March - April, 2009

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March 9. Everybody chill out about H.R. 875. That link goes to a full paranoid analysis on Cryptogon. I swear, anti-government people worship the government. Nobody else has such unwavering belief in the government's omniscience and omnipotence. Anything the government writes on paper is assumed to be magically done. Another analysis on Campaign for Liberty says the law "will literally put all independent farmers and food producers out of business due to the huge amounts of money it will take to conform to factory farming methods." Why not say instead that this will put the government out of business due to the huge amounts of money it will take to enforce the law against millions of small food producers?

We're in the position of strength here. Look at all the ways the file sharers have dodged the copyright cartel, and they're sharing fragile high-tech artifacts that require sophisticated computer equipment and electricity. We're sharing life, seeds that can remain viable for hundreds of years, plants that need only dirt and water and sunlight, animals that can live on table scraps in the garage, species that have duplicated themselves, without human help, for thousands or millions of years. Look at what happened when they tried to eradicate cannabis, and imagine them trying to fight the same war on a thousand fronts.

March 10. From last month, prominent techie Kevin Kelly covers the Unabomber and primitivism. Kelly raises some great issues and asks good questions, but then halfway through he blows it with a weak easy answer: Kaczynski said civilization robs us of freedom, when really it gives us freedom, where "freedom" is defined as abundance of choices. This is a semantic trick, and by using it, Kelly fails to grasp what really makes civilized people want to go primitive, and why this civilization is dying.

A few days later he again stumbled close to understanding when he posted a video of comedian Louis C.K. talking about how "everything is amazing right now and nobody's happy." People complain about waiting on an airport runway for 40 minutes and then totally fail to appreciate that they get to sit in a chair miles above the earth flying across the continent in a few hours. But both Kelly and C.K. are missing the point. It's not that we are idiots for failing to appreciate the miracle of flight. It's that amazement does not make us happy. Amazement is shallow and short-lived, and if that's all that flight offers us, then flight is an empty novelty, like a song that only sounds good on the first listen.

What makes us continue to appreciate a technology, a behavior, an experience, is integration into a world that serves our deep human needs. Two of those needs are autonomy and meaning. American-style "freedom" means you can zip around the world and buy toys and choose from 200 varieties of soda. Autonomy means that as you go through your daily activities, nobody is riding you -- you're not micromanaged, coerced, or denied participation in power. And meaning means you're part of a larger story that you feel good about.

In a good primitive tribe, or in nature, every tool and action is integrated into a world full of autonomy and meaning. But in civilization as we know it, most people are denied both, and that's why we fantasize about the end of the world. Techno-utopians don't understand this because their lives do have meaning, and often autonomy: they're authors or inventors or independent consultants, leaders in a story about "progress" and space colonies and immortal intelligent machines. They don't see all the lives being ground up in the gears of their shiny engines.

The techno-elite, lacking experience in bad jobs, don't understand what makes a job bad. The reason we hate low-status jobs like burger-flipping and toilet cleaning is not that they're physical or dirty. We love to do physical and dirty things like work on our own cars and tend our own gardens and play sports and go on hikes. The jobs are bad because the story they're part of is "you do what I say," and because the focus is on quantity or speed, rather than quality.

Our quantity-worshipping culture thinks "sustainability" means not running out of kilowatt-hours, but it's even more critical for a system to not run out of human will, to be psychologically sustainable.

March 16. I finally read Octavia Butler's 1993 collapse novel, Parable of the Sower. It's a fun read, especially the second half, where the narrator leaves her besieged suburb and has adventures uncannily similar to a D&D game (travel, set up watch, orcs attack, kill orcs, loot bodies). But I was disappointed to see such a respected novel embrace the same myth as common right wing doomer porn: that when central control breaks down, the great danger comes from "chaos", mobs of crazed fast-moving zombies destroying and killing for kicks.

Sometimes real collapses do lead to a brutal dog-eat-dog social landscape, but more often the victims either suffer quietly or come together and innovate. And the vast majority of the murders in history have been done not by individuals with too much freedom, but by organizations with too much power. The most famous genocides of the 20th century were all done by radical ideologues using the machinery of a centralized state. After Katrina, it turned out there were no murders in the Superdome, no gunfire on aid helicopters, and powerless people in the French Quarter formed tribes, while white vigilante gangs hunted and killed black men in the name of keeping order. So the real danger is not "hordes" but organized violent gangs of all sizes.

Last week the War Nerd made exactly this point in a piece called Apocalypse Never, and Jeff Vail made it in this impressive analysis of the Mexican Collapse. As one system begins breaking down, long before it finishes, the void is filled, not by chaos, but by other systems. In Mexico it's the drug gangs. Brecher thinks that in an American collapse it could be the churches. Vail thinks the era of the nation-state is ending and future systems will be organized more laterally and less vertically, and in a linked article, The New Map, he argues that discrete national boundaries are a weird artifact of the Cartesian age. So forget those maps with "Cascadia" and "Republic of Texas". I imagine a messy patchwork of overlapping spheres of influence, including neo-feudal warlords, corporations, remnants of national and state governments, invigorated local governments, informal "nations" based on race or religion or culture, and tribes based on mutual aid.

March 19. New from Charles Eisenstein, Money and the Turning of the Age. The first 80% of the essay is the best critique of economic growth I've seen yet, with great stuff about money as magic/illusion, the limits to monetization, the manufacture of needs, and even a good critique of high tech.

Then he loses me at the end, beginning with this sentence: "We are in the midst of a transition parallel to an adolescent's transition into adulthood." That's a seductive idea, and certainly we are in the midst of a transition, but I don't see any evidence for the adolescence/adulthood metaphor. We don't seem any more mature than our ancestors, individually or collectively, and most people in the world are still striving for the western industrial lifestyle, or clinging to it. We didn't get wiser -- we just ran out of drugs.

It occurs to me that the extreme optimists and extreme pessimists are all making the same argument: in the lifespan of people alive today, history will end and we will settle into a permanent condition. To the pessimists it's extinction, or an airtight repressive government, or bad primitive living with no way out. To the optimists it's good primitive living with no way out, or an airtight utopia, or spiritual transcendence. I took the extreme optimist position in some of my early essays, but now I think there are no enduring societies.

My big scene in the "What A Way To Go" movie was telling the Parable of the Tribes, which comes from a book of that name by Andrew Bard Schmookler: there are a bunch of tribes living peacefully, and then one of them turns its energy to war, and whether the other tribes run away, or submit, or fight back, the violent paradigm expands into their territory, and this process continues until it consumes the whole world. But this story does the same thing looking backward in time that the utopians and dystopians do looking forward: it draws an imaginary line beyond which the turmoil of history stills, and there is no change.

I think there have always been warlike tribes, and there always will be. A society that turns its energy to war and conquest will always defeat a society that lives in peace, because it can fight better; but then, a peaceful and cooperative social order will always defeat a violent and repressive social order, because it's a better way to live. These two systems have existed in balance since the beginning of time, the violent systems sweeping through the peaceful systems and burning out like fires.

Only when grain agriculture released the energy of topsoil, and industry released the energy of oil, did the fire of the violent tribes rise to engulf the world. Now that the fuel is running out, we are entering a new age, neither an age of increase nor an age of low-level equilibrium, but an age of high-level equilibrium, more complex and chaotic than prehistory because so many technologies and energy sources will survive.

In a world like this, it will be impossible to build any kind of enduring large system. Our path, instead, will be to continually break down the repressive systems, dodge the conquering systems, and rebuild good systems through the cracks, forever.

April 7. Back in November I wondered where right wingers could go to flee Obama's victory, and I could think of only one place in the world both farther right and wealthier than America: Dubai. Well, now we see where that combination leads: The dark side of Dubai exposes Dubai's draconic laws, its army of slaves, the vapor-like nature of its wealth, and its impending collapse. It's going to make some impressive ruins, and a construction specialist friend told me me that because Dubai is so dry, and so far from major fault lines, the Burj Dubai could easily stand for thousands of years.

April 13. Mr. Soddy's Ecological Economy. I've posted before about ecological economics, but this is a guy who was born in 1877, who won a Nobel prize as a chemist and then switched to economics where he was dismissed as a crank for suggesting five politically impossible reforms. Now four of them have already been made. The fifth is to prohibit fractional reserve lending, where banks loan more money than they actually have.

I wouldn't be surprised to see this reform in my lifetime, since it already seems like common sense to non-bankers, and it would enable something like the present system to survive without perpetual growth. Here's the wikipedia page on full-reserve banking, which mentions some current systems that come close. We might see it first in small banks and small or radical nations, and eventually everyone will switch when they see how much better adapted it is to the new landscape.

It's important to remember that perpetual growth and positive feedback in wealth are different things. In one, the numbers get bigger for the system as a whole, and in the other, whoever has the most numbers gets to take numbers from whoever has the least. It's like there was a Great Fire that burned the whole world, and now that it's dying down, there will still be fire: wealth/power will still leverage itself into more wealth/power. The good news is, without universal increase, the rich will no longer be able to buy the political support of the middle class. There may not even be a middle class! But it won't be like the 20th century third world, because those societies were dominated by economic growth in the first world. We are entering completely new territory: an age with high technology, highly complex societies, cities, corporations, governments, socialists, anarchists, pirates, global commerce and communication, but without increasing numbers. How it will play out is anyone's guess.

April 17. I didn't like the film Gattaca. The idea is, some people are genetically engineered to be smarter and stronger and healthier, but they're lazy, and the non-engineered hero beats them by fanatically pushing himself.

Isn't it more likely that we would just genetically engineer people to fanatically push themselves? And the non-engineered people, by taking their time, would do higher quality work and have more foresight and be more connected to the whole.

But that's exactly what has already happened -- not through genetic engineering but social engineering.

April 20-21. A year ago I posted a few links about the benefits of going barefoot. Here's a new long article, The painful truth about trainers, and a short one, What Ruins Running, both focusing on shoes. Until the 1970's, shoes had thin soles that made it painful for runners to come down on their heels, so they had to come down on the balls of their feet, and use the springiness of their feet and ankles to absorb the shock. Then someone had the idea to design shoes to let runners come down on their heels, which turns out to have been a mistake, because even the newest and most expensive heel technology cannot prevent the shock from going up and damaging your joints.

You don't need to go barefoot to avoid injuries -- you just need soles thin enough that you can realistically walk and run by coming down on the balls of your feet.

April 24. Just finished a fun DIY project. My Freeplay radio wouldn't hold a charge, so I opened it up and discovered that the battery pack is just three AAA batteries in series. After doing a bunch of research and buying some soldering equipment, I managed to make a new battery pack out of three Sanyo Eneloops, which are much higher quality than the batteries the radio came with. I just held them together with clear mailing tape and soldered wires directly to the battery terminals. Most sources say it's really hard to do that without overheating and damaging them, but I found this great page, Making NiMH Battery Packs, illustrating a technique that hardly heats the batteries at all. Basically you use a lot of flux, and you first put a bead of solder on the battery, and also put some in the wire, and then join them.

April 24. I've written before that we could define the "owner" of a place as whoever lives there, and factor out the whole concept of "property". Last month I discovered that Pierre-Joseph Proudhon had the same idea in 1840, in his book What Is Property? Specifically, Proudhon noticed that our word "property" blurs together two opposite concepts: the rights of someone who actually works with a piece of land, a house, a sum of money, a tool; and the rights of someone who does not work with it, who might never see it, but who is said to own it.

Looking just at land, where do pieces of bought land originally come from? Usually they were violently taken from indigenous people, or in the case of unoccupied wilderness, some central authority simply declares ownership out of thin air. Tribal people have the concept of territory, but they would think it's insane for one tribe to "own" the land that another tribe occupies. Even neolithic farmers, who have already carved fields out of the forest, would not understand how one family could work a field "owned" by another -- unless they were slaves.

The concept of non-occupying ownership is like a magic spell that makes violent conquest and near-slavery seem natural. It enables ecological destruction, because people actually living on land, seeing the effects of their actions, are less willing to cut down forests and deplete topsoil than remote commanders seeing only numbers. And it enables positive feedback in wealth distribution: the two big ways the rich get richer are rent and interest, one where you pay a fee to the owner of land you're occupying, and the other where you pay a fee to the owner of money you're using.

So, should we make possession the whole of the law? I see two problems with this. The first is that no set of laws can make a tolerable society if people are still hyperselfish. For example, you might leave your house for a day and come back to find out that someone else has claimed it. The other problem is that even occupiers of land can abuse it, like the mining companies that are cutting tops off mountains in West Virginia, or renters who trash a house because they know they're not staying long. In this case, it's the absentee landlord who has a healthy relationship with the property (though not with the renters).

So I suggest a more useful distinction, not between possessing and non-possessing ownership, but between sustaining and extractive ownership. More generally, we can distinguish between sustaining and extractive relationships. An extractive relationship is what you have with an apple: you get it, you eat it, it's gone. It's not good to have an extractive relationship with a person, or a piece of land. Civilization as we know it has an extractive relationship with the whole planet. But as the extractable resources get used up, more and more human systems will have to develop sustaining relationships with their land. The challenge is to have good relationships and high social complexity at the same time.

I'm also thinking about this in the context of money. In the Empire money system, rich people and banks have sustaining relationships with their piles of money -- they want their money to stay the same size or grow year after year. And they do this by having extractive relationships with people and land. In a system with depreciating currency, people are forced to have an extractive relationship with their money: If they hold onto it, it will decay, like an apple, so they have to use it up by spending it. And if they're smart, they will spend it to build sustaining relationships with people and land.

April 28. The missing sunspots could mean a cooling sun that would more than cancel out warming from greenhouse gases. If so, it would be an interesting coincidence that humans are warming the planet at exactly the same time that the sun is cooling it. It often seems to me that events in this world fit together too well to be random. Here's a 1999 article that could explain why: Quantum Mechanics Implies That The Universe is a Computer Simulation.

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