History is Just Another Story


image by Neil Howard on flickr CC-BY-NC2.0

As its etymology suggests, history and story are really the same thing — “a narrative of what was seen and known”. A narrative is a form of sense-making, “connecting” the threads of what happened.

When we tell a story, of course, we inevitably prejudice how the listener or reader makes sense of it, by the order in which we tell the threads (implying causality and trajectory), and by which threads we tell and which we withhold, and by how, through the use of particular verbs (“slaughter”, “develop”, “educate”), nouns (“monster”, “victim”, “justice”), and adjectives (“savage”, “unwitting”) we ‘frame’ the listener’s or reader’s perspective on them. And, of course, by deliberately or unintentionally lying — the act of including misrepresentations and outright fictions in our account, and equally egregious sins of omission.

History, it’s been said, is written by the winners, and indeed much of written and spoken history over the longer arc seems to be about battles, heroes and villains. And in our desperate devotion to the myth of progress (the ultimate story), we will twist ourselves and our narratives into knots to prove that they are a demonstration of how things are inexorably improving. So now, when we write about ‘history’, we start with the early disastrous civilizations like the Romans’ — corrupt, violent, disease-ridden, and teetering on collapse. The average life expectancy in those days was 29 years, so when you start ‘history’ there, there is nowhere to go but ‘progressively’ up.

We don’t want to hear that pre-civilization cultures were mostly healthy, peaceful, and full of leisure. That simply doesn’t fit with the story. And similarly we bristle at the possibility that we once lived as the few remaining wild bonobos, our nearest cousins, mostly do now — easily, comfortably, peacefully, effortlessly. Until we came along and imposed ours, the bonobos had and needed no story, precisely as the whales and turtles and other creatures that have been around a hundred times or more longer than we have, have always lived lives of ease, of balance, and of peace. We grasp at the ‘story’ that wild creatures are in constant and desperate struggle, living in constant terror, violent, “red in tooth and claw”. But that story simply doesn’t hold up.

Why is it so important to our species to create stories — and myths — that always present an arc of struggle and then ultimately progress?

Eight years ago, PS Pirro wrote this remarkable poem about history:

What You Decide to Call Good

It all depends on what you compare, I tell my good friend
who wants to believe that battles can be won against this
most intransigent of enemies. She points to Martin, and to
the defeat of the Klan, she points to the Cuyahoga no longer
on fire, to the five-day workweek, the eight-hour day, to
Grandma’s check that saves her from dining on fingernails
bitten already to the quick, it’s not futile, says my friend,
it’s not tilting at windmills to want to build windmills. And
isn’t it still better now? Better than it was, and it can get better
again and again, always better unless we give up.

But it all depends on what you compare. This is what
I say when I show her the map of the world, the bloodlines
and the ley lines, and the convergence of profit and genocide,
where the skin of the earth has been stripped and turned into
mdf shelving you toss out in a few years to buy more at IKEA,
the persistent junk in the fat of every living thing, junk that
you siphon into your infant child each time she eats. It all
depends, my good friend, on what you decide to compare.

Do you start with the unsettling of the Americas, the creation
of an empire built on stolen Aztec gold, do you count the trees
or the dollars? Do you hold Sinclair’s blood-soaked Jungle
next to Bill’s bright white Microsoft, or do you look at the
poisoned mines in the Congo where children with the cut of the
whip across their backs dig for the columbite-tantalite to outfit
your Android? Complexity, complicity, they will get you every
time. Because so much depends on what you compare. So much
depends on what you decide to call good.

Peggy just wrote a second piece on history, in which she writes:

History clings to us, like a shadow at our heel. It’s a thing we cast, and it attenuates with the sun, with our changing perspective. How much of it is the thing that happened, and how much of it is us, squinting into the light, trying to discern the boundaries?

The nature of human societies is one of continual negotiation, of agreements — what we agree to do, what we agree to be acceptable behaviour, and what we agree happened in the past — our history. Our beliefs and worldviews sit atop these agreements, and could hardly exist without them.

What would we be, what would we be like, if we did away with our stories, and our need to agree on what happened in the past? 

I would argue that our stories really do us no good, and we would be better off without them. I don’t think we would be paralyzed into indecision. But then I don’t believe in free will, so perhaps this is what it all boils down to. Wild creatures negotiate the world perfectly well without the need for stories about what happened. They need only agree upon what is happening, right now, to be able to take the action needed to divert the approaching tiger from attacking their young, or to rebuild their storm-damaged home.

Without our stories our language would be very different — without the need for a past or future tense, without words of judgement or expectation. There has been some research to suggest that some ‘uncivilized’ human cultures’ languages lack these concepts, and thrive without them.

Would such a story-less language-of-the-moment free us from conceptualizing, and hence feeling, shame, jealousy, dread, anxiety, guilt, and a host of other ‘negative’ emotions that hang on stories of what happened or might happen? Would we be destructive, unrestrained, cruel creatures without these concepts and feelings inhibiting us, or would we be liberated and hence, for the first time in perhaps tens or hundreds of millennia, fully functional humans?

Without the beliefs that likewise depend on shared agreement about what happened or might happen, how would we be different — socially, behaviourally, and in our actions? Would ‘living entirely in the moment’ make us oblivious to what we should be doing to cope with and to try to mitigate, collapse? Our would it actually make us better attuned and less attached to perpetuating the destructive ways of the past?

My sense is that the way humans have apparently turned out is the combined result of many accidents of evolution and circumstance. There is no reason to believe that we are by nature doomed to do what we think we have done, or to have evolved to be the way we think we are now. The history we tell ourselves about ourselves is just a story, perhaps one we should not take so seriously. The truth about us could be very different from the story we tell about ourselves. Perhaps the truth cannot even be captured in a story at all.

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

What the “Supply Chain Problem” is Really About

One of the promises of unregulated extreme capitalism is that problems of supply and demand will always “work themselves out” in an unregulated market, and hence that any market regulation will necessarily make things worse.

The idea is that where the supply curve (how much sellers are willing to sell at various prices, a curve with a positive slope) intersects the demand curve (how much buyers are willing to buy at various price points, a curve with a negative slope), determines how much of each commodity will be sold (how far along the x axis the supply/demand intersection is), and at what average price (how high up the y axis the intersection is). (See left-most chart above.)

This utopian presumption of course assumes an equitable distribution of wealth (which determines demand) and an unlimited access to resources (which determines supply). When you have a grossly inequitable distribution of wealth, you end up with a high demand for multi-million dollar mansions and extravagant sports cars (billionaires with nothing better to do with their excess wealth), and a low ‘demand’ for the necessities of life because most people can’t afford to buy them.

Likewise, when you have serious resource and supply constraints, you end up with no supply, at any price, or, worse, you end up supplying only those willing and able to pay an insane price (by most people’s standards) for the scarce resource, and everyone else doing without. (See middle chart above.)

And, in the worst case scenario, when you have both inequitable distribution of wealth and serious resource and supply constraints, you end up with a market collapse — the maximum price buyers can afford to pay is lower than the minimum price sellers can afford to charge without losing money, so sellers stop producing new supplies (that they can’t sell) and buyers run out of everything. (See right-most chart above.)

This will soon become a permanent problem in the energy sector, as increasing extraction costs, despite massive subsidies, mean that producers need to earn at least $50/bbl to stay in business, and that amount is rising, while consumers can only afford to pay at most $80/bbl to remain solvent, and that amount is falling (as real disposable income for all but the richest continues its 50-year slide). Current bottlenecks in many areas have driven oil prices up to $85/bbl, twice what they were a year ago, which means the coming winter (which is expected to be unusually cold in much of North America) is going to be brutal for many. Natural gas has undergone a similar doubling of price in the last year, partly due to shortages caused by the uneconomically low prices a year ago leading to layoffs and production cuts. This whipsawing is likely to continue.

We’re seeing a bit of an advance look at this these days in what is being called a “supply chain” crisis, much as we did during the economic crisis and collapse of 2008. For a host of reasons largely resulting from the pandemic, supplies of all kinds of goods have been disrupted. The previous drop in demand has meant that suppliers laid people off and reduced inventories, and imports and exports slowed. The laid off workers had less money to spend, reducing demand further. And as hiring then increased and more emergency money was given to citizens to help them deal with the loss of employment, there was a sudden jump in consumer demand that could not be met by the reduced workforce with the lower levels of shipping.

Suddenly, shipping containers are piling up in some places and completely unavailable in others. Employers paying inadequate wages for the risk and stress of the work, a situation exacerbated by the pandemic, find themselves without necessary workers, and many transport vehicles are also off the road due to scarcity of repair parts. As a recent Atlantic magazine article reports, “Supply chains depend on containers, ports, railroads, warehouses, and trucks [and workers]. Every stage of this international assembly line is breaking down in its own unique way.”

In Vancouver, ocean-going containers of cheap manufactured crap from Asia arrive bulging, and make the trip back home mostly empty (a lot of their “cargo” on the return trip is plastic trash and scrap textiles). And containers of raw materials (much of it phosphates, sulphates and nitrates destined for Latin America to be used as fertilizer to support the continued massive clearcutting of the rainforest to plant crops) leave Vancouver bulging and return largely empty. Higher fuel costs now mean the ships have to travel at half-speed to use less fuel so they can “break even” cost-wise, adding to the vehicle shortage and hence the shortages and stock-outs of everything else.

If this were just a temporary phenomenon, we would be able to live with it. But there’s considerable evidence we’re seeing what will emerge as a permanent, slowly deepening problem, as a precursor to a broader economic collapse. The following chart shows how the supply chains are now fraying and in danger of permanently breaking:

In a “normal” industrial economy, the growth and collapse cycles balance each other out, keeping supply, demand, prices and production in equilibrium. However, because of the “limits to growth”, two parts of the growth cycle will inevitable start to break as the industrial economy comes up against the reality of unsustainability, in two ways:

  1. When resource supplies become scarce, such that they are uneconomic to produce relative to the spending power of consumers, it becomes impossible to increase production in response to an increase in demand.
  2. When products become unaffordable for many at any price, no amount of ‘discounting’ will be sufficient to increase sales, and hence there will be no incentive to increase production. The ‘demand’ is there, but those needing the goods and services can’t pay for them.

What we are seeing now are early glimpses of what will happen as those chains in the growth cycle continue to fray and finally break. The equilibrium will be lost, the growth cycle (yellow in the chart above) will cease, and we will be permanently caught in the collapse cycle (grey in the chart above).

This is what has happened in previous depressions and severe recessions, though in every case there was enough slack in the system to repair the ‘breaks’ and move the economic system back into equilibrium.

There is no longer any significant slack in the system. Bailouts of corporations and industries that cannot operate profitably because their products require scarce, expensive resources can only work when there is the potential of less expensive resources coming on line, or the potential of dramatically increasing most consumers’ spending power, and when the government can pump trillions of dollars into the financial system to bail them out until that happens, without collapsing the currencies, the financial systems, and the governments that rely on faith in the value of their currencies.

Once we realize that there is no short term “innovation” fix for (1) the ever-diminishing energy return on energy invested in the resource sectors (especially oil) on which the entire growth cycle and growth economy are based, (2) the chasm of inequality between the extremely rich and the increasingly impoverished vast majority, and (3) the current dependence on artificially-suppressed interest rates and the skyrocketing levels of unsustainable debt by citizens, corporations and governments, then the market will wake up to the reality of its overextendedness and unsustainability.

Then, the collapse cycle will become the only game in town — supply shortages driving up prices to the level consumers can’t afford to buy, yet still not high enough that producers can afford to produce and sell, endlessly lower ‘demand’ (not because products aren’t needed, but because very few can afford to buy them at any economically viable price), and collapsing production, aggravating the shortages. We’ve seen it many times before. It’s probably been a part of every civilizational collapse in one way or another. And we’re nowhere near ready for it, and won’t be until we realize these “supply chain problems” are early evidence of permanent economic collapse, and not just something we have to put up with for a while until the supply chains are magically “fixed”.

 

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

Links for the Month: October 2021


cartoon by the amazing Will McPhail (his new book’s now out)

It’s very strange regularly being triggered into a state of anxiety, while “knowing” intuitively and intellectually that there is nothing to be anxious about.

It’s very strange dealing regularly with people who are progressive in their beliefs and intentions, but who are so suspicious and frightened of ‘government’ that they sabotage many of the actions that would further their goals and desires.

It’s very strange watching bright, informed people embrace bizarre beliefs that completely undermine their credibility in other areas where they are making cogent and important arguments.

These are strange times we live in. This is, I suppose, what collapse looks like.


COLLAPSE WATCH

Overshoot and our de-growth future: The Honest Sorcerer explains what happens when you can’t get blood (or oil) out of a stone, as the supply of affordable energy dries up. The chart above is his, showing our progress toward so-called “renewable” energy. We all know what “needs” to happen, and we also know it’s not going to happen.

Bill Rees on sustainability and collapse: A useful recap of Bill’s argument that collapse is inevitable and human population will soon drop by as much as 6B people:

H. sapiens is inherently – and even predictably – unsustainable. The human ecological predicament is the product of base human nature reinforced by an ingrained, increasingly global, but radically maladaptive growth-based cultural narrative. Modern techno-industrial (MTI) society cannot be ‘reformed’ to mesh harmoniously with biophysical reality.

The collapse of our narratives: Murray Grimwood argues that a significant part of our anomie, helplessness and anger can be attributed to the fact that, for the second time in a generation, the dominant culture’s narratives are collapsing, having lost every shred of credibility, but without anything to take their place. What would we do without our stories? Thanks to Phil in NZ for the link.

Our inability to face our fears, including our fear of death: XR’s Roger Hallam (starting at 7’00” of this video) rambles all over the existential place about our lack of “spiritual congruence”, our addiction to “atomized rationalization”, the non-existence of the separate self, the courage of resistance that calls us only when we work in community, and the essential idea of service to the other instead of the absurdity of “enlightened self-interest”. Weird and fascinating.

You can’t get there from here: There’s a lot of discussion in climate change and other activist circles about so-called “Game B”, another way of living and acting and what it would take to get there. This naive simplification of massively complex problems to simple game theory has been around for generations and continues to enthral wishful thinkers. Remember Charles Reich and “Consciousness III”? Here’s a like-minded guy who claims to have all the answers. It makes for sad and disheartening reading to think people can still be so unaware about how the world really works. But there we are. We’ve all been there at some point in our lives. Thanks to Jae Mather for the link.

A precursor of what’s to come: James Ross Gardner harrowingly describes the three staggeringly record-breaking days in June (not even summer yet!)  during the “Heat Dome”, a “once-in-a-millennium” event that killed hundreds if not thousands in the Pacific Northwest, one of the most affluent areas on the planet, and which will soon become commonplace everywhere as climate collapse accelerates.

Supply shortages as manifestations of economic collapse: Umair Haque describes the shortages of everything that precede economic collapse, and what we should expect as it occurs and becomes permanent.


LIVING BETTER


From the Potentially Inappropriate Memebrary For Historians and Literaries FB Page

Finding the mother trees: UBC prof Suzanne Simard writes about how understanding how trees communicate and cooperate can teach us an enormous amount about how to build and sustain community and society. Sadly, her work is being coopted to greenwash some of Canada’s most egregious forestry corporations, such as Canfor, Interfor and BC Timber Sales.

Kate Raworth’s “doughnut economics” takes hold: David Bollier explains why, despite its broad endorsement worldwide, it has been shunned by the economics establishment. Meanwhile, Amsterdam is looking to implement it as a decision model for development.

What if Facebook disappeared?: Could we find a good replacement for it, for small businesses, virtual associations and families that now depend on it? Are there grounds for taking it down because it’s too popular? What exactly is Facebook now, anyway? Hank Green dissects the issue brilliantly. Hint: It’s a lot about feeding our propensity to like feeling “righteously superior”, and the fact that, rather than just “hosting content”, they decide which content gets hosted, and even more importantly, which content gets promoted. Bonus: Hank also tells other ulcerative colitis sufferers (like me), what a colonoscopy entails and why it’s worth the risk. (Is my hesitancy analogous to that of the vaccine-hesitant? Hmmm.)


POLITICS AND ECONOMICS AS USUAL


cartoon by Michael Leunig, of course

Corpocracy, Imperialism & Fascism: Short takes:

Misinformation and Disinformation: Short takes:

CoVid-19 Becomes the Pandemic (mostly) of the Unvaccinated: Short takes:


FUN AND INSPIRATION


cartoon by Vancouver’s Pia Guerra and Ian Boothby in the New Yorker

Potentially inappropriate: The Potentially Inappropriate Memebrary For Historians and Literaries Facebook Page is hilarious and completely addictive for people sufficiently familiar with literature, history and the arts to get the references.

Looking closer: Hank Green summarizes the top micro-photos of 2021.

Life and work: Liana Finck does a mind-blowing sketch of both. It took me an hour of study of fully appreciate it.


THOUGHTS OF THE MONTH


From the Potentially Inappropriate Memebrary For Historians and Literaries FB Page, posted by Doug Crowe

From Jenifer Lewis on The Problem with Jon Stewart: On complaints that mask mandates are a form of oppression: “Black people have been dealing with oppression for 400 years. They picked cotton. You just have to wear it.”

From Indi Samarajiva: “Democracy is like a bicycle–if you’re not moving forward, you’re falling off… American democracy is not free, it’s freemium, and the paid service is much, much better.

From Forbes magazine: “54% of U.S. adults 16-74 years old – about 130 million people – lack proficiency in literacy, reading below the equivalent of a sixth-grade level.” That’s the majority.

From John Green’s favourite jokes:

A priest, an imam, and a rabbit walk into a bar. The rabbit leans over to the bartender and says, “I don’t want to alarm anyone, but I think I might be a typo.”

I went into Starbucks and asked for their mildest roast. They said “you have very average ears.”

Posted in How the World Really Works, Our Culture / Ourselves, Preparing for Civilization's End | 5 Comments

Bad News


cartoon by Bill Bramhall in the NY Daily News

I confess: I am easily seduced into fear over the vast amount of, and seeming power of, misinformation and disinformation in our modern world. As the US and other parts of the world slide closer and closer to embracing fascism, my anxiety about the role misinformation and disinformation, and the social and other media that traffic in them, play, just keeps growing.

So I was both challenged and relieved by an astonishing article entitled Bad News in the September edition of Harper’s magazine (the whole special issue is worth a read), written by Buzzfeed’s Joseph Bernstein. Joseph’s compellingly argued thesis is (my paraphrasing):

  1. Most of the political information, including misinformation and disinformation, read and propagated on social media is viewed by the vast majority, if it is absorbed and considered at all, with skepticism, no matter who it comes from. It almost never changes anyone’s mind.
  2. What social media have done is to simply display, in a particularly garish and ghastly fashion, what many, perhaps the majority of people already, preposterously, believe.
  3. And what we read and repost in social media is what conforms to what we already believe, and what we want to believe, often without any regard for its truth or the evidence (or lack thereof) supporting it. Social media mostly reflect, rather than influence, what we believe.
  4. In even worse news for the Silicon Valley paper billionaires, there is compelling evidence that advertising in social media, including political advertising, simply doesn’t work. It is read and appreciated by, and only by, people who were already intending to “buy” what the ad was selling. The billions that advertisers spend on social media (and in most other places), is simply a waste of money, enriching only the advertising and PR industries that sell to gullible businesses and politicians, and, of course, adding to the “cost” of the product that the consumer ultimately has to bear.
  5. Facebook, Twitter and Google, then, are basically gussied-up versions of the free “buy and sell” advertising+fluff newspapers you get in street-corner boxes and handed to you on commuter trains — they offer no content or analysis of their own, only regurgitated stuff that corporations, politicians and other sellers are willing to directly or indirectly pay them for — advertisements and promotions for products, political candidates, opinions, and ideas.
  6. Citing Jacques Ellul, author of a landmark study on propaganda, Joseph says: “Ellul dismissed a ‘common view of propaganda . . . that it is the work of a few evil men, seducers of the people.’ He compared this simplistic story to midcentury studies of advertising ‘which regard the buyer as victim and prey.’ Instead, he wrote, the propagandist and the propagandee make propaganda together. One reason to grant Silicon Valley’s assumptions about our mechanistic persuadability is that it prevents us from thinking too hard about the role we play in taking up and believing the things we want to believe. It turns a huge question about the nature of democracy in the digital age—what if ‘the people’ believe crazy things, and now everyone knows it?”

Joseph scathingly lists the long-standing dysfunctionalities of the American political and social culture that have contributed to so many believing so many “crazy things”, and the whole article is worth reading and thinking about. As for social media, he writes:

Facebook is full of ugly memes and boring groups, ignorant arguments, sensational clickbait, products no one wants, and vestigial features no one cares about. And yet the people most alarmed about Facebook’s negative influence are those who complain the most about how bad a product Facebook is. The question is: Why do disinformation workers think they are the only ones who have noticed that Facebook stinks?

He concludes:

It’s possible that the Establishment needs the theater of social-media persuasion to build a political world that still makes sense, to explain Brexit and Trump and the loss of faith in the decaying institutions of the West. The ruptures that emerged across much of the democratic world five years ago called into question the basic assumptions of so many of the participants in this debate—the social-media executives, the scholars, the journalists, the think tankers, the pollsters. A common account of social media’s persuasive effects provides a convenient explanation for how so many people thought so wrongly at more or less the same time. More than that, it creates a world of persuasion that is legible and useful to capital—to advertisers, political consultants, media companies, and of course, to the tech platforms themselves. It is a model of cause and effect in which the information circulated by a few corporations has the total power to justify the beliefs and behaviors of the demos. In a way, this world is a kind of comfort. Easy to explain, easy to tweak, and easy to sell, it is a worthy successor to the unified vision of American life produced by twentieth-century television. It is not, as Mark Zuckerberg said, “a crazy idea.” Especially if we all believe it.

So if we want to be concerned about the nonsensical, potentially destructive beliefs of so many of our fellow citizens, we should not be blaming social and other media or trying to “fix” them, but asking ourselves how such preposterous beliefs came to be so widespread in the first place — probably long before social media (and the responses of many to climate change, systemic racism, and CoVid-19) brought these preposterous beliefs to our chagrined attention.

For example: If we want to understand skepticism, in the US especially, of the pronouncements of public health experts about the pandemic, we might start by appreciating that the US health system has evolved to be an utterly and obscenely bloated and inept bureaucracy, offering a pay-as-you-go (if you can afford it) two-tier system that has evolved to benefit for-profit insurance companies, for-profit pharmaceutical companies, extravagantly expensive medical schools, self-entitled corporate executives and extremely rich citizens, and the politicians whose campaigns they fund, and no one else.

As a result, as many Americans use “alternative” medicine resources (many of them shady and even dangerous, like homeopathy and faith healing) as use the expensive, dysfunctional “primary” healthcare system. Most Americans have in one way or another been abused (by neglect, malpractice, or misinformation) by the US medical system, which is, in fact, one of the leading causes of death in the country. So when someone suggests that the latest mandates (which seem to change all too quickly with the political winds), vaccines, and other impositions of the pandemic are fraudulent, there’s a lot of people who are already predisposed to believe that’s true.

What’s more interesting, then, than the role the social and other media have played in providing a venue for the expression of extreme distrust, is what lies behind our propensity to believe they have played any role at all? Americans elected Nixon, and Reagan, before there were social media. They built bomb shelters, believed “better dead than Red”, and held anti-communist witch hunts. They fell for religious and political bigots, organized vigilante groups and worse, believed in absurd and deadly cures for physical and mental diseases, and joined all manner of cults. Why should the 21st century context for what people believe, and are prepared to do in support of those beliefs, be any different? The average American, according to a recent Forbes report, reads at below a sixth grade level of comprehension.

So what if we were to acknowledge that social media are just over-hyped bit players in a bewildered world that has always been prone to believing falsehoods because they’re more comfortable and consistent with what people want to believe, than the truth? What do we do then?

Well, we could ridicule them, get outraged by them, shun them, or dismiss them as “deplorables”. Or we could reach out to them, without expectations, and understand how they came to believe what they believe. Not that we’re going to change their minds. Sorry, idealists, that ain’t going to happen. Any more than you’re going to join the ranks of the Trumpists and Brexiteers and born-again creationist hordes and conspiracy theorists and faith healers and QAnon groupies. But just to understand where we stand. We, plural.

Our human civilization culture, with its 7.8B hostages, is collapsing, ecologically, economically, and, inevitably, to some extent socially as well. We all sense it. The evidence is everywhere. Sooner or later, as collapse takes hold, we are going to have to start to build local communities from the ground up with the people with whom we find ourselves. Some, perhaps most, of those people are going to believe, and believe in, some ludicrous things, things that will horrify and appal you, and you’re not going to talk them out of their beliefs.

You’re going to have to build a local community that works with them. Might as well start now to figure out what you’re going to have to work with.

In the meantime, if you’re paying for advertising, especially on social media, Joseph’s article should convince you that you’re being had. If someone in the business of persuasion — a corporation or a politician or a media ‘representative’ or a guru or an ‘influencer’ or a movement ‘leader’ or an op-ed writer — tries to sell you something, anything… caveat emptor.

But then, if you were going to buy what they’re selling, you would have bought it anyway. So… never mind.

PS: Bonus: Joseph is interviewed by Harper’s web editor on this podcast.

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

Resenting Our Dependence

How we did this before civilization culture (30,000 years ago)
How we do it now under civilization culture
Learning and staying informed self-directed, with self-selected mentors dependent on massive hierarchical education systems and dumbed-down mainstream media
Making a living simple and instinctive (we gathered what we needed from nature’s abundant wild resources) dependent on large corporate employers “offering” us jobs
Staying healthy preventive (exercise and healthy diet), self-diagnosis and self-treatment dependent on massive, ineffective, cumbersome medical systems
Getting around on foot  dependent on complex, fragile transportation systems and cheap oil
Dealing with antisocial behaviour self-managed in community, rehabilitative dependent on punitive, coercive, invasive, ineffectual, incarcerating centralized security systems
Eating well simple and instinctive (we gathered what we needed from nature’s abundant wild resources) dependent on huge, cruel, toxic agribusiness and factory farms
Clothing ourselves self-made and/or unnecessary (self-adornment is craft, art and fun) dependent on globalized, exploitative trade in shoddily-made clothing
Sheltering ourselves, keeping warm unnecessary (the tropical forest provided all the shelter and warmth we needed) dependent on globalized, exploitative trade in materials for constructing shoddily-made buildings, and on cheap oil
Entertaining ourselves self-developed and self-performed in community (art, music, performance arts) dependent on massively over-hyped, overpriced ‘entertainment industry’ products
Coping with retirement not applicable (there was no arduous ‘work’ to retire from) dependent on inflated real estate valuations and ever-increasing stock market prices to provide retirement income

A recent article by Indi Samarajiva gave me a bit of an epiphany about the schism in political thinking in many western nations, and why so many conservatives are so angry and ready to embrace fascism, or any system that they think might be less oppressive than the one we live under today.

Indi cites a 1991 report written by Wang Huning, a member of the 6-man Chinese politburo that rules under that country’s leader Xi Jingping, discussing US style democracy:

I asked a senior professor of American politics “What exactly is the difference between the Republican Party and the Democratic Party”? After a moment’s contemplation he replied: “There are different views of freedom and equality, with the Republican Party focusing on freedom and the Democratic Party focusing on equality”… In the hearts of Americans, most of them are inclined towards freedom. This is because equality under the western system is only formal political equality, not social or economic equality.

In other words, most of us in the western world are resigned to equality only of voting rights, and not equality of power, social privileges, or wealth. And since elected officials respond primarily to those with wealth, social privileges, and power (who overwhelmingly fund their electoral campaigns, and own the media covering them), voting rights per se are pretty much meaningless for most of us.

So, given the choice between a party that stresses (untrammelled) freedom and a party that stresses (formal political) equality, it’s not surprising that disgruntled citizens opt for the former, and hence why we’ve seen an apparent surge to the right over the past fifty years. We have bred a distrust and loathing of government into every aspect of our society.

So why are conservatives so passionate about “freedom”, which sounds more disruptive and perturbing and even anarchic than the “law and order” they are also passionate about?

My epiphany is that what we are witnessing is a massive resentment against our utter dependence — political, social and economic — on others”outside our control (and often beyond our comprehension), including large institutions, governments, and corporations. That massive resentment has arisen because that dependence so constricts us, belittles us, and incapacitates us, that we naturally long for “freedom” from it. We don’t really know, or care, who or what we are dependent on, or why; for most of us it’s too complex to fathom. We just know we don’t like it, and so, extreme libertarianism is taking over — left and right! — from both progressivism and conservatism.

If we don’t trust anyone else to do things for us, we want the ‘freedom’ to do everything for ourselves, from raising our children and looking after our own health, to Texas-style vigilantism as a means of punishing perceived wrong-doers.

But we have this gnawing realization that, as much as we would ideally like that, we are currently, utterly, and hopelessly dependent on others outside our control and influence for everything that is important to us. The table above, from my earlier article on dependence, lists the extent to which, I think, this is now so.

This is a scary list of dependencies, enough to be unnerving no matter where in the political spectrum your beliefs lie. We’re dependent, mostly on massive national and global bureaucracies we don’t understand, respect or trust, for almost every facet of a healthy human life.

No wonder so many of us are angry, and perhaps a bit ashamed. How did we get to this point anyway; who allowed it to happen? We are a bit like teenaged children, suddenly aware of how dependent we are on our parents, and wanting to do all kinds of things we can’t do because of that dependence. So we complain, act up, and act out — putting antlers on our heads. We can’t run away from “home” though, because we have no place to go, and because we’re dependent on what that despised, constraining “home” affords us.

There is no answer to “How did it get this way?” The collective actions of billions of people will often (perhaps always) lead to situations that no one is happy with and which benefit only a tiny few. No one is in control, and knowing that only makes our dependence on the current systems even scarier. We know the world is fucked, and yet we are helpless to do anything about it. The only thing that prevents our anger and fear from boiling over is our cultivated (both by ourselves — since we really don’t want to know — and by others) ignorance of just how awful and unfixable it really is.

Conservatives in particular (but not exclusively) are therefore conflating their understandable desire for freedom from dependence from those they don’t know or trust, with untrammelled ‘freedom’ to do whatever they, and those who think like them, want to do. What do they do with these ‘freedoms’ when they get them? Well, they accidentally or deliberately kill and injure many, many innocent victims with their righteously-possessed guns (or with their cars when they drive drunk). They infect millions of people unnecessarily with a lethal and debilitating virus. They destroy the natural wealth of the planet to the point it can no longer sustain life. What price ‘freedom’?

So when we say we want ‘freedom’, what I think we really mean is that we want freedom from our humiliating dependence. We want to do the things humans took for granted and did effortlessly for our first million years on the planet. We want a level of control over our lives that we naively or nostalgically thought we once had — though we never really did.

But in a massively complex and interconnected world of 7.8B people, in a horrifically overcrowded, prosthetic world whose biodiversity is in free fall, whose climate is in an accelerating stage of collapse, and whose economy is massively overextended and teetering on the edge of a ghastly disintegration, freedom from dependence is impossible. We will be dependent on the systems that we have cobbled together to try to support us all until they fall apart, and then we will get our wish. We will relearn how to do things locally, with people we know and trust, or we’ll die in the attempt.

I am sure if I were to say all this to conservatives or libertarians I would be told I was sanctimonious and condescending. After all, it’s hard to defend systems and institutions that have fundamentally failed and are beyond reform, even though things will only get harder when they fall apart.

But I’m content to just file this epiphany away, and the next time I hear ravings from conservatives or libertarians about the need for ‘freedom’, I’ll at least begin to understand the pain and terror that underlie their misconceptions about what ‘freedom’ they really long for. We all share that ancient longing.

It’s awful being dependent on those you don’t know or trust or control. But as I suspect many teenagers who’ve been thrown out into the streets could tell you, it could be even worse.

Posted in How the World Really Works, Our Culture / Ourselves | 7 Comments

The Seductive Promise of Dialogue


my representation of the key elements of David Bohm’s Dialogue methodology, using some of the Group Works  facilitation cards

The origin of the word dialogue has nothing to do with “two”, or even with “conversation”, but means simply “through reasoning or language”. Many works called “dialogues” are simply intellectual discourses, though many are styled as conversations between an ‘enlightened’ protagonist and other characters, straw men/women, or even between the author and his/her readers. The currently popular Q&A-style interviews could be considered dialogues in this sense. So could much of this blog, even when it finds me talking to myself out loud.

Many philosophers have written about the nature of dialogue and what it reveals about our self-awareness, our nature, and our culture, how we collectively ‘make meaning’, and the essence of relationship and existence itself.

But the current craze around dialogue mostly has to do with the use of the term by David Bohm, who developed a ‘dialogue’ methodology that he used for group deliberation, and honed throughout his life. He was careful about being prescriptive about this methodology, since he apparently believed there was no one way to ‘dialogue’ that worked best for everyone, and since he also believed that the only way to learn to do it effectively was through extensive practice over a lifetime, which would essentially entail modifications of the practice as one learned. So his writing tends to focus on principles and examples rather than explicit practices and processes to use.

We humans like things simple and prescriptive, however, and some of David’s followers have not been as reticent as he was to prescribe specific processes and structures for dialogue.

“The single biggest problem in communication is the illusion that it has taken place”, GB Shaw famously said. We humans tend to filter and misinterpret what other say so that it fits precisely with our preconceived ideas of the truth. We are not, it seems, at least in our current stage of evolution, particularly well equipped for learning. Paul Simon’s song The Boxer has a line that goes: “A man hears what he wants to hear and disregards the rest.”

One of David Bohm’s intentions with his work on and use of dialogue was the attempt to wrestle with this very human tendency, and the misunderstandings and lost opportunities for learning and insight that this tendency inevitably produces.

I’ve read several works on Bohmian dialogue, including David’s own booklet On Dialogue, and confess to struggling to integrate them all. David wrote:

Shared meaning is really the cement that holds society together, and you could say that the present society has very poor quality cement … The society at large has a very incoherent set of meanings. In fact, this set of ‘shared meanings’ is so incoherent that it is hard to say that they have any real meaning at all.

David argues, in almost non-dual terms, that much of our problem in communication is that we identify ourselves with our thoughts, ideas and beliefs. They are, he argues, just our conditioning, placeholders for what we have been conditioned to think and hence do; there should be no need for us to be so attached to our thoughts as to need to defend them, since:

if [your] opinion is right, it doesn’t need a reaction. And if it is wrong, why should you defend it? If you are identified with it, however, you do defend it. It is as if you yourself are under attack when your opinion is challenged. Opinions thus tend to be experienced as “truths,” even though they may only be your own assumptions and your own background. You got them from your teacher, your family, or by reading, or in yet some other way. Then for one reason or another you are identified with them, and you defend them… Thought is the problem.

Dialogue, he argues, requires and enables us to set aside our conditioned thoughts and beliefs and open ourselves to appreciating others’ and developing collective understanding. This is especially important to do in the political arena, but also in religion and even in science. We are trapped by our conditioned assumptions, beliefs, and opinions, and unable to see ‘outside’ them unless we use something like dialogue.

It takes, he argues, a group of 15-40 people, seated in a circle, to be sufficiently representative of the wide diversity of assumptions, beliefs, ideas, knowledge and opinions of even the smallest community of interest or practice in a particular subject matter area. Groups smaller than that can be too quick to accommodate each other if they sense basic agreement, which means little or no true understanding of the diversity of assumptions, beliefs etc in the room and hence no shift in perspective towards a truly collective one.

Dialogue groups have to meet without purpose or intention, he says, like aboriginal tribes once did:

Now, from time to time that tribe met like this in a circle. They just talked and talked and talked, apparently to no purpose. They made no decisions. There was no leader. And everybody could participate. There may have been wise men or wise women who were listened to a bit more – the older ones – but everybody could talk. The meeting went on, until it finally seemed to stop for no reason at all and the group dispersed. Yet after that, everybody seemed to know what to do, because they understood each other so well. Then they could get together in smaller groups and do something or decide things.

Dialogue, in essence, is all about the journey, then, not the destination. 

Every dialogue, he said, must begin with a negotiation. What is to be said “all has to be worked out”, intuitively and collectively. It emerges, and cannot be pre-set or forced.

In her wonderful synopsis, Maria Popova says:

Words,” Ursula K. Le Guin wrote in her abiding meditation on the magic of real human communication, “transform both speaker and hearer; they feed energy back and forth and amplify it. They feed understanding or emotion back and forth and amplify it.” But what happens in a cultural ecosystem where the hearer has gone extinct and the speaker gone rampant? Where do transformation and understanding go?

What made, for instance, James Baldwin and Margaret Mead’s superb 1970 dialogue about race and identity so powerful and so enduringly insightful is precisely the fact that it was a dialogue — not the ping-pong of opinions and co-reactivity that passes for dialogue today, but a commitment to mutual contemplation of viewpoints and considered response. That commitment is the reason why they were able to address questions we continue to confront with tenfold more depth and nuance than we are capable of today. And the dearth of this commitment in our present culture is the reason why we continue to find ourselves sundered by confrontation and paralyzed by the divisiveness of “us vs. them” narratives. “To bother to engage with problematic culture, and problematic people within that culture, is an act of love,” wrote the poet Elizabeth Alexander in contemplating power and possibility. Krista Tippett calls such engagement generous listening. And yet so much of our communication today is defined by a rather ungenerous unwillingness to listen coupled with a compulsion to speak.

The process of thinking is, David says, a “tacit” process. As Dave Snowden has put it: “We know more than we think, we can think more than what we can say, and we will always say more than we can write down.” The gaps are quantitative as well as qualitative, and much (content, context and meaning) can get lost in the struggle to translate the tacit knowledge to the explicit statement. Therein perhaps lies much if not most human misunderstanding.

So if there is no universally-agreed-upon process or structure for this form of dialogue, what at least are the underlying principles and practices that govern it when it is effectively done?

Chris Innes, in his book Healing Corrections, about how Bohmian Dialogue is being tried to create “healing environments” that transform the culture of our incarceration systems, describes some of them. He says there are four key practices that must be learned and practiced:

  1. Speaking in your own, authentic voice. This is a re-learnable art. It is not the voice we usually use in our conversations.
  2. Listening, actively and deeply, with one’s whole body and attention.
  3. Respecting other people and their views, and accepting they are doing their best and are genuine in their intentions.
  4. Suspending judgements, and suspending claims to the validity our own assumptions and beliefs.

The methods used in most organizations to “solve problems” and “make decisions” do not lend themselves to dialogue, since the purpose of dialogue is different: it is to achieve a shared understanding and appreciation of the issues. From that shared meaning and perspective, one can then, if needed, move to problem-solving and decision-making. Or, more often, the appropriate decisions and solutions may simply be obvious from this new shared perspective and understanding.

Importantly, dialogue encourages and enables a shift of power dynamics in the group, the emergence of a sense of shared vision, and a shift from “fragmented” personal stories towards a collective story.

In a multi-author book on dialogue entitled The Conditions for Thriving Conversations, Mario Cayer lays out what he sees as the five ‘dimensions’ of Bohmian dialogue and their attributes and prerequisites, as follows:

  1. Dialogue as social conversation, without agenda or purpose: listening, respect, empathy, care, receptivity, appreciating the others’ experience and perspective, reciprocity
  2. Dialogue as collective inquiry about participants’ underlying motivations, feelings, assumptions and beliefs: openness, courage, artful questioning, raising “collective consciousness”, unlearning in order to learn
  3. Dialogue as creation of shared meaning and common culture: flow and exchange of meaning, diversity of viewpoints, willingness to be transformed, suspension of judgement, conversation as collective therapy
  4. Dialogue as participatory process, a “playing with” each other: empowerment, lack of hierarchy, new ways of seeing, embeddedness in the whole, with more absorbing what is heard and less conceptualization around it
  5. Dialogue as collective meditation, as ‘being’ together not ‘doing’: attention, acceptance, liberation from self and a shift of perspective to that of the coherent whole

So what do we do with all this? How do we develop practices and processes for dialogue that will lead to the emergence of enough deep collective understanding that everyone ‘just knows just what to do’?

How do we move from the enormous promise of dialogue, and its appealing underlying principles, to something we can all employ in every conversation we are involved in, including perhaps even conversations/dialogues with ourselves? How can we allow and enable dialogue to unfold without a predetermined purpose, intention, or even theme to get the group focused, in our attention-starved, frenzied, action-oriented modern society?

I think it makes sense, if we believe there is something useful to get from dialogue, to begin with two steps: 

  1. Working personally on the four key practices (speaking in our authentic voice, deep active listening, respecting others and the legitimacy of their perspectives, and suspending judgements and our own assumptions, beliefs and opinions), and then 
  2. Exercising these practices in a group whose participants are all likewise working on these four key practices, until we have achieved competence in the five dimensions of dialogue and the attributes of each.

I sense that Daniel Schmactenberger has been studying this for a long time, and is acting as a sort of model of what disciplined dialogue practice might offer us. In any of his podcasts and videos, and even in his reflective writing, it’s fascinating and inspiring to observe how he exemplifies the four practices of dialogue. But I suspect not many people have both the exceptional intellectual capacity and the patience to learn these new practices and put them into everyday use unassisted.

Even if dialogue was, as David asserts, the natural, emergent means of communication and collective intelligence of “uncivilized” tribal cultures, it is hard to imagine it becoming so again on any scale in our socially broken, industrial civilization culture.

I wonder whether those willing to go through this self-learning and self-training would mostly be those who have already been conditioned to be intellectually curious and reflective, which might include large numbers of philosophers and scientists and even readers of this blog, but a very small proportion of our entire society. This self-selecting group might then become very good at emerging insights and even achieving a collective understanding and shared culture among themselves (which could be great fun, and hard but satisfying work). But they will be unlikely to convince the vast majority (including most of the rich and powerful) to even consider using dialogue. So what good would it do? 

Perhaps some of the participants might invent goods and services that might make the world a better place. Perhaps where there is a significant concentration of skilled dialogue participants in one community, it could lead to valuable shifts and important new initiatives and discoveries in those communities. But I suspect on the whole it would just distance these participants even more from the people who are actually making most of the decisions that are, in toto, destroying our world. And it would probably distance them as well from the great numbers of people approving these ghastly decisions with their votes, behaviours and pocketbooks.

Still, maybe it’s worth it, just to know what might have been possible. If it’s far too late to prevent civilization’s near-term collapse, and if our conditioning has rendered any significant change in the trajectory of the human experiment impossible, it would still be interesting to know what a healthy, connected human society, re-skilled in the inherent capacity of dialogue, might be capable of. It might even be some small consolation if we could gift this knowledge to the relocalized communities left after civilization’s fall, in the hope they can make better use of it than we could.

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

The Problem We’re Trying to Solve

This is a work of fiction.


The avatars above and below were created using Picrew

“Dad — can I ask you something?”

“Of course”

“My mentor team has suggested I participate in a new program called Evolving Avatars. You know what avatars are, right?”

“Um, yeah. They were actually around before the movie. Been around longer than you, even.”

[sarcastically] “Ha ha.” [pause] “Well I’ve been asked to create one, and it will be used in a bunch of special projects, potentially over the next five years. And they have a whole bunch of restrictions on them, that make them totally unlike what I’ve ever called an avatar. They’re supposed to be, uh…” [pause, reading] “…aspirational and feasible.

“Sounds interesting. Tell me more.”

“Well here’s what Mentor Monster —” [looking toward her father] “sorry, her real name is Shareen — wrote” [reading]:

  1. The purpose of your Evolving Avatar [EA] is to play a role in various team problem-solving exercises you will be encouraged to participate in, with players your age all over the world. You will do this work in an online universe called World Apart.
  2. Your EA can look any way you like, but must be humanoid. If you can’t imagine working on problems with someone who actually looks like your EA, you probably need to work more on it.
  3. Your EA can have skills and knowledge that you don’t have, at least not yet. The EA is supposed to represent who you imagine yourself possibly becoming. That means no more-than-human superpowers, but could certainly reflect you becoming the best in the world at doing something.
  4. The attached checklist includes 120 [pause; she flips over the page she’s reading]holy fuck! — characteristics and skills, and you can add more as you choose, provided you know, or know of, at least one real person that has them. You are asked to choose 15-20 from this list that represent your Aspirational Abilities — things you think you’re already very good at, or would like to be very good at. If you don’t think you’re able to come up with at least 15, ask your friends to help identify your strengths.
  5. Now select just 3 of the 15-20 as your Most Important Abilities.
  6. You can change your EA’s Aspirational Abilities and Most Important Abilities at any time.
  7. Next, please review the list of Personal Interests from the 100 in the second attached checklist, and select 15-25 of these subjects that most interest you. This will create your Interest Portfolio, which will determine which specific problems you will be invited to participate in addressing in World Apart, with others who share those interests. You can add Interests to this list as well. Again, please select just 3 of the 15-25 you’ve checked, as the subjects you care most deeply about. You can change your Interest Portfolio at any time.
  8. From time to time, you will receive reports on problem-solving activities you are not involved in. If you’re intrigued, the reports will tell you which Abilities and Interests most closely relate to these activities, and you can choose to add some of them to your Portfolios.
  9. You will also receive Curriculum suggestions for deepening your selected Abilities, and becoming more knowledgeable about your selected Interests, which we’d encourage you to explore.
  10. The problem-solving sessions are of many different lengths. All entail mentoring by selected people, some of whom you will have heard about, who are renowned as particularly knowledgeable or skilled in relevant areas. You will have the chance to correspond with them when you’re invited to the sessions.
  11. Some of the sessions that have been held so far, which have included children as young as age 6, have already been cited in major published research and analyses for their novel and exceptional insights. But while you are free to note which sessions you participate in as part of your resume or other documents,  credits for session accomplishments are given to the entire team, with no individual plaudits or recognition given.
  12. Prior to your first invited session, you will be asked to participate in an intensive three-week online workshop on the Dialogue process. This process will be used in all sessions, and is likely quite different from group discussion formats you’ve used in past.

“So that’s it”, she concluded, turning to her father. “What if I have no idea whatsoever what my ‘Abilities’ or ‘Interests’ are? I don’t know enough about them, or about myself, and they change from day to day anyway. This is meant for people a lot older and more mature than I am, I think.”

He laughed. “Well, I actually took a hundred adults through a similar kind of exercise when I wrote my book about entrepreneurship, to help them find ‘the work they were meant to do’. And if it’s any consolation they were just as clueless about what I called their Gifts and their Passions as you are.”

“So what should I do?”

“If you’re intrigued about the idea, take a rough stab at it, and let it evolve. You can use me as a sounding board if it helps. But if it seems impossible, just tell ‘Mentor Monster’ you’re not ready or not interested.”

“Hmmm… Well I got as far as creating my avatar.” [She shows him the illustration above]

“Wow, impressive. It does look a bit like you. Your eyes, your air of skepticism, and your Sherlock-Holmesian curiosity, for a start.”

“Hah! My name for my avatar is Watson! I made one for you, too. You can be an auxiliary Mentor if you want. What do you think?” [she shows him the illustration below]

[laughs] “So you see me as a cheerful beach bum half my age and twice as attractive as I am? I am flattered.”

“Maybe more that it seems like you never want to grow up. I get that. I have no interest in growing up and fitting in, or being an ‘entrepreneur’ or having any kind of career. I’m sure if I’d been in the focus group for your book I’d have run screaming. ‘The work I’m meant to do?’ Geez, I hope I never find out!”

“Well, I guess it’s hopeless then. We’ll never know what we could be doing that we really love and which really makes a difference, because we can’t even figure out what to try.”

“You’re supposed to be encouraging me, Dad.”

“Well, sure. But you’re right. You probably have no idea, for example, how extraordinarily imaginative you are. And even if you know — even if the world knew — you wouldn’t likely be invited to help try to solve some of the very real and critical problems we’re facing right now that are defeating us precisely because the people working on them have no imagination. Because you don’t have ‘expertise’ in those subject areas, and don’t even realize that you do.”

“What, for example? What’s an example of a problem that needs… how is it Zeynep puts it? ‘Fresh eyes and fresh minds’.”

“Well, the train wreck that is Facebook, Twitter et al for example. Horrific and rapidly worsening problems of misinformation and misdirected attention. There are some bold, quite feasible ways to undo the damage that that whole set of ‘social media’ miscreants has created. But nobody’s listening, because the people with power have zero courage and zero imagination.”

“You’re telling me that you think I could help fix Facebook? I don’t even use it anymore. It’s a loser app and a total time waste. Only way to fix it is to blow it up.”

“Perhaps. So, take a step back. Facebook was invented to solve a perceived problem. What’s the problem Facebook was, and perhaps still is, trying to solve? It became popular for a reason. What’s that reason? And how did it create different and more and greater problems than it was designed to fix?”

“And you think I somehow could answer those questions, that probably even its rich nerdy Harvard frat-boy founders couldn’t answer?”

“Elementary, my dear Watson.”

[pause, thinking] “OK, so suppose they originally set it up as a portal so they could exchange their perv-y notes and photos of the women in their classes, but one of them later realized it could be used to connect everyone at the university, and they could make money with it. So their whitewashed ‘problem’ was to enable people to identify their affinities and connect online with other people that share them. No other platform at the time really offered that functionality. One of the real problems, then, is that, to fund it, it was co-opted by commercial interests so that, as Zeynep said, the advertisers became the ‘real’ customers and the users became merely the ‘product’, aggregated, manipulated, and served up to the customers. And another real problem is that as it scaled from hundreds of people on a campus to billions, that sheer mass of eyeballs became an irresistible draw to purveyors of misinformation — advertisers, politicians, cults, intelligence agencies, corporations, and conspiracy theorists.”

“Brilliant. So, if those are the real problems, how might Facebook be reformed?”

[pause, thinking] “Well, all kinds of things. Obviously, big monopoly, break it up into a million pieces, each a non-profit local co-op with a maximum size, and the link them loosely. Funded by a local membership fee, not advertising or data aggregation revenues. So rather than one giant paid-for or influencer-initiated barf to the world, the conspiracy theorists would need to get a million different people to voluntarily propagate their nonsense in each local network.” [pause] “But then it would be so easy for profiteers to re-monetize it by…”

[interrupting] “I rest my case. You aren’t going to solve the problems by yourself, but you obviously have some imaginative ideas. So you could be a major contributor to these sessions, if that would turn your crank.”

“Geez, Dad, ‘turn your crank’? You really are old. But I would never list ‘fixing social media’ as one of my interests. I just don’t care about that stuff.”

“But you are interested in truth, in fairness, in equity, right?”

“Yeah, but they’re not listed in the checklist of interests.”

“Well, perhaps they should be. Maybe talk to ‘Mentor Monster’ about that. Maybe there’s a meta-project to improve the checklist to tie better into things that people know they really care about, and then to more specific projects that might bring those things about.”

“Yeesh. Taxonomy stuff. Back to our last talk about ‘need to do’ versus ‘want to do’. Why can’t they just be the same?”

“There is no why, Tiny Dragon. This avatar project is supposed to be fun. So start with things you want to do. You have a whole lifetime to work on things you need to do. So tell me, what do you think about using the Dialogue process for this project?”

“I don’t know a lot about it. I presume it’s a lot about listening, talking stick stuff, ‘yes and‘ rather than ‘yes but‘. All that Schmachtenberger stuff. No?”

“It depends. There are lots of variants since David Bohm first coined the term. Much depends on the participants, which variant they use, and how practiced they are at it. At first, it will take a lot of facilitation. But if I can eavesdrop on the workshop, I’d love to learn how they are doing it. Especially since they’re trying to teach it online.”

“If I made an extra copy of the Abilities and Interests checklists, would you be willing to list what you think mine are, and then we’ll compare notes?”

“As long as you promise not to delete any from your list that I haven’t put on my list, just consider adding a few that I checked that you didn’t. You know yourself best.”

[sighs] “Sometimes I think I don’t know myself at all. Sometimes I just want to read detective novels and tell the world to get stuffed, carry on without me, since we’re fucked no matter what any of us does.”

[smiles] “If you had the free will to do that, you mean?”

[raises eyebrows] “Don’t get started on that free will stuff again, Dad. It’s just annoying. [long pause] I like your framing of this whole thing: ‘What’s the problem (everything we do) is trying to solve?’. It’s a good way of thinking about why we do what we do.”

[smiles] “You mean why we’re conditioned to do what we do? I told you — there is no why.”

“I will throw something at you if you keep it up. Save that stuff for your Philosophers’ Cafés. We are, or we are conditioned to be, problem solvers. Solving problems, to use your ancient term, ‘turns our cranks’. There doesn’t have to be a reason for that, but its evolution is still interesting.” [sticks out her tongue at him]

[pause] “So tell me, when you love your detective stories so much, why do you settle for reading and watching them. Why aren’t you writing them for other people to solve?”

“There is no why, Big Panda. [pause] But if there were, it would probably be that I’m too lazy to write them. I don’t want to work that hard. Wonder where I got that from, huh?”

“No one should have to work hard, Tiny Dragon. For a million years humans probably just lived like bonobos, food right at hand, lives mostly of curiosity and leisure. Then somewhere along the way it all went wrong.”

“So if I married some rich person and just lay around reading and making love and eating figs and raspberries all day, you wouldn’t be disappointed in me?”

“Not at all. Maybe your rich lover could adopt me at the same time. I can be useful, I don’t take up much space and I entertain myself.”

“You’re too much alone, Dad. It’s not too late to let go and fall crazy in love again. Just sayin’.”

“So seriously, make up your own mind about this avatar project. It’s very ambitious, maybe with too much wishful thinking by jaded, idealistic adults.”

“Thanks Dad. But we’re still going to compare notes on the Abilities and Interests checklists, though, right?”

“Sure. Though what I’d list for you is unlikely to be on any predesigned checklists.”

[pause] “So, if it all comes down to solving problems, what’s the biggest problem you’re trying to solve?”

[pause] “You know, one of your distinctive competencies is the ability to ask challenging and important questions, at just the right time. Is that on the checklist?”

“Probably not. I’ll check. But what’s your answer?”

“I guess there’s a few problems that are top of mind for me. I think you kind of touched on some of them when you gave me your unsolicited advice a moment ago. How to let go. How to be less scared of everything. How to see through the illusions of self, of separation, of free will and choice.”

“But those problems are all about you, not about the world.”

“I thought we’d already established that the world is fucked no matter what we do. So I tend to focus on problems on the inside.”

“But if we’re all completely conditioned the way you say, then you have no control over any of those ‘problems’ anyway.”

“Very perceptive. I may not be able to change anything, but I’d still like to know the answers to those problems, even if I can’t act on that knowledge.” [pause] “But how about you? What’s the biggest problem you’re trying to solve?”

“Huh.” [pause] “My misanthropy I guess. I actually don’t like most people very much. I can’t help judging. And we’re a social species, so an aversion to other people probably isn’t very healthy. I much prefer the company of cats and dogs. And books. I like places like secluded beaches and dark forests without any people in them. And for me, falling in love has been like this horrible disease — you get this initial flush of fever, but after that it’s all pain and puking and disappointment. A lousy crutch for coping with a terrible world full of psychologically damaged idiots.”

“Wow. And exactly how is that enlightened cynicism a ‘problem’?”

“Because it doesn’t fit with what everyone around me wants and needs and cares about and thinks and feels. I have to be with, and navigate the world with, these people. People my own age. My mentors. Even our family. Except you of course. But you’re weird.” [long pause, and then a sigh] “Fuck, Dad, you say you’re scared of everything, but you’re not scared of being lonely. How do you manage it? It scares me to death, living in this insane asylum, thinking that somehow I need to find someone to make it all worthwhile, to give meaning to my life, and just the thought of looking, of being open to that, to my heart cracking open, it’s absolutely terrifying.”

“Maybe I’m just numb to it, and have convinced myself that I can’t or shouldn’t care that much about anyone or anything. Maybe I’m so afraid of feeling, at least the way most people feel, that being alone is the lesser evil, so loneliness just doesn’t occur to me. I don’t know. It seems to work for me, but then I can’t possibly know what I’m missing. Being lonely is how you feel when you remember there’s another way to be. I’ve forgotten. I’m not sure I even want to remember. It’s my form of mental illness in this crazy world, and my way of coping, perhaps.”

“But you said two of the biggest problems you want to solve are how to be less scared and how to let go. Maybe that means you still really want to care in a crazy deep way about people, and still really want to stop being afraid of feeling, no?” [pause] “Whereas I kind of want to stop caring and stop feeling so much, but — and don’t start with the ‘conditioning’ thing again — I can’t stop myself.”

“You mean we’re like two people on the opposite side of a crazy busy highway, each looking at each other and saying How do I get over to your side?

“Except it’s in human nature to want to solve problems, so if we suddenly found ourselves happy exactly where we were, there wouldn’t be any problems to solve any more, so then we’d be unhappy and have to invent some.”

[smile] “So we’d all become mystery story writers.”

“Do you really think that’s the problem with everything — that there’s a fatal hardware or software error in the ‘programming’ of our species, and that there actually are no problems?”

“That’s very Zen of you to say, Tiny Dragon. Could be. Would it help to know that?”

“Sometimes I guess. But knowing that I’m unhappy for no good reason doesn’t make it any better.”

[Sings in falsetto Neil Young voice] “Though my problems are meaningless, that don’t make them go away. I need a crowd of people, but I can’t face ’em day to day.”

[Sings in twangy country voice] “And the white line’s gettin’ longer and the saddle’s gettin’ cold, I’m much too young to feel this damn old.”

[raises eyebrows] “Whaaa? Garth Brooks? Who are you and what did you do with my daughter?”

“So we’ve solved all the world’s problems by declaring that the only real problem is that we don’t realize there are no real problems. What should we do with the rest of the afternoon?”

“You got the checklists? We could do that.”

“I’ll just go make copies.”

“You realize it’s all pointless, right?”

“Like either of us has any choice. I’m sure we’ll be identifying new problems in no time.”

“Yeah, except now we’ve already solved them: Zen Master Mustard, in the Library, with a Koan”.

“Geez, you’re old, Dad.”  [fade out]

Posted in Creative Works | 2 Comments

We All Have Indigenous Wisdom

The word indigenous literally means “born of a particular place”. We may, most of us, be disconnected from the natural world in which we were born and in which we live now, and we may be ignorant of, and even oblivious to, the true nature of the places we have lived, and what they can teach us. But we are still animals, and we intuitively come to learn, and know, what we need to know to survive and hopefully thrive wherever we may be.

My sense is that we (and by we I mean the collective group living in any community) know a lot more than we think we do, and that when crises occur we are able to rise to the occasion much better than we might have expected.

I got thinking about this as a result of an article that Kavana Tree Bressen sent me from the Atlantic, by Jeffery Stern, entitled How Civilians Saved Their Oregon Town From Two Megafires. The article is harrowing reading, and relates the story of how, last year when all the wildfire fighters in North America were fully deployed and nearing exhaustion, a group of civilians decided to self-organize and fight two huge fires bearing down on their town, alone, and against the advice of the authorities to just evacuate and let their town burn.

It turns out that the people of this community, despite having no firefighting expertise, equipment or experience, actually, collectively, had a lot more skills, resources and capacities than even they could have imagined. Spoiler: With almost MacGyver-like ingenuity, collaboration and self-management, they were able to hold back the two massive fires until professional firefighters from other areas were finally able to join the fight.

This reminded me about a story I read years ago about how the people of El Salvador, after being told there was no money in the government coffers to institute a national disaster plan for earthquakes, tsunamis, hurricanes and volcanos (none of which is a rare occurrence there), self-organized to rehearse their own plans, community by community, and share what they learned with other communities.

The citizens knew what the problems would be, and they organized community-wide exercises in which citizens imagined a particular disaster had struck, and then assumed and played out roles on how they would respond if it had been real. Then they celebrated their learning with a communal dinner. Apparently, their subsequent success in dealing with real disasters has been better than that of neighbouring countries with elaborate, well-funded top-down emergency plans.

In recent years I’ve been part of a couple of Sharing Circles. These were astonishing, small-group local events where I discovered (1) many of the people I thought I ‘knew’ had skills, knowledge, and surplus resources that I was completely unaware of, and could really benefit from, and (2) I had skills, knowledge and surplus resources, mostly unrelated to my work credentials, that the people of my community really valued and appreciated, but didn’t know about. We don’t know our neighbours, other than on a superficial level. In some cases, we don’t even know our friends.

As Joe Bageant famously said, Community is born of necessity. Could it be that, as economic and ecological collapse worsens and ushers in civilizational collapse, that we might actually be able to create and build true, highly-functioning communities, right where we are in the midst of our anonymous, dysfunctional cities and towns?

I think the answer to that question is complex. Theoretically we could solve many (though not all) of the global problems that underlie the current collapse and great extinction of life. But practically speaking, with 7.8B humans all moving in different directions, and no one in control, it’s not going to happen. Once you move down to the community level, however, different possibilities emerge, as the Oregon and El Salvador stories suggest.

The hardest lesson for me to learn is the futility of trying to advocate and prepare for monumental change until people accept that there is no alternative — that it’s now or never. That point has already been reached in many parts of the world, including many parts of our own largely-affluent countries, and in those places people are working, in one way or another, in community to do for each other what ‘the system’ can no longer do, or has never done, for them. That point will be reached everywhere sooner or later, but until it is, very few people will be interested in preparing for it. That’s our nature.

The point I keep stressing is that collapse won’t happen overnight, anywhere. Economic collapse will be more immediate than ecological collapse for most of us, but even the Great Depression was only recognized as that four years after it had begun. And it won’t happen all at once, like going off a cliff. We’re going to become aware of the need to reinvent our entire way of life around local community gradually, in fits and starts, and reluctantly (preferring to believe we can return to our profligate ways until it becomes undeniable that we cannot).

So there will be time to practice. We got a wake-up call on the likelihood of continuous, disruptive global pandemics last year, but we’re still far from ready to make the changes needed to genuinely deal with them. We still think that there’s a technological fix, or some top-down way of preventing a recurrence of the current pandemic pandemonium (or that it’s all a conspiracy). What will it take to change our minds? It’s likely that, depending on the country, between two and four of every thousand people on the planet will have died of CoVid-19 by next spring. That includes 2-4% of people over 70 years of age. That’s about 15 million people globally (about 1.5M Americans). Had it not been for the rapid development and introduction of effective vaccines, the carnage would almost certainly have been about four times worse. More than half of these deaths were preventable if there had been universal mask and vaccine mandates (and the pandemic would have ended months ago).

You would think that would be enough to precipitate change, but it’s not even close to enough. Even if the pandemic had killed 60 million people, like the 1918 influenza, it wouldn’t have been enough. More than that number die every two years from chronic diseases that are directly the result of our poor modern diets, but there is no move to mandate global nutrition standards. No one wants to look at the evidence for this, or any other, inconvenient truth. “My body, my choice”, and all that crap — when that “choice” imperils the health of everyone around them.

What will be enough? It depends. Every place will be different. Everywhere, what is enough to force a certain level of change will depend on how convinced people are that they’re on their own and that the imaginary good old days are not coming back. And it will be fits and starts — a sense of urgency and necessity for change in one area may suddenly recede, while it may re-emerge in another. There is no predicting. So there is no preparing, with any degree of certainty of what exactly to prepare for (unless you live in El Salvador, perhaps).

If the economy collapses suddenly over a wide area, that point of necessity might come sooner than we expect. In the past, barter and scrip systems have sprung up quickly when currencies collapsed, people in all economic strata have learned quickly how to grow their own food and mend their own clothes, cars and other goods. And elements of a sharing economy (similar to community sharing circles but more extensively) have emerged. It’s a reasonably good bet that these will happen relatively soon, though we have no known precedent, so far, for an economic collapse that simply never ends, and how people will react to a “no back to normal” world.

So I can imagine community co-ops suddenly springing up to deal with food shortages, with chronic power outages and fuel shortages, with hyperinflation, with massive unemployment, and, over the longer term, with crumbling infrastructure and health and education services. That’s what’s happened in other places that have dealt with these crises, and were no better prepared for them than we are. People will learn, in place, to find and connect with others in their community and self-organize to do the things that will otherwise not get done at all. And I think they’ll find, like the people of Molalla Oregon, that, once they know what skills, resources and capacities they are collectively able to muster, they’ll do them a lot better than they’d imagine.

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

What Critical Race Theory Teaches Us About Our Propensity for Change


photo from a women’s march, source not cited

In a recent article in the New Yorker, Jelani Cobb chronicles the work of Derrick Bell, considered by many the father of Critical Race Theory (CRT). It’s a strange name for a fairly straight-forward, compelling and much-misrepresented thesis: Racism is so deeply rooted in the makeup of American society that it has been able to reassert itself after each successive wave of reform aimed at eliminating it.

If this sounds familiar, it’s because the same thesis could be applied to many of the other abominations that progressives keep thinking have been done away with, only to find that they’ve never gone away at all, merely stayed underground for a while until the political climate, at least in some circles, is willing to tolerate them again. Things like: misogyny (revitalized by Trump and incel-baiting academics like Jordan Peterson), forced-birth laws, climate change denial, xenophobia, anti-science, anti-authority and anti-regulation paranoia, and homophobia, just to name a few.

So now the message of CRT is being deliberately and systematically distorted, including by the right-wing ‘media’, to portray it as a kind of blame-y reverse racism and perverse thought-censoring ‘wokeness’, all rolled into one. Right-wing hate-mongers like the governor of Texas (and eight other copy-cat states) have encouraged this reactionary behaviour by banning the teaching of anything related to race in the states’ schools. Such behaviour, of course, perfectly (and ironically) confirms the validity of Derrick’s thesis.

I have argued that our very nature and conditioning impede our capacity to bring about and sustain positive social change. My sense from studying history and culture suggests that social, political and economic change happens only when the old generation dies and a new generation with different entrained beliefs and imperatives fills the power vacuum.

So, I would say, change can happen when the new generation has different entrained beliefs and imperatives. For example: We no longer (with some notable exceptions) tolerate overt slavery on the basis of race. Women (in most countries) are allowed to vote and hold office (and usually do so more competently than men). Torture cannot (legally, in most places) be used as a form of punishment or to extract confessions for alleged crimes. Even in our current age of growing fascism, I think reversion of these changes is unlikely to occur.

These changes have come about to rectify what I believe are appreciated instinctively and globally as ‘inhumane’ behaviours, and those behaviours are, I think (at least over the million-year horizon of our species’ existence), relatively rare and aberrant.

In contrast, abominations like racism, misogyny, xenophobia, and epistemophobia (a word I just discovered, meaning fear and distrust of science and knowledge), which seem generally to have their roots in people’s aversion to things that are unfamiliar and hence considered threatening, are more challenging to stamp out. The irrational fear and hatred that underlies them is so widespread and so long-standing that it is often not even consciously recognized. And so this fear and hatred engenders broad, sustained, institutionalized, unchallenged, individual and collective physical, social, political, economic and psychological violence. In other words, the problems that this fear and hatred manifest become systemic.

It therefore doesn’t surprise me that the battles against these ills need to be fought again and again, especially as the stress level in our society ratchets up ever-higher.

The staying power of these systemic ills occurs because the underlying beliefs are often passed down, within each demographic, largely unchanged, from generation to generation. Increasingly and depressingly, for example, young white males tend to vote, on many issues, the same way their old white male parents do.

This heritability can be particularly insidious when it’s unconscious. Many racists and misogynists I have met are entirely unaware of their fear and hatred, because as long as they don’t openly act on it, they can plausibly deny, at least to themselves and to their children, that they are racists or misogynists.

Paradoxically, young people might be more prone to pick up and sustain their parents’ racism or misogyny when it’s not acted out — the fear and hatred is subconsciously inherited by a combination of insinuation, unchallenged beliefs that imply fear or hatred might be understandable without saying so categorically, along with observed aversive behaviours, misinformation, and simple exclusion from, or prohibition from, contact that might dispel the fear or hatred of the unknown group (eg in segregated communities, clubs, schools and institutions).

Whereas if Mom and Dad wear MAGA hats while aiming armed weapons at peaceful protesters of colour passing by their house, the kids may recognize the folly of their parents’ fearful or hateful beliefs and behaviours, and adopt a radically different set of beliefs and attitudes.

The media, by sensationalistic reporting of unrepresentative groups and extremist individuals, and by encouraging misinformation (the more outrageous, the stronger the response and the more attention for advertisers to exploit), amplify this fear and anger, and hence abet the retrenchment of fear-driven attitudes and hatreds, and deepen the resultant social ills.

And this enables reactionary populist fear-mongers like Trump (and Hitler) to use these media to ratchet up the hatred, fear and distrust that they depend on to galvanize their base, making sustained liberalization of attitudes and beliefs almost impossible.

Though we pride ourselves on our rationality as a species, what we believe has more to do with what and how we feel than what we think. Even science is not a purely rational, objective undertaking, as Stephen J Gould stressed in his book The Mismeasure of Man:

Science, since people must do it, is a socially embedded activity. It progresses by hunch, vision, and intuition. Much of its change through time does not record a closer approach to absolute truth, but the alteration of cultural contexts that influence it so strongly. Facts are not pure and unsullied bits of information; culture also influences what we see and how we see it. Theories, moreover, are not inexorable inductions from facts. The most creative theories are often imaginative visions imposed upon facts; the source of imagination is also strongly cultural.

No surprise, then, that in this age of supposed science and reason, our emotion-charged credulousness has amplified anti-intellectualism, distrust of science, scientists, scientific facts, and scientific institutions, and, among other things, extended a pandemic that should have been over a year ago, and unnecessarily quadrupled its death toll.

The upshot of all this is, of course, not what progressives want to hear. History is not a story of steady progress punctuated by brief periods of backsliding. It is, instead, an endless and un-winnable battle against fear, hatred, misinformation, and the psychopaths and the clueless who exploit it all in times of stress to foment systemic violence, ignorance, and folly. And then we lick our wounds and prepare for the next round.

Conditioned as we are, we can only do our best to deal with it all, to make the best of it. History, for us, it seems, will not be a story with a happy ending. But we have no choice but to keep fighting to make it, at least, a tiny bit better than it might have been had we not tried.

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

The Three Daves


scene from Le Roi de Coeur

We all have multiple personas, and, except for those who have severe cognitive disabilities, we navigate between them rather effortlessly. The way we speak, carry ourselves and even think, when we’re in our ‘work persona’ can be very different, for example, from those behaviours when we’re in our ‘parenting persona’.

For many, work/life balance has always been a challenge, but CoVid-19 has made it harder, since there is often less time, or no time at all, to ‘switch’ between our personas. We have to be ‘on’ to deal with things in any of our persona roles, at any time, and that can be exhausting.

Seventeen years ago, when I first became a collapsnik, and began to believe that there is nothing we can do to prevent or mitigate civilization’s collapse in this century, I suddenly found myself acting in three different roles, each with a distinct persona.

At work, and as part of a large number of professional and online networks, I could not talk about collapse. Even though these networks were mostly preoccupied with short-term (the next year at most) thinking, I had to ‘shift’ out of collapse thinking mode to a mode that appreciated that my professional fields were important, and were likely to stay that way for a long time.

And at home, I couldn’t really talk about it either. When I spoke with my kids about my views on collapse (even after they’d moved away and started families), they were devastated. My son said “You may well be right, but I just can’t think about that right now.”

When I retired, things became easier because I was down to just two personas. At that point I really lost interest in everything related to work — it seemed ridiculous to be worrying about things like the pace of innovation or the problems of effective knowledge-sharing, when we were well into global economic and ecological collapse. Sadly, I fell out of touch will all but a handful of colleagues from those networks. I stopped writing about work-related subjects on my blog. Many of my readers unsubscribed. None of that “work stuff” mattered to me anymore. Although I continued to respond to speaking invitations and interviews on business topics, it got easier to just elide over the issue of collapse, to not mention it. There was some cognitive dissonance but it was manageable. And I stopped talking to the kids about it, except when they pointedly asked, and then regretted having done so.

There were more than enough progressives concerned about collapse, but still in denial about its inevitability, to keep me busy writing and thinking and interacting.

So there was Dave the idealist activist, working away as part of the Transition movement, writing about resilience and community and human nature. And there was Dave the ‘joyful pessimist’ collapsnik, writing about complexity and adaptability and a post-collapse future many millennia hence.

And then about six years ago I started to study the message of radical non-duality. This message said that there is no ‘we’, that time and space and self and separation are just mental constructs completely divorced from any ‘true’ reality, that everything is just an appearance, and that nothing really matters (not even collapse) because there is no one for it to matter to.

This seemingly-preposterous message resonated with me quite profoundly, both at an intuitive and at an intellectual level. Throughout my life there have been these strange “glimpses” during which “I” completely disappear and all that is seen, wondrously, is everything simply, perfectly, as it is, but as an appearance, without substance, trajectory or permanence. The terrible weight of the world that had always been seen through the eyes of the scared, bewildered, ‘responsible’ self is suddenly lifted, and everything seems light, effortless, completely OK as it is. During these glimpses, everything, for the first time, made absolute, unarguable sense. It was undeniable. “How could I not see this?”

When I started to write and talk about this, I now found I was back to three personas again: Dave the idealist activist, who nods and empathizes with my family and friends about the day-to-day issues we are facing, and affirms our mutual progressive beliefs, activities and concerns; Dave the ‘joyful pessimist’ collapsnik, who acknowledges that, because of collapse, in twenty years none of these current issues and beliefs will matter, because we’ll be facing unimaginable crises that will utterly change every aspect of how we live; and a new, third one, Dave the radical non-dualist, who asserts that even collapse is just an appearance, not real, not important, and that nothing needs to be, or can be, done. And that there is no “me”.

(Of course, the doubting Thomas in me still wonders if these glimpses were just wishful thinking, rationalizations of daydreams, and the result of seeking an easy way out of having to face and deal with the seemingly insoluble crises of our time. Perhaps because of this dubiousness, I may often seem unconvinced of what I am saying, in all three personas.)

So now, when I am speaking with people, or writing for a particular audience, I have to be clear in my own mind on which of these utterly different and irreconcilable personas I need to be inhabiting to convey my thoughts and beliefs in a way that works for them. The cognitive dissonance is massive and never-ending. The switch between them is flicked back and forth with dizzying regularity.

So, suppose I am asked by someone, What do you think of the year-long protest against logging BC’s last old-growth forests?, my response will be different depending on which persona is answering.

Dave the idealist activist would say: “Well of course we need to support the protestors, and counter the false propaganda of the BC government about how much old-growth forest is left and how much of that is slated for logging under their watch. But protests simply haven’t worked. We’re down to 0.08% of BC’s forests that are still-standing true old-growth, and they are disproportionately being logged even now because they’re the most profitable stands to log. So it’s kinda too late, but good on the protestors for trying to save the last dregs.”

Dave the joyful pessimist collapsnik would say: “In thirty years, between logging, wildfires, and new plant diseases, all of our forests, not just the tiny old-growth remnants, are almost sure to be gone. So staff the protest lines if that gives you a sense of purpose, of accomplishing something, but it’s futile. The whole world is on fire. I suspect the protesters will learn about grief from their work, from seeing what is happening, the inevitability of collapse, so it least it won’t be entirely for naught.”

Dave the radical non-dualist (or, rather, his illusory self) would say: “Of course the protesters, the government people, the cops and the loggers have no choice but to do what they’ve been conditioned to do. But there’s actually nothing happening, and no one anything is happening to. Only the afflicted human brain thinks there’s something happening, thinks there’s a right and wrong, thinks there’s time and space within which things are happening — bravery, atrocity, and everything in between. But it’s all just an appearance, nothing appearing as everything being played out, outside of space and time, for no reason, with no purpose. All this suffering over mere appearances, and it’s all for nothing. Still, I am cheering for the protesters. Can’t do anything else.”

(It actually hurts my brain to write these characterizations. It wants to reconcile the three, impossibly.)

When, in the middle of a discussion, or in the middle of a blog article, I meander into a different persona and start to respond from that worldview, I usually get puzzled and sometimes alarmed looks and comments from the audience, who can’t parse what I’m now saying or the mental leap I have made during the switch. This probably comes across as muddle-headed, inattentive, or mildly deranged. The three different perspectives of these three personas are irreconcilable. They can’t all be ‘right’.

I have friends who ‘know’ me and relate to me in one persona, but because of something I’ve said or written are curious to know more about where one of the other personas is coming from. This usually goes badly. Soon enough, a distressed glance usually tells me it’s time to flick the switch and go back to the understanding we share in common.

A great film on how easily we can be conditioned by others to take on false personas is Philippe de Broca’s Le Roi de Coeur (King of Hearts). It’s a brilliant send-up of how we profoundly influence each other to play roles and engender beliefs that, from the view of an outsider, make absolutely no sense.

Of course, all three of my bewilderingly incompatible personas have been biologically and culturally conditioned in me, given the circumstances of each moment that happens to give rise to their evolution and deployment. I am an actor playing three different roles in an imaginary repertory theatre, and I damned well better keep my lines straight and remember which role I’m playing at any given moment. I am the King of Hearts, but only in my own mind.

The three of us thank you for your attention, and hope you liked the show.

Posted in Our Culture / Ourselves, Radical Non-Duality | 6 Comments