"The bigger you build the bonfire, the more darkness is revealed."
- Terence McKenna
Apocalypsopolis, book one
Civilization Will Eat Itself, Superweed 1-4, best of
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January 16. I've arrived in south Atlanta at the Crack in the Sidewalk Farmlet. After two consecutive one night stays and then a night on the bus, I'm falling behind on food, sleep, and emails, but I should catch up in the next few days. On Saturday, a reader is hosting an event at the east edge of Atlanta where you can tour his property and/or meet me.
January 15. I'm considering a revision in my trip. From Knoxville, instead of going straight to New York, I might go east to St Louis, then through Pittsburgh. Today Jef and Yelena made me pizza and gave me a driving tour of Dallas, and tonight I'm taking an 18 hour bus ride to Atlanta.
Also, here are two links from Erik, a frequent contributor to the blog, who I met for a few hours in Austin. Erik has had multiple chemical sensitivity, and has mostly cured it through amygdala retraining. And a few years ago he built this impressive tiny house.
January 13. So, if anyone is just now tuning in, I'm in the middle of a tour around the states, using a 60 day Greyhound bus pass, and staying with readers. I've got more than 60 invitations mapped out but will probably end up staying with fewer than half. My schedule is loosely planned and flexible. I'm in Austin tonight, then Dallas, then it looks like I'll be around Atlanta all next week. Then Knoxville, NYC, Cape Cod, Vermont, Pittsburgh, Ann Arbor, and Chicago, and maybe a few other points on the way. Then if I have time I could dip down to St Louis, or up to Minnesota. I think I'll burn my pass out in the east and try to get back west through rideshare or Amtrak.
It's not too late to send me an invitation, especially if you live in a group house with easy transportation to and from the bus station. My typical stay is 2-3 nights. You don't need to entertain me, but I will need to borrow a computer, and I might be making heavy use of your kitchen. So far on this trip I've made 15 apple pies. Mostly I'll want to hang out and rest and eat. Deep conversations and games would be great.
Everyone asks me why I'm traveling. It's not easy, and it's not that fun. But I have the urge to stretch myself, and I enjoy meeting people and seeing different landscapes. Another nice thing is that it makes this short life seem longer. I've been on the road for 17 days and it feels like a month.
January 11. Another loose end from the other day. Christienne, who teaches yoga, points out that postures are only one part of yoga, overemphasized in the west. Also she writes:
What is the original yoga? It can be found basically in the first line of The Yoga Sutras of Patanjali. This one is translated by Mukunda Stiles: "Yoga is experienced in that mind which has ceased to identify itself with its vacillating waves of perception."
This reminds me of a verse from the Tao Te Ching, which I would paraphrase as: "When you lose touch with the Tao, there is nature; when you lose touch with nature, there is human morality; when you lose touch with human morality, there is law."
This is a challenge to the modern counterculture, which puts nature at the very center. I like the idea that there is something deeper, which even nature can only crudely approximate. You can also find this idea in sophisticated Judeo-Christianity, which defines "God" as something like the Tao, rather than a silly sky father.
I've been reading Masanobu Fukuoka's The One-Straw Revolution, and he has some great ideas, but I think he makes a mistake to put nature at the center and trust it absolutely. His philosophy is designed more to be inspirational than helpful, and in practice he makes exceptions, using diluted mineral oil to kill insects on his trees, and not letting a heavily controlled orchard suddenly go wild, but bringing it slowly through a transition.
My favorite idea in the book is that there's no such thing as progress or regression, only movement toward or away from the center. This is liberating because it disconnects human technological innovation from value, either positive or negative. In practice, what we call "progress" has mostly moved us away from the center, because we're trying new things and making mistakes. But it's equally possible for technological innovation to move us toward the center, if we learn how to do it right.
January 9. Adam has done a nice blog post on my comments this morning, Yoga, culture, and the spark of life, basically arguing that some branches of yoga, some spiritual traditions, and some schools do not veer off from the source, but continue to be helpful.
Also, here's something related to unemployment: Cut the working week to 20 hours, urge economists.
January 9. Last week's Archdruid post, Waiting for the Great Pumpkin, repeats the argument that we're in for a long decline, rather than a sudden crash or recovery, and offers this great summary of what to do about it:
The only way out of the trap is to accept a steep cut in your standard of living before it becomes necessary, as a deliberate choice, and to use the resources freed up by that choice to get rid of any debts you have, get settled in a location that has a fair chance of keeping a viable degree of community life going, and get the tools and learn the skills that you will need to manage a decent life in an age of spiraling decline.
Second subject, same as the first. In Prime Age Men Crawling Back to Work, Stuart Staniford considers the cultural effects of long-term unemployment:
The importance of hard work and self-discipline has been a central value of western culture for many centuries. One in five working age men are no longer working and as far as I can see there is little or no hope of a fundamental reversion in this trend. We are going to have to either a) change the situation in the economy, or b) undergo a massive values shift to give honor and meaning to men who don't work, or c) experience a major crisis.
Third subject, different from the first. How Yoga Can Wreck Your Body. Yoga was developed by people in great physical shape who had enough body awareness to avoid injuring themselves. "Now urbanites who sit in chairs all day walk into a studio a couple of times a week and strain to twist themselves into ever-more-difficult postures despite their lack of flexibility and other physical problems." And teachers push students and themselves too hard because of ego.
Something the article doesn't mention is that every yoga pose was invented by someone whose body needed that particular stretch at that particular time. Ideally we would all have the skill and awareness to improvise our own exercises every day. Lacking that, we follow rigid and uniform routines that are inevitably wrong for us. This reminds me of how religion starts with direct experience of the divine, and then hardens into rules and memorized prayers. Or how learning starts with curiousity and self-directed exploration, and ends up in lifeless forced schooling.
January 8, late. Just finished a 26 hour bus trip, where I was lucky again to mostly have two seats to myself. On Greyhound you're never going to sleep well at night, but with two seats you can sleep well enough that you can keep up with the help of naps. I've also noticed that my body goes half dormant on the bus, so I can get away with eating less and putting less water through.
This was my first daytime trip through west Texas, and I was surprised at the vast amounts of land that are still totally undeveloped. Tonight I'm staying with Brian in the San Antonio suburbs, and I expect to go up to Austin on Tuesday morning.
January 7. My Altadena hosts, Evan and Cheryl, have generously offered to drive me to San Bernardino, so I have time to say a little more on yesterday's subject. At the Huntington I spent a lot of time in the botanical gardens, which are like a museums of living plants, a near-perfect metaphor for civilization gone too far. The plants are alive, but they're disconnected from nature, over-protected, and completely managed. A botanical garden appears to be better than wild nature if you just see a snapshot, but nature is much better if you understand the relationships.
Related: Gabriel sends an interesting sci-fi story, Just another day in utopia. It's about a world where omnipotent AI's allow humans to choose their level of excitement and safety, and the protagonist lives in a perpetual action movie with no chance of being seriously hurt. I think we would get bored with this really fast, like a four year old who imagines utopia as a giant pile of toys. The author understands that a good society has to be safe enough to not be traumatic, while giving us the freedom to take risks and create our own stories. What's missing is our need to work with constraints.
January 6, late. I've been super-busy. It's warm enough here to ride a bike around in a t-shirt. Yesterday I rode to the Pasadena Whole Foods, the first two-level grocery store I've ever been in, and paid $7 for the only certified humane eggs. I've made two more apple pies, one with Braeburn and one with Arkansas Black, both of which are inferior to Fuji as pie apples. I'll continue testing more varieties.
Today I went to the Huntington, and it got me thinking about museums and civilization. Anti-civ authors are making a mistake to point out when civilization causes pain and destruction, because nature causes much more pain and destruction, and the avoidance of pain and destruction is a civilized value. The correct way to critique civilization is to point out control and lifelessness. Museums have their place, but when the ethic of the museum creeps into the culture at large, that culture is in trouble. You'll have to think of your own examples. I'm off to bed, and tomorrow off on the next long bus ride.
January 3. By popular demand, a recent article related to today's subject: How Doctors Die.
January 3. Susan comments on one aspect of the ongoing collapse:
I work in a busy emergency room. I had left ten years ago and just returned last May. At first I was amazed at how much sicker the patients were and how heavy the work had become. This weekend I realized that we do a lot more for the patients. It seems that almost everyone who comes in with anything more serious than a twisted ankle gets blood work and an EKG. It doesn't seem like a lot until you multiply it by hundreds of patients every day. When you have a very elderly person and/or a very sick patient, they amount of care they receive skyrockets unbelievably, even if that person isn't expected to live much longer. For example, I had a 90 year old woman with an extensive cancer history come in with difficulty breathing. Probably she had inhaled some food because she couldn't really feed herself any longer and developed pneumonia. Her family had made her a DNR (Do Not Resuscitate), so that if her heart stopped we wouldn't do CPR or stick a breathing tube in her mouth. But other than those caveats, she got numerous, costly tests and possibly will spend the remaining weeks of her life in a hospital, undergoing daily blood tests and CT scans and god knows what else.
Now, this isn't really news to me, as a nurse, that the US spends more on health care and has poorer outcomes than any other rich country. But it did occur to me that we might be at the peak of what we can provide. We take care of more and more baby boomers as they're getting older and they are not as healthy as the generation before them. Fifteen years ago I'd take care of a lot of 80 year olds who had never been really sick, had never taken any medication other than aspirin and had never been in a hospital. Now, I'm seeing 60 year olds with all kinds of health problems and we haven't even got to the baby boom bubble yet. I can't imagine that we're going to have enough staff, resources or even space to take care of these people in another ten years.
It's important to remember that the American medical system is predatory. Doctors and nurses may be trying to help people, but the system as a whole is just trying to suck as much money as possible into the giant black hole of private capital around which the whole economy orbits. This means that any procedure a hospital can bill insurance for, it will do, and it's very difficult for patients to refuse. Meanwhile insurance companies will raise rates, and governments will pretend to do good by throwing more money down the hole while cutting more valuable services.
My guess is that rich people will continue to get more medical care than is good for them, and middle class people will also get more care than is good for them while going deep in debt. This will drop most of them into the lower classes, who are already getting much less care than they need. It is not possible for medical providers to cut back services to what is actually helpful; it is only possible for them to cut back to what is profitable. Of all the issues facing us, health care is the only one where I can't see any non-catastrophic path to a better world. If you have comments, here's a subreddit link. I'll be spending today in the kitchen and tomorrow on the bus.
January 2. Today, some material from readers. Tim Boucher sends this link about a Walkupy Group, which he found after a series of dreams about a "new walking-occupation movement wherein masses of people had left the comforts of normal home and society to become pilgrims on the road." Note: "walkupy" rhymes with "occupy", as in "walkupy all street!"
Christine sends two good links: Hellarity burns is a long, thoughtful article about a squatter house in Oakland, which happens to be written by one of the famous Iraq hikers.
And a surprisingly sympathetic article, Dinner gets very local for squirrel-eating Seattleite.
January 1, 2012. For the record, this is my position on the Mayan calendar: 1) The 2012 winter solstice is not the end of the Mayan calendar, only the renewal of a 26,000 year cycle, based on the precession of the equinoxes. 2) We don't know what the Mayans thought was actually going to happen on this date. 3) Whatever they predicted, they were just guessing like everyone else. 4) Nevertheless, this world is full of meaningful coincidence, and if you look around, big changes are underway. Also, the popular myth of the end of the world in 2012 might make people bolder in trying to change the world.
I don't think we'll see a global hard crash, unless it's caused by something in the realm of astronomy or science fiction. Catastrophes will be local, and the global system will continue to barely function while slowly breaking down, like a poorly maintained road.
In the coming decades, I see two trends pulling in different directions. One is energy decline. There is nothing on the horizon that can match the abundance, density, and ease of storage of fossil fuels. There are enough alternatives to give us more energy than preindustrial people, but not enough to maintain the outrageous consumption of the late 20th century. Reduced consumption will cause economic collapse, since our economy is based on perpetual increase. Professional economists will be the last ones to see that economic growth is the wrong goal, and the right goal is to maximize quality of life with zero growth. But I think humans lack the self-discipline for an enduring steady-state economy, and instead we will continue to enjoy growth-based economies by repeatedly crashing them, like we did before the age of oil.
The other trend is information technology. The smartest computers will continue to get smarter, and where this will take us is anyone's guess. Will artificial intelligence be used more to strengthen human domination systems, or to undermine them? Will AI's develop their own motivations? At what point does it make sense to ask what it's like to be a computer? Is there any place for the whole drama to reach equilibrium? I can see equilibrium in only two scenarios: human extinction, or something we can't even imagine.
By the way, I'm in Eugene, staying at the Walnut Street Co-op. I'm leaning toward skipping the bay area, and going straight from here to Los Angeles, and then to Texas.
December 27. Three years ago when I used Craigslist rideshare to get down the west coast, I noticed that drivers in the northwest asked for an equal share of gas money, while drivers in California asked for a flat fee that was much greater than a share of gas. This behavior has now crept into the northwest. Everyone driving from Seattle to Portland seems to be running an unlicensed bus service, charging enough to buy gas and make a profit. This is troubling. As Fredy Perlman wrote, trade is something you do with your enemies. Nobody would give their friend a ride and charge enough to make a profit. But as the economy collapses and people get desperate, they are shrinking the sphere of people they think of as friends, and applying the cold logic of the market to everyone outside a tiny circle.
I don't like to be half-assed corporate. I'd rather pay money to an actual corporation that's already selfish by design, than pay to reward humans for choosing selfishness. So I'm planning to start my Greyhound pass now, and if I want to keep traveling after late February, I can figure something else out.
December 25. So I've already read two reality-shifting e-books. First was Sailor on the Seas of Fate, which I remembered as my favorite of Michael Moorcock's Elric series from 30 years ago. It was totally fun, although Moorcock uses the word "sardonic" way too much. Then I read Ursula Le Guin's The Lathe of Heaven, which was clearly influenced by Philip K. Dick. It's about a meek but courageous man whose dreams can retroactively change reality, and a psychologist who exploits him to try to create utopia. I am tired of fiction with a message about society, but if you're not, I recommend it.
In other news, after two weeks on a near-Paleo diet, I was looking like Steve Jobs' ghost. Bits of quinoa were getting stuck in the hollows under my cheekbones. If you need to lose weight and stay healthy, there's nothing better than Paleo, but I need to gain weight, so I've just put apple pies back in my diet in a big way. I might be buying a lot of butter and flour and apples on my trip.
December 22. Just found out I'll have internet on the coast, so I might be posting a bit. Meanwhile, No Tech Magazine and Do The Math have had some great posts lately, and the other day John Robb made a fascinating argument that The Future of Drone Warfare will not be like flying a plane, but like playing Starcraft.
December 20. Here's something to think about. Are we in a decades-long design rut? The author, Kurt Andersen, points out that popular style has changed less in the last 20 years than in any 20 year period going back to the 1800's. This reminds me of Steven Pinker's observation that violence has declined. We should not confuse our certainty that it's happening, with our certainty that we know why. Andersen thinks that technology has given us the ability to turn popular culture into a museum. Update: thanks silverionmox for making a subreddit link.
December 16. So on Monday I leave Spokane and leave my computer behind. For the following two or three months I'll be on borrowed computers, so I won't be online nearly as much. Maybe if I'm staying with someone who has to go to work, and they leave me with their computer all day, I'll be able to read some stuff and make some longer posts, but I expect most of my posts will be brief updates on where I am and where I'm going next.
Something I haven't written about yet is the American presidential race. It looks like Obama is in trouble, until you look at the Republicans who are in worse trouble, with no candidate who can unite the establishment and the base. Following presidential politics is like following sports: you have no influence on the outcome, and the outcome has no effect on the world. I've written before that I think Dennis Kucinich and Michele Bachmann would be more different in their performance as janitor than their performance as president, because the office is now utterly controlled by the giant blocks of money. But if you enjoy following the race, Nate Silver's FiveThirtyEight, now at the NY times, is a great blog.
December 15. And another gift I got in the mail. Trumpeter Peter Evans has made a record based on my essay "Beyond Civilized and Primitive", and last week he sent me a copy. My turntable is in storage so I haven't listened to it yet. Peter might put a stream up on his More is More Records page, and you can buy it from Dancing Wayang Records. And here's a nice review: Peter Evans - Beyond Civilized And Primitive.
December 14. Thanks Jerah for buying and mailing me a physical copy of I'm With the Bears, a collection of ten stories about climate change. I liked some of it, and I've just posted this review on Amazon.