"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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February 21. (Repost of this morning's urban-rural thing, rewritten to add some extra bits and remove the context.) Many people on this tour have asked me why I'm focusing my attention on my house in the city and not homesteading my primitive land. The myth of country living is a powerful motivator, but most people who have tried both country and city living prefer the city, even in the context of industrial collapse. Toby Hemenway wrote two good pieces about this subject, Urban vs Rural Sustainability and Cities, peak oil, and sustainability. I would say, if you have the resources to build a rural community of a hundred people that can supply most of its own food, tools, and energy, that's awesome! If not, you might find yourself living in a remote personal suburb, socially isolated and doing way too much driving. I think hostility to the city and hostility to wild nature often have the same root: fear of chaos.
February 21. Paula has done a post about my stay, including an invitation for other people to visit. She lists some things she learned, and one of the things I learned is that a good air bed with memory foam on top is extremely comfortable, and I might get one for my bedroom at home. I also have to defend myself as not a neat freak! I call myself a Virgo slob, because I carefully optimize the amount of mess for maximum practical value and minimum work. For example, if a task has to be done more or less often, like sweeping the floor or changing my pants, I'll do it less often, waiting until the dirt becomes a problem. But if a task has to be done sooner or later, like washing dishes, I'll do it immediately. Also, it's more efficient to keep my coat on the back of a chair than to put it in the closet, but a second coat on the same chair is not good because it blocks the first.
And if anyone's wondering how to fix a garbage disposal, where the motor works but it's jammed, there's usually a place in the center of the bottom where you can unjam it by turning it with an allen wrench.
February 21. Yesterday Tom gave me and Andrew a tour of a squatter community in St Louis. Among several squatted houses, they have one house that's legally occupied, so people can go there if they get thrown out. We also saw gardens, orchards, compost piles, a chicken coop, and bee hives.
February 20. I arrived yesterday in St Louis after a long and crowded bus ride. I'm starting to burn out on traveling, and having come this far west, was considering just taking the bus home. But I'm still going to try to hit Michigan and Minnesota. Because I'll be using rideshare in Minnesota instead of the bus pass, I might only stay in Minneapolis.
February 18. Game designer Eskil Steenberg is my favorite living thinker. Other people might have more great ideas closer to my own areas of interest, but Steenberg is the only one where I just love to watch him think. Last month he made an epic post, The Pivot model, laying out a detailed theory of what makes a game fun. It might be helpful to apply his model to life, or society. For example, Steenberg observes that a game is more fun with a moderate chance of acceptable failure, and yet look at all the ways that humans try to adjust society, or their own lives, to have zero chance of failure, or a chance of unacceptable failure.
February 17. Travel update: my latest plan is to take a huge nap tomorrow, Paula will drop me off very late at the bus station, and I'll catch the 3:40am bus to St Louis, arriving Sunday afternoon. I have enough time left on my pass to stay in St Louis for almost a week and still get to Ann Arbor to catch a ride to Minnesota, where I'll catch another ride home. As my tour winds down, I'm losing motivation for planning many visits, and want to keep it simple.
February 16. Long-time reader Dermot has finished a project he's been working on for years, a half hour animated peak oil movie called There's No Tomorrow. That link goes to YouTube, and here's the incubate pictures home page with more info.
Update: after watching it, the animation is brilliant, and I haven't seen anything that explains the issues so clearly and concisely.
February 16. Last month I mentioned that library.nu stopped taking new members. Last week it stopped taking logins, and now it's down completely. Here's the story: Book Publishers Shut Down Library.nu and iFile-it. Something I wrote in one of my zines back in 1999:
I imagine the capitalist Armageddon, the war at the end of the world as we know it, where every blade of grass, every molecule of air, every variety of living thing, every action, every bit of information is owned -- or somebody declares ownership of it, and the war is between those who obey these declarations of ownership and those who do not.
This war started before your landlord claimed to "own" where you live; it was already old when the Europeans claimed to "own" the land the Indians were living on. It started when the idea of "own" was invented, and it's going to keep going until everything is owned, before nothing is owned.
February 15. I'm in Pittsburgh staying in an abandoned house. The previous squatter had temporary permission from the owner to squat it, and Paula replaced him. Here's her latest post about learning to appreciate the dropout lifestyle.
February 13. Back in Vermont I met a lot of people who are engaged in some kind of political cause, and I noticed that lefty political causes tend to be defensive. Even if the tactics are offensive, the greater story is: "these bad people are doing this bad thing, and we have to stop them."
In a football game, if one team is always on offense and the other is always on defense, who's going to win? There's a memorable scene in the novel Shantaram, where the narrator is being attacked by wild dogs and fending them off with a steel pipe. He's about to be eaten, until another guy shows up who knows how to fight wild dogs, by wildly swinging a pipe while jumping into the middle of the pack!
I can think of two high-profile political movements where "progressives" are actually walking forward, taking the fight into enemy territory: same-sex marriage and cannabis legalization. It's going to take decades, but I think total victory is inevitable in both.
The Occupy movement is defensive, trying and failing to stop the increasing concentration of wealth and power. Even if they pass a law canceling personal debts, that's only a temporary setback for the giant blocks of money, which will just start building the debts up again. The permanent solution is to build alternate economies which have negative feedback, not positive feedback, in the concentration of wealth. Charles Eisenstein has written a whole book about this, Sacred Economics, and I've written about it briefly in a few posts, including this one on fire and water economies.
To join these new economies, people first have to get out from under the control of the old economy. Basically that means we have to get food and shelter without money. This brings us to a third, lower-profile effective political movement, which is mostly fighting at the local level: occupying vacant properties, changing laws to legalize the occupation of vacant properties, and changing laws to expand urban farming rights.
My present hosts are at the leading edge of this movement in Buffalo, which has the same opportunities that more famously exist in Detroit. They bought this house from the city for a dollar, on the condition that they bring it up to code. Yesterday they showed me an acre of contiguous lots where they're planning to make a farm, across the street from a brick building that they got in exchange for doing a few weeks of work for the owner. They've ordered 23 chickens, and Buffalo has a new lengthy and restrictive chicken ordinance, but the city is on the defensive. I'm curious to see how far we can roll these laws back, if we keep pushing.
February 12. I arrived late last night in Buffalo, and will probably stay until Tuesday. None of my food was confiscated going into Canada and back, but border crossings are just too stressful. I enjoy answering questions about my unusual lifestyle, but not from hostile people in uniforms. So I won't go into Canada again until I have a really good reason.
February 10. In case anyone missed it, the USDA has finally released a new plant hardiness zone map accounting for climate change. (See, there is some benefit to having a Democrat in the White House.) Some people say the 2006 Arbor Day Foundation zone map is better. On both maps, my house and land have moved from zone 5 to zone 6. Now I can grow Orleans Reinette apples!
One more colored chart, from Do The Math: The Alternative Energy Matrix. He gives each energy source a score based on a number of factors. I really like that one of the factors is whether you can do it in your backyard. Solar comes out at the top, fusion at the bottom, and none of them come close to fossil fuels.
Today I'm making an unplanned trip up to Montreal to visit Tim Boucher. I'm terrified of border crossings, and I fear that all my road food will be confiscated. Anyway, if all goes well, I'll stay a night and then spend all day Saturday on the bus to Buffalo.
February 8. Yesterday I almost speculated about how GPS could be used to make us smarter, if the devices did not give instructions, but just showed a zoomable map and let us do our own navigation. Apparently this is already an option. Erik comments:
GPS is a significant learning augment for me. The 'trick' is that I never use turn by turn navigation, but I study the map and find my own way.
This raises a question for techno-utopians: Which world is better, one where technologies are selected and designed so we can only use them to make ourselves stronger, or one where we are free to use technologies to make ourselves weaker? If the latter, what if most people use most technologies in a short-sighted way, so that on the whole, they make life worse? Never mind utopia -- how does this even count as good? I would answer that the freedom to make mistakes eventually makes us stronger, when we learn not to make the mistakes.
Today I'm going to Burlington, then Syracuse on the weekend, Buffalo, and Pittsburgh. Oddly, Pittsburgh is sort of a Greyhound dead end. It's hard to get anywhere from there without leaving or arriving at a time when you should be sleeping. If someone in Columbus or Indianapolis can pick me up and drop me off at the station, I'll happily stay a night. Otherwise I'll probably take an overnight bus to St Louis, then Chicago if I have time, and end my bus pass in Ann Arbor, where a reader has offered to drive me to Minnesota, and another reader might drive me all the way back, or I'll take the train.
February 7. The other day Hacker News linked to a reddit comment with a brilliant rule for self-improvement: start every day as a producer, not a consumer. From there, I'm thinking about the grey area between producer and consumer, and all the computer games where you are consuming the illusion of being a producer. Producing makes our lives feel meaningful, so why would someone choose fake production over real production? I can think of two reasons. The bad reason is ambition and laziness: some people would rather push a button and build a fake castle, than work all day to build a real bookshelf. The good reason is that power has become so centralized that there is little room for autonomous production. Would you rather build a house in Minecraft, working from your own design at your own pace, or work on a stressful construction site building an ugly house for someone you don't know?
Also on the self-improvement subject, via the financial independence subreddit, a nice blog post on minimialism:
I like showing up for a group mountain hike where inevitably everyone's wearing specialized wicking techno-clothing, boots that cost more than my monthly rent, carrying giant back packs, and usually someone even has carbon-fiber walking poles. Meanwhile I'm there in my sneakers, cotton t-shirt, with my lunch stuffed into the leg pockets of my cargo pants and a big bottle of water in my hand. Guess who's usually the first to the summit?
The author claims not to be a minimalist because he does it for practical reasons rather than virtuous reasons. I would almost say the opposite: if you reduce your stuff for anything other than practical reasons, you're not a minimalist because you don't really understand it.
Also on the subject of more stuff being bad for you, an important argument that GPS navigators make us stupid. The idea is that without the devices, we have to build cognitive maps, which is great mental exercise. I appreciate all the people on this tour who have given me rides using GPS devices, but I would never use one myself. I always go on google maps (or openstreetmap.org) and sketch a map with pen and paper. When you're traveling, the most important thing is understanding where you are. With GPS navigators, I can feel the understanding of where I am being sucked out of my mind and locked away in a computer.
February 7. There are some great comments in the discussion about yesterday's subject of raising kids. Moarbrains writes, "I am a little disappointed that Ran thought this article was worthwhile. How does this parenting style fit into his schema of power-with as opposed to power-over?" That's a good question, because it leads to the important distinction between constraint and coercion. Notice that the article is completely about constraint, setting limits, and not at all about forcing kids to do things they don't want to do. A perfect society or family has no coercion at all, but every universe of more than one person needs constraint. If kids get in the habit of making unreasonable demands and being obeyed, they will turn into adults who use power-over. A power-with system needs members who respect the boundaries of others and can let go of desires and demands that cross those boundaries.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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?"