"The bigger you build the bonfire, the more darkness is revealed."
- Terence McKenna
Apocalypsopolis, book one
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February 6. Last night my Plainfield hosts took me to a great sauna potluck, so I missed the Super Bowl. Most years I'll watch it because the game is usually fun and I like to analyze the commercials as a window on the American collective consciousness. This year Kunstler has it covered in a new post: All Screaming Id, No Brains, No Honor. In his analysis of the ads, Americans know the system is collapsing, they wrongly blame outsiders, and they foolishly imagine they will personally thrive. There's also a great bit about Madonna: "Message to American women: be sluts as long as you possibly can because there is nothing else for you in this culture." Kunstler makes a minor mistake on lard. American food is not "lard-laden", but full of hydrogenated vegetable oil, and lard would make us healthier both physically and mentally.
I've got a bunch of links stacked up, but for today, just one more, also bashing American culture: Why French Parents Are Superior. I don't endorse the whole article, but a few points should be noncontroversial: 1) It's better to give kids clear boundaries that are consistently enforced, than vague boundaries that are inconsistently enforced. 2) It's good for kids to learn to play by themselves. 3) It's not good if the kids are leading and the parents are always reacting. 4) It's good for kids to learn to delay gratification. I'm not sure how you would follow the last two without following the cruel advice to ignore kids while they "cry it out". This is a subject on which people have strong opinions, so I've made a subreddit link. Setting clear boundaries myself, I will read comments over email but not reply or post them.
February 4, late. Thanks John for driving me from Cape Cod up to Plainfield VT, where I'll be staying for at least three more days. This seems to be a great town. When I stay with people who are not happy with where they're living, I invite them to move to Spokane but admit that Portland is the American city with the best culture. Here's a great video from the show Portlandia: The Dream of the 90's.
February 4. Stray links. Daniel sends an article about fungi that can eat polyurethane in landfills. What about other kinds of plastic? Can we just inject it in landfills, or is it more complicated? And if it is that simple, will biotech come up with organisms that eat synthetic materials we're still using?
A more plausible doom scenario: how a solar storm could bring down power grids.
And Do The Math covers nuclear fusion. Basically it's potentially abundant, but the technology is so hard that even if we can do it, it might be too expensive to be worth the trouble. Meanwhile we already have a giant fusion plant in the sky: the sun. The author suggests that solving storage for solar might be easier than solving fusion, and that humans are pursuing fusion for psychological reasons. I would say that we want to make our own suns so we can feel like gods.
February 1. I've arrived in Cape Cod. Internet time will be tight for the next few days so emails will probably be limited to trip logistics. I expect to go to Vermont next, then Syracuse, Buffalo, and Pittsburgh.
January 31. I really like Manhattan, and I understand why people who have enough money to live anywhere choose to live here. The other day someone had a nice insight about the personality of the city. There are so many cultures here that people can't count on subtle social cues being understood, so they use more direct language.
January 30. I'll be in NYC one more day. Today I walked the High Line and explored the woods in Central Park. Tomorrow I'll be talking to Andy's class at School of the Future.
January 29. Patricia makes a good comment on Friday's subject: that in primitive cultures, and among very young humans in all cultures, there is no "I-It". Everything is "I-You", even rocks and manufactured items. In materialist philosophy this is disparaged as "animism", but even if it's not true it still makes us treat "things" better. I think it is true, but in a way that's hard to explain in this culture. As I wrote in one of my zines, it's not that rocks have consciousness, but that consciousness has rocks. Or, if reality itself has the structure of a dream, then everything that exists is an extension of the consciousness of the dreamers.
January 27. The latest Archdruid post, The Myth of the Machine, makes an important point. Why do Americans get so angry at the thought of losing their cars, television, and other toys? Because there are two kinds of relationships: I-It and I-You. I-It is childish and easy; I-You is mature and difficult. The difference is whether the thing or person you're dealing with has an inner life. (To be more philosophically precise, I would ask: Does it make sense to ask what it's like to be that thing or person?) Because machines have no inner life, our relationships with machines are I-It.
I've written before that America is a nation of mad kings. Machines make this possible by giving us something to rule without ruling each other. It may seem that this will come to an end with the end of cheap energy, but I think it could get worse. Computer-generated worlds are getting better every day, and use little enough energy that they could could keep going through many collapse scenarios. The question is how many of us will have time for computer worlds after everything we'll have to do to get food. Another question is, what would it take for computers, or their descendants, to develop an inner life? And how would we know?
I'm in New York City, staying with Andy in Brooklyn. Yesterday I walked around Times Square and Central Park. People in Manhattan are nicer than I expected, and also less happy. Everyone can tell I'm a visitor because I'm the only one with a coat that's not black or grey. I might be in the city until Tuesday, and then either go up to western Massachusetts or Cape Cod.
January 25. Thoughtful Mythodrome post on civilization and empire. I've noticed that primitivists use a trick in their definition of "civilization" (and also "city"). They define the word by looking at the past, and then project that definition onto the future. This makes it seem, without an actual argument, that large complex societies of the future must be the same as the ones in the past. Paula defines "civilization" more broadly as high social complexity, and defines "empire" as a subset of civilization, which "grows and grows until it cannot be sustained." As a metaphor, she mentions the Irish Elk, a subset of deer whose antlers grew so big that it went extinct. And "because empire is a maladaptation... it will die out while other types of civilizations continue to adapt and flourish."
I basically agree, but I don't expect this to happen in my lifetime, and there are probably mistakes other than empire that we have barely begun to make.
I'm just finishing an easy three day stay with Roz in Knoxville. Here's her blog, Gaea's Box of Rocks. I've had lots of internet time, made three more pies, and bought a thrift store coat to add an extra layer for my trip north. Tonight I get on the bus for NYC. After that I expect to visit Massachusetts, Vermont, western NY, and Pittsburgh, and then, in an order I have not yet determined, Ann Arbor, Chicago, and St Louis.
January 24. Over on the subreddit there is a discussion of the subject of the last two days.
January 24. Since I linked to that Ribbonfarm post yesterday, I'd better say that I don't agree with all of it. I like the idea of leaving the middle class in both directions at once, but I'm skeptical about buying expensive tools. Anne comments:
Trading up is only sensible in the context of having a strong sense of commitment to being good at a few particular things, something the dilettante culture of the American middle class resists. We like to think anyone can get good at gardening, or boatbuilding, or day trading, or writing memoirs, with just a little practice and a few good "...for dummies" books.
This reminds me of something I've noticed on my tour. A lot of people have books on far more practical skills than they'll ever learn. This is okay if you're building a collapse library for a community, but I'm afraid people are thinking, "I wish I knew how to do this, so I'll buy a book on how to do it and maybe the book will motivate me to learn." It doesn't work that way. If anything, reading about doing it will give you a false sense of reward and sap your motivation to actually do it. I suggest not reading a how-to book until you are so driven that nothing can stop you.
I have a deeper suspicion about tools. Consider the movie "It Might Get Loud". The Edge uses the most advanced electronic effects, and when they're switched off, his playing is totally lame. Meanwhile Jack White intentionally uses a crappy guitar because it stretches his own skill to make it sound good. In the PBS Rock and Roll documentary, there's a bit where a band tracks down the very same mixing board that New Order used for their most ground-breaking album, and they expect it to be effortless to use, but they find instead that it's painfully difficult. Ernest Hemingway, using a manual typewriter, spaced twice between every word to slow himself down. Tom Waits has been known to put his musicians in a cold room to make them play better. Or consider the clunky tools George Lucas had for the original Star Wars, compared to the slick CGI he had for the prequels. My point is, there is evidence that we are more creative when we're working under difficult conditions, so there's a danger that "good" tools, if they make the work easier, will reduce creativity.
January 23. A few readers have argued against yesterday's post, but I haven't changed my mind. No fossil fuels will be left in the ground until they are outcompeted by other energy sources, and your personal conservation has negligible effect on when this will happen. More generally, I disagree with the moral system in which you imagine your actions being magically multiplied. The test of an action is not what would hypothetically happen if everyone did it, but what will actually happen if you do it.
This is related to a test proposed by Bruce Sterling, and described in this Ribbonfarm post, Acting Dead, Trading Up and Leaving the Middle Class. The idea is that you're wasting your life doing anything that your dead great grandfather, in the grave, can do better than you. You're using fewer resources? Your great grandfather is using no resources, and if he could talk to you, he might say, "Stop doing stuff that a dead person can do. You're alive -- do something that an alive person can do."
Of course, I'm totally in favor of shifting out of the industrial consumption economy, but for a different reason than ecopuritanism. If you learn to live on less energy and less money, then you become stronger. You have more unstructured time to learn internal motivation, more mental space to think independently, and more skills that everyone will need as the industrial economy continues its decline. You're not "saving the world", but becoming a seed of a better world to come.
January 22. At the event last night there was something I didn't get a chance to say, so I'll say it here. Personal conservation does nothing to avert climate change. It might, if everyone had their own oil well. You could convert your house to solar, cap your well, and leave your oil in the ground. In practice, all the oil (gas, coal, etc) is sold to whoever wants it, and nobody is talking about leaving the oil in the ground. All of it will be burned, and anything you conserve will just be burned by someone else. Now, there will come a time when the remaining oil is so expensive to extract that renewable energy is cheaper, and then it will be left in the ground for economic reasons. So the best way to reduce climate change is to spend money on renewable energy research, and burn oil to build alternatives to the present system. I'm reminded of the permaculturist who said that five gallon buckets are the best use of fossil fuels.
January 19. Last night I stayed with Ted and Alison in Gainesville. Ted loves to talk and told me lots of interesting stuff. For example, on the subject of cow milk vs human milk for young humans, Ted says that the nutritional profile of cow milk is better at growing the body, but worse at growing the brain, so you get a bunch of big dumb kids. You might call them human cattle. Then you could ask what economic or cultural factors lead parents to feed their babies cow milk, and I think you would find feedback, where the weak populations get weaker.
January 17. I have loads of invitations and limited time, and I'm trying to hit as many as possible without wearing myself out. That means I'm giving higher priority to locations with a bunch of invitations, or locations where transportation is super-easy. If anyone lives in Cleveland, stopping with you would be easier than not stopping.
So far Austin has been my funnest stay, but my present stay in south Atlanta is the most relevant to the usual subjects. This neighborhood is several years ahead in the ongoing collapse. Chris has garden plots in his own yard, the yard next door, the yard across the street, and at a nearby church. He asked if he could use their back lawn to grow food and they instantly agreed. Most of the houses are vacant, and they typically get all the copper ripped out by scavengers, so property managers might let someone live in a house free just to protect it. At the same time, there are enough rich people in the area that gourmet cooks will pay big money for wild mushrooms. Chris grows salad greens to sell at farmers markets, and diverts bags of produce from the waste stream, which gets made into meals, fed to chickens, or composted. Today we walked through Constitution Lakes Park, where an old brickyard has gone back to wilderness, and someone has been making art out of scrap along the trails. My favorite was a pile of broken toilet pieces, with an inscription that says "Ancient porcelain. Thrones of the gods?"
January 15. 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. This was my first daytime trip through west Texas, and I was surprised at the vast amounts of land that are still totally undeveloped.
January 7. 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. 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.