December 2009 - January 2010

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December 6. Just spent a week in Mexico. I've heard some buzz about Americans moving there to flee hard times, and I wonder if they know something I don't, or if I know something they don't: the Mexican nation-state is collapsing, and it seems likely to get awfully hot.

We were staying in La Paz, a city of 200,000 in southern Baja California. If you want to roll the dice on global cooling, you could hardly find a better combination of warm temperatures, empty beaches, low prices, and nice people. If you're looking for a smaller town, check out Todos Santos on the other side of the peninsula, and for something more cosmopolitan, I'm told that Guadalajara has a large and thriving gringo expatriate community.

While I was down there I read David Holmgren's book Future Scenarios, and he makes a good point about one advantage Mexicans have over Americans: they're a lot more mentally adaptable. His example is that hardly anyone who owns a house in Mexico has insurance, because they're not afraid to lose everything and start over. Of course, that resiliency is something we can all work on. Just in a week, I met four different American couples who had sold most of their stuff and gone permanently on the road, or the waves. Most impressive were two women from Oregon, both over 60, who are living on a 35 foot sailboat.

Also, the Baja California climate gave me a better appreciation of permaculture. On my own land, the difference between good and bad management is not that great. Even if I do everything wrong, bushes and trees will eventually grow. But down there, the difference is orders of magnitude. They have warmth and sunlight all year, but because of bad soil and long dry spells, the main plants are cacti, and big patches of ground are lifeless. Just building topsoil and keeping it moist would make any plot of land incredibly productive. And yet, the normal practice is to rake up piles of brush and burn them. If they just made one big pile and threw some water on it, it would turn into great topsoil, which they could then use to grow more biomass, and get a topsoil-building feedback loop.

December 8. Destroyed US town a model of eco-living as it rebuilds. Greensburg Kansas was 95% destroyed by a tornado, and is rebuilding with rainwater harvesting, LED streetlights, and wind and geothermal energy. I know this is still industrial-green, but it's a big step in the right direction. Maybe in 20 years, some destroyed town will rebuild with rocket heating stoves and food forests.

December 14. It's said that climate change can enable a global government by uniting all of humanity against a common enemy. But climate change is not an enemy. If it were, right wingers would believe in it.

December 21. New post from Anne, Rick Santorum, Sarah Palin and the End of Modernist Epistemology. Basically, thanks to the internet, authority has been eliminated as a basis for belief, and not just opinion beliefs but fact beliefs. Now you can go online and find an authority supporting any fact you want. The result is that our mental models are now determined by only two things: what we want to believe, and direct personal experience. Where I see this going is that global consciousness will continue to fragment into what Anne calls information tribes, and these tribes will go through a kind of natural selection: the ones that are the best at seeking out relevant personal experience and adapting to it, will thrive, and the ones that are the best at blocking personal experience that contradicts their beliefs, will suffer.

December 23-24. One of the most potentially valuable new technologies is something I learned about in Anna Wise's book The High Performance Mind. There are great subtle benefits to getting your mind in a meditative state, but it's extremely difficult -- you might practice for thousands of hours over many years before you get it right. Back in the 1970's, a scientist named Max Cade discovered how different human mental states correlate with different frequencies of brainwaves, and he invented a biofeedback device called the Mind Mirror. The idea is, it shows you the levels of the key frequencies in real time, so you can learn much more quickly to move between different mental states. More than 30 years later, the Mind Mirror still costs thousands of dollars, but I found this: the OpenEEG project, and here's a photo gallery of a homemade model. Adam comments:

I've done a bunch of research on the Mind Mirror and OpenEEG over the past several years, including interviewing one of the original MM engineers. I looked into building a cheap EEG system... however, it's on the edge of being commercially viable, and I came to the conclusion that if I waited a few years, the technology would catch up and let me focus on software instead of hardware.

Recently Emotiv dropped its prices a lot. $1250 gets you a developer headset and a software development kit that gives you raw access to EEG data. The protocols are closed, so you can't write open source software for it, and it doesn't use active electrodes, so you have to use saline dampened pads. But it has 16 channels, so it has a lot more detail.

There's also this one from Brainquiry. It uses active electrodes and has open protocols for accessing raw EEG data. To make a Mind Mirror, all you really need is the 2 channel model. I am thinking that in another year or so, I will either get the Brainquiry, or there will be another low-cost EEG. We should see inexpensive, multi-active-electrode, open EEG headsets in the next few years from other manufacturers.

The problem I had with OpenEEG is that it isn't wireless -- and I didn't want to hook my brain up to a hand-built system that is connected to 115V power.

December 28. Suppose you're a rock climber and someone says, "Why go to all that trouble? Here's a ladder." Or: Why bother solving a crossword puzzle when you can just look up the answer? Why ride a bicycle across the continent when you can just get on a plane? Why learn to make something with your own hands when you can just buy one made by somebody else? It comes down to the meaning of life. If you're here to accomplish things, then you might as well just sit in a box pushing buttons. If you're here to explore and learn, then the long road might be more valuable than the short road. And if you're here to have a good time, then what are you doing on such an awful road that you're in a hurry to get to the end?

Another issue is how and when technologies make us weaker. One thing we can ask, when considering a tool, is whether it focuses our native strength, like a knife or a pencil or a biofeedback machine, or whether it does the work for us, like an engine or a calculator or a wire in your brain. Generally, machines that do physical work make us physically weaker, and machines that do mental work make us mentally weaker... so what's going to happen when machines do spiritual work?

A more profound question is: "Does the presence of this thing make me stronger in its absence?" That's what a good teacher does, and oddly, it's what a crutch does, unlike a metaphorical "crutch". If your leg is broken, a crutch lets you walk around and keep the rest of your body in shape until the leg heals. And if you're building a permaculture seed community to survive the collapse of industrial civilization, you can use a truck or a backhoe to strengthen your position for a world without engines.

What if a technology makes us stronger in its presence and weaker in its absence, and we go ahead and use it anyway? Then we are making a lifelong alliance with that technology, and that means both our individual lives and the life of the human species. In either context, if we ever break the alliance and give up or lose the technology, then we will have to pay back all the benefits. Our primitive ancestors made alliances with fire, stone tools, and clothing. Our more recent ancestors did it with metal tools, grain farming, machinery, electricity, the automobile, and most ominously, economic growth. In our own lifetime we've become dependent on computers -- although some uses of computers do make us stronger in their absence, like sharing information about biosand filters and rocket mass heaters.

I don't think our permanent alliances are limited to the ones we made tens of thousands of years ago. But it's going to be interesting to see which modern technologies can break free of their debts to the extractive economy.

December 29-30. On a tangent to yesterday's post, Jeff mentions Robert Nozick's "experience machine":

If you were given the opportunity to hook up to a machine that would be guaranteed to let you experience absolutely anything you could ask for, and that would be completely indistinguishable from the real experience, but you had to commit to it for life, would you do it? In other words, if the only difference between reality and the machine is the abstract notion that one is "authentic," does that authenticity have value on its own?

Before I answer that, I'd like a non-circular definition of "authentic". From a 2001 interview between Derrick Jensen and Martín Prechtel, here's a great bit about how some languages don't have the verb to be:

In a culture with the verb to be, one is always concerned with identity. To determine who you are, you must also determine who you are not. In a culture based on belonging, however, you must bond with others. You are defined by where you stand and whom you stand with. The verb to be also reduces a language, taking away its adornment and beauty. But the language becomes more efficient. The verb to be is very efficient. It allows you to build things.

Suppose "real", like "to be", is nothing but an artifact of language. "Real" is a tool we use to favor or exclude certain experiences, ideas, or directions of inquiry. It has no non-circular definition, and no consistent meaning. We call things "authentic" and "inauthentic" for all kinds of reasons, and what we're saying is: You shall respect this or disrespect it; you shall take this path or avoid it; you shall integrate this into your mental models or ignore it. "Real" is a shortcut, making language more efficient at the expense of understanding. I don't know if there are any cultures without the concept, but I would very much like to live in one, because everyone in that culture would have to be more intellectually rigorous than anyone in this culture.

For example, we could no longer reject Nozick's experience machine for being less authentic. But we could reject it for being less shared: we would prefer to live in a world with other people than to be alone. We could reject it because it's nested within this world, when we would prefer to explore the world in which this world is nested. We could reject it because we don't want to get everything we ask for -- if you've ever played a video game with a good cheat mode, you know that omnipotence gets boring in ten minutes.

I've said that our whole civilization is an artificial world, but if I'm not allowed to say that, I have to think harder, and say something like this: the path of civilization (as we know it) has been to impose our will upon our environment, instead of working with it on equal terms. This has severed our connections to the wider world that we came from, and crippled our understanding of it. More and more of our relations are with a maladapted and unsustainable sub-world, and we are now so deep in it that any other way of living seems impossible.

This leads to a practical question from Andy: "How do you have a shared experience in a world where people are either hypnotized by consumer culture or pre-occupied with their own physical and/or emotional survival?" Or, how do you climb out of a world by making connections, if everyone around you is even deeper in that world? One answer is to connect to something other than humans: spend an hour watching the clouds or examining a tree. Another answer is, sometimes you get out by going deeper in, by meditating or reading books or even playing video games -- but you have to choose them carefully. Any sub-world must justify itself in terms of a world that contains it. Or, if you go into a dungeon, you'd better bring out a treasure.

January 3-4. Baker/thatcher brings back ancient grains that can be used for both baking and thatching. Anne comments:

Research into good thatching wheat varieties continued into the fifties and sixties. Of the last good developments, Maris Widgeon and Maris Hunter are still available commercially -- I bought a few grams of Maris Widgeon seed from Bountiful Gardens and replanted out to a fairly good-sized patch. KUSA seeds might also have something. The chokepoint for thatching isn't a good wheat varietal, its finding a reaper-binder that can harvest the field without crushing the stalks (ruining the waterproofing ability of the resulting roof).

January 4. Here's a remarkable reader project, the illuminated thread. Brett is between the second and third stages of a giant bike ride all over the country, on which he makes videos, records himself whistling in water towers, does parkour in ruins, and repeatedly gets in trouble with the authorities for photographing active and abandoned industrial sites.

January 9. In Olympia I gave a talk and attended an Awakening the Dreamer symposium, and I kept noticing one issue: When affluent Americans ask "what can I do", they mean, "What can I do to save the whole world? What can I do to turn industrial capitalism around in its tracks, to halt species extinction and reverse arctic melting, to feed all the starving people without further increasing the population, to transform human consciousness and witness a global utopia in my lifetime?"

My answer is, you can't do shit. And I'm a woo-woo optimist. I think that beneath all events is an invisible Flow that is intelligent and loving. I think that any human system that goes out of balance with human nature, or with other life on Earth, is doomed to fail. I think that in all possible futures, dandelions will grow through ruined Wal-Mart parking lots. But within this optimism, I see room for epic catastrophes. And some catastrophes are now so far along that "what can I do to stop it" is the wrong question, and the right question is "what can I do to survive it, to help others survive it, to minimize suffering and prepare for recovery?"

Find a landbase and build the topsoil; plant fruit trees and vegetable gardens; learn to forage and hunt and repair stuff; learn uncommon useful skills; make local friends; work to make your city and region more sustainable and resilient; make friends in other regions in case you have to move; gradually shift more of your activities and dependencies out of the money economy; break your addictions; get healthy; spend your money on tools and skills and long-keeping food; meditate; exercise your intuition. This is not a complete list, but a list of examples of the kind of thing you should be doing. The title of my talk was "Weeds through Pavement", because when pavement turns to forest, the pavement does not turn green and put down roots -- plants crack the pavement and grow through it. So do that.

January 11. About the film Avatar: first, we shouldn't be surprised that conservatives hate Avatar... unless we think about the meaning of "conservative". The movie supports the most traditional of traditional values: a tribal society living in balance with nature, and defending its culture through violence. So how can "conservatives" hate it? Because in practice, conservatism is an emotional state, and people in that state don't care what's traditional or radical for humans in general -- they only care what's traditional or radical for them personally. So you can make the most untested and wildly maladapted society in history, and after a couple generations, all the traditionalists will angrily defend it and attack the ways of the previous hundred thousand generations.

It also turns out that leftists hate Avatar, but only leftists with academic training in identity politics. They argue that it turns someone from our culture into the leader of an alien culture, and that it would be more politically correct to show the aliens saving themselves without our help.

That's a good point, but a movie must take viewers on a journey, and the journey has to start from where we are. Maybe Avatar has made a billion dollars with a message about the human race: that we are not the rulers of a pile of resources but the servants of a living planet, that an extractive economy is not just unsustainable but evil, that our place is among dangerous wild creatures and not our own sterile devices, that it was wrong for us to conquer the Indians, not because their skin was a different color, but because they lived better.

Did we conquer the Indians? When lefties say that Avatar purges white guilt, they are making several questionable assumptions: that we are white, that we feel guilty, and that white guilt is a good thing. This is an obsolete view of race. A more helpful view was pioneered in the zine and book Race Traitor: that "white" is a social class only loosely connected to pale skin, that thinking of ourselves as "white" makes us obedient to an unjust system, that the best thing "white" people can do is not to sit around feeling guilty for the crimes done in the name of whiteness, but to disown whiteness and take the other side. Every one of us has ancestors who lived more or less like the Na'vi, and who were violently conquered by disconnected, resource-extracting cultures. If we stop identifying with the conquerors, the game is over.

"We" did not conquer the Indians. The Babylonians, the Romans, the English, the Spaniards, the Americans conquered us... but not completely. Avatar is helping us to remember who we are.

Of course, no matter who we think we are, we are still dependent on the conquering system for our survival. Somehow we have to make the shift from an extractive economy to a sustaining economy, and from the made world to the found world.

January 13. I've just finished reading Gaiome, a book about ecological orbiting space colonies. The author, Kevin Scott Polk, is both a permaculturist and an astrophysicist. In the first chapter he sets up and knocks down all the usual stories about going into space: to extend exponential growth, to escape the dying Earth, to bring back resources, and to shift our consciousness from biology into machines. His argument against the first is one I've never seen before: he does the math and shows that even if we could expand civilization at light speed out into the galaxy, even a very low rate of exponential growth would quickly overwhelm the geometric growth of our sphere of expansion.

He concludes that we first have to learn to live sustainably on Earth, which is relatively easy, before we learn the much more difficult skill of living sustainably in small constructed environments. Then he lays out his plan. First, a space tourism rocket with the same safety standards and flight frequency as a large airliner. Meanwhile, much more research into tiny cycling ecologies like Biosphere 2. Then, technologies for extracting materials from asteroids and turning those materials into gaiomes, and into bigger asteroid extractors and space fabricators, and so on. His eventual utopian vision is 700 trillion people living in 80 billion gaiomes all over the solar system, all of them self-sufficient but grouped into cultures and nations, and by then new technologies will make it easier to expand this model to other star systems.

In terms of current knowledge, Polk doesn't miss anything. He cites Richard Heinberg, Chellis Glendinning, Jared Diamond, and loads of hard science. But I'm thinking, how much have our scientific paradigms changed in the last 500 years? And why shouldn't they change just as much in the next 500? Maybe when our first space probe reaches Alpha Centauri, it will be picked up by someone who just walked there.

January 29. The Misanthrope's Guide to the End of the World. My condensation:

Garbage eschatology is based on the premise that our technological infrastructure has acquired too much complexity for us to fix. It will kill us not by turning sentient and wanting to kill us, but by stupidly collapsing on top of us, like a gigantic Windows Vista. My view is based on the idea that the entropy of a software system inevitably increases with time, past a point of no-return. Beyond that, we cannot stop it from collapsing under its own weight, and cannot marshal the resources to reverse the aging process either. The best we can do is hide and then emerge from the rubble...

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