “hyper-efficient” global interdependence, and the fact that it may take a decade or two to slowly slip off that edge won’t make much difference, since there’s absolutely no way of climbing back on it once that happens.

So when you read about the idiots planning manned trips to Mars, remember that in many ways we already live on Mars — we live astonishingly precarious lives connected by a thin, fragile, unraveling tether to the endangered sources of everything that makes life for humans possible.

Posted in How the World Really Works, Our Culture / Ourselves, Preparing for Civilization's End | 4 Comments

Yet More Crossword Cleverness

Over the last couple of years, I’ve largely switched from NYT crosswords to The New Yorker’s. They seem to have attracted the best of the NYT’s puzzlers, notably Liz Gorski, and they have a much better gender and ethnic minority balance than the NYT ever managed. They also have much more fanciful and imaginative clues than the rigid NYT allows, and more entries from current and minority cultures, while mostly avoiding too much “pop” culture (especially rap and electronic group names that eschew proper spelling, and vowels, respectively).

Unfortunately, I’ve decided to end my New Yorker subscription due to the ferocious anti-Russian and anti-Chinese xenophobia the magazine has exhibited over the last year, especially since the start of the NATO/Russia proxy war in Ukraine. I had expected better from them.

Meanwhile their five-day-a-week online crosswords are excellent (though I find their Thursday “beginner” crosswords too simple). Here are some of the clever clues they’ve had in some of their recent puzzles. I’ve included only the vowels for the answers to each clue, in case readers want to take a stab at guessing the answers when partially filled in. Some of the clues had, or should have had, a wry “?” at the end of the clue to indicate a play on words.

If you just want to see the answers, I’ll include them in a comment to this post:

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An Age of Wonder

This clip is an 8-second excerpt of a short doc on tardigrades by Journey to the Microcosmos; this is almost exactly what I see under my little $15 microscope.

You probably wouldn’t know it from the dark tenor of my recent posts, but despite everything — despite economic and ecological collapse, despite getting CoVid-19 and other discouraging health issues, despite the endless war-mongering and hate-mongering, despite rampant inflation and money worries, and despite my predilection for fearfulness and anxiety — I have never been happier.

I have been trying to figure out why that is so. Part of it is retirement, relief from the anguish of getting up too early to do work that I knew, most of the time, was meaningless, unnecessary and of no use to anyone, but which was compulsory nevertheless.

Part of it is the realization, which is still being internalized in this body and brain that ‘I’ presume to inhabit, that I have no free will, no control or responsibility over anything that this body thinks, believes, feels or does. That’s immensely liberating, even though I still (instinctively or by conditioning) feel responsible, obligated, ashamed, guilty, furious, fearful, sad, resentful, impatient, intolerant, annoyed, and/or anxious much of the time. These feelings just have much less hold over me than they used to, largely because I appreciate that they’re not really ‘mine’, and not of any useful value to me or anyone.

Another part of it is, I suppose, age. I have less left to prove and less time left to prove anything to anyone or to myself, so I’m much less hard on myself and others than I used to be, and others now expect less of me as well. There were times, believe it or not, when I didn’t think the title of this blog was entirely tongue-in-cheek.

But a significant part of this strange new happiness is, I think, a slowly growing capacity to pay attention, to notice. Life is always wondrous, but these times are especially so. There is so much happening — amazing, terrible, astonishing, horrific, unimaginable things that I see and learn about every day, at a pace that has never before been possible, and will soon be impossible again.

Here are some of the things I am witnessing, trying my best not to judge, but just to accept — things that these strange, wondrous, breakneck, every-kind-of-superlative times have to show me:

  1. The very discovery that time and space and the self are illusory, that our entire ‘reality’ is a representation, a model, entirely conjured up in our heads. That’s not to say that there is nothing outside that model, but rather that our brains, our ‘selves’ are simply incapable of comprehending in the slightest what is actually real and actually happening.
  2. The mind-boggling willingness of human beings to believe obvious, insane falsehoods, and to cling to them with a ferocity that produces endless wars, violence and hatred, and threatens, every bit as much as ecological collapse, to bring about the end of our species.
  3. The pictures from the Webb and Hubble telescopes, and the astounding model of the universe they are creating for us, especially juxtaposed with the realization that they are as much unreal as they are wondrous.
  4. The fact that despite all we have learned about how “we are what we eat”, and how ghastly our modern industrial diets are for our health and for the wellbeing of the creatures that we confine and torture for our food and drink, the less inclined we seem to be to act on that knowledge and eat healthily, or even to acknowledge the inconvenient truths about what our diets are doing to us and to the planet.
  5. The ability to travel anywhere in the world in hours, when even just a century ago it would have taken weeks, months or years. And the impact that ability has had on the homogenization of the world’s cultures and on the planet’s health.
  6. The fact that our single little species, an unremarkable small branch on the evolutionary tree of life, has unleashed the sixth (or eighth, or 42nd, we don’t know for sure) great extinction of life on the planet, without meaning to, and despite knowing we have done so, we are still denying having done so and continuing to act collectively as if we had not.
  7. The discovery that all life on our planet has a common origin, and that the planet’s atmosphere, environments and life forms have co-evolved to produce not only the staggering complexity we see today, but previous almost unimaginable evolutions that, just to give a couple of examples, created a 60M year-long ‘snowball earth’ through bacterial overproduction of oxygen, and which adapted to a 6M year-long supernova radiation bombardment that ended just 2M years ago and obliterated our ancestors’ tropical forest homes, reducing their numbers to just a few thousand.
  8. What we call “fossil fuels” are the remains of algae, bacteria, and plants, mostly dating back more than 350M years; they’re not from animals. And lots more amazing things science has only recently learned.
  9. The astonishing diversity and superhuman (and mostly unknown and unfathomable) qualities of life all around us, including seeds, sharks, bats, tardigrades, and jellyfish.
  10. Some of the amazing inventions and evolutions of life, such as:
    • exaptation (the fact wings evolved for temperature control, and were only later used to fly),
    • languages in all their mind-blowing variety,
    • the way perceptions work (there is no such ‘thing’ as a colour; most of what we ‘see’ is actually predicted fill-ins rather than actual perception),
    • the way memory works (and doesn’t),
    • how most human invention is actually biomimicry,
    • how all imagination is a combination of metaphor and randomness,
    • the infinitely many ways music can be produced and why we love some music and loathe other music,
    • the fact that human art has been around three times longer than abstract human language,
    • how our language affects how we ‘make sense’ of the world,
    • why humans hate complexity,
    • how we learn from ‘play’ and not from schooling,
    • and a million other things.

With all of this to wonder about, and observe, and listen to, and read, and learn about, and discover, and explore, and write about and talk about — and sufficient time and space and resources to do so — how could I be unhappy?

Of course I am uniquely privileged. Most of the world’s people live incredibly difficult lives, and their unhappiness is entirely understandable. But I have always been privileged, and much of my life I was unhappy (and for much of it I was seriously depressed), and I know lots of other privileged people who have never been happy.

So what was up with me, and what’s up with them?

I can’t be sure, and I may be wrong, but the best answer I can come up with is: mental illness. The anxiety of fighting your way up the corporate ladder, being kept off-kilter by your boss and everyone else in your life trying to take advantage of you or keep you on the defensive, and the enormous burden of self-imposed responsibility and blame for everything that’s not going quite as well as you, and everyone around you, expected, can be debilitating. To be in the midst of the game of civilization and playing your heart out every day at it is exhausting and will eventually and inevitably, I think, make you ill. All these years later, I’m still recovering. Thinking back makes me shudder, even though for most of those years I acted as if (pretended, even to myself?) I was happy (after all, I was a success, why wouldn’t I be)? I think this culture takes its emotional and psychological toll on all of us, and most of us, as I wrote last time out, pretend (to ourselves and others) we’re OK. Because people are depending on us, expecting us to be OK.

Flatcaps and Fatalism, a blog from Yorkshire, recently wrote a post about joy and laughter, describing activities of current human hubris such as the absurd techno-utopian Saudi mega-project THE LINE. He wrote:

It is trendy and inhuman, implausible and real. It is also the very latest version of a very old joke, the one about the prideful fool who thinks he is king. The money will be spent and something will be built, but it will not be the dystopian utopia of THE LINE videos. The project cannot keep staff, no-one knows the underlying geology well enough to estimate costs, and the transport plans are patently impossible. The gap between pride and reality is complete and absurd. There is a sacred duty to laugh at these effervescences of the time. It is only laughter, not concern or righteous anger, which reveals that the king was a fool all along. They think they are building heaven, some fear that they are building hell, but they are only building a ruin. The Machine, the great beast of progress, is the same. The ruin it brings will ruin it too. It merits derisive laughter, not trembling fear.

When I was younger I could not laugh at such hubris. I would be angry, as I often was in those days. I was intolerant of what seemed almost deliberate stupidity (a very hard thing to give up, and I still catch myself struggling with it). We’re all doing our best. Granted, that’s not saying much, but still.

So I’m wondering if, for some of us at least:

(1) At some point in our lives, when we are young, our perceptions, conceptions, and conditioning about what is going on in the world, and especially what is going on for us personally, shift to allow despair to vanquish wonder; and then

(2) At some much later point in our lives (at least if we are privileged), we develop a sense of equanimity, acceptance, and even humour about what is going on in the world, and for ourselves personally, that allows wonder to again vanquish despair.

For me, that first point came in my first few school years, and the second came just over a decade ago. So the happiest times of my life were my youngest and my latest. The years from about age 6 to about age 60 were what I am starting to call my wasted years, not that there is anything I or anyone could have done to make them turn out differently.

I doubt that this shift applies to most people; after all, we all handle the strange complexity of modern, nearly global, civilization culture differently.

But I have started to notice now — as I learn to notice aphids’ remarkable intelligence, and how light affects my emotions, and the difference between ironic laughter and laughter born of delight and wonder — the faces of the people I meet. The faces of most young children and some of the faces of my own age cohort seem to reflect a very different, more joyous, enchanted way of being in the world. And the faces of most of those of ages in-between seem to reflect the bewilderment, wariness, and trauma that we seem to unwittingly instil in each other as we try to do our best in this wonderful, terrible world.

And each face I see, I ache for them to be free of this Civilization Disease — to never get afflicted with it, or to heal as quickly as possible from it.

Perhaps this is why I welcome rather than fear the end of this civilization, despite the suffering and hardship it is already starting to unleash.  As Indrajit puts it: “Om namah shivaya. Shiva is dancing up a storm.”

After the fall, we may never again have to learn “the terrible knowledge of cities”.

One day, I think, wonderfully and once again, everything will be free.

Posted in How the World Really Works, Our Culture / Ourselves, Preparing for Civilization's End | 2 Comments