Friday, June 13, 2014

Three Conferences in Three Weeks


This weekend will be the first time in the past month that I will not attend a conference of some kind, and I’m definitely ready for a break. Over Memorial Day weekend I attended the Age of Limits conference at Four Quarters Interfaith Sanctuary in Artemis, Pennsylvania, where I facilitated conversations and recorded interviews with the conference attendees. The next weekend I attended one day of a 3-day gathering held at John Jay College of Criminal Justice in Manhattan called the Left Forum, an annual gathering of Leftists of various stripes. This past weekend, Olga and I drove to Northeastern University in Boston to record interviews with the presenters at CommonBound, a gathering convened by the New Economy Coalition.

All three conferences served, at least in part, to carve out a space for discussions around topics and concerns that have no place in the corporate media or in official government pronouncements. Each of the three gatherings had it’s own individual flavor. The worldviews on display at the Left Forum were a hodgepodge of long-enduring (some ossified) obsessions with very little to unify them other than the fact that they stand in opposition to the ideologies of the dominant power structure. Both the Age of Limits and CommonBound conferences were more coherent. Both gatherings were premised on their own implicit and explicit assumptions about the state of the contemporary political, social and economic landscapes. Each event had its own roster of memes which they hoped to see usurp the position of the privileged narrative which relentlessly presses upon the public consciousness in defense of the status quo.

On Wednesday, May 21st, I traveled by Amtrak from NYC to DC to Cumberland, Maryland where I expected to be picked up and shuttled to Four Quarters Farm. A vehicular breakdown at Four Quarters left me sitting on the curb next to the locked Amtrak station in Cumberland for about 45 minutes where I watched the locals passing by. Granted, sitting by the tracks at dusk on Wednesday evening is probably not a recipe for spotting Cumberland’s best and brightest, but as I sat and people-watched from that vantage point, I heard Jim Kunstler’s voice in my head, and I mentally ticked off the adjectives that Jim regularly uses to describe those with broken or marginal connections to the once thriving working class: Overweight, unhealthy, and demoralized.

Every society has it broken people, and even in the best of times, at least a small and dysfunctional underclass will persist, so my experience could hardly stand as exhibit A in the prosecution’s case against the prospects for perpetual growth. Even so, my curbside observations did help me summon up a collapse mindset appropriate for the Age of Limits. I’ve had difficulty maintaining that mindset while living in my gentrifying Brooklyn neighborhood. When I lived in rural Tennessee and drove to Maryland every six weeks to visit my children, I passed through prosperous hotspots as well as the decaying areas that Chris Hedges describes as “sacrifice zones.” Moving over the surface patchwork of the American landscape on a regular basis, it was easy to see that entropy is winning even though affluence and societal complexity continue their ascension in some places. These oases are the places that techno-utopians and the apologists for oligarchy (two sets with considerable overlap) can point to as characteristic of the extropian age they insist we live in. You can hop between airports in prosperous cities and never lay eyes on the sacrifice zones and so avoid any experience that would spoil the body confirmatory anecdotal evidence that bolsters your triumphalist narrative. But if you drive cross country (especially if you get off the interstate highways), you will see things through your windshield that will perturb your beatific vision. Likewise, you could sit on the curb by the train tracks in Cumberland, Maryland to achieve the same result.

Cumberland, Maryland and Four Quarters Farm are a 20 minute drive and a world apart. I won’t pretend to have any insight into the narratives that the folks in Cumberland use to make sense of their position in the flow of history. I imagine them to be making the best of a depressing present while neither buying into nor adequately challenging promises of an economic recovery and a return to prosperity.

KMO, Olga & Johio at Age of Limits
At Four Quarters, they live according to a very different story.  As Orren Whiddon explained to me on a tour of the grounds, the people who live there see themselves as “living in the fat” at the moment while preparing for lean times ahead. They raise cows and chickens to feed themselves and are preparing to move into aquaculture. They have a machine shop full of rebuilt equipment which allows them to run a local business that contributes to their income. They make and sell Mead, and while people still have the discretionary means to travel for pleasure, Four Quarters hosts a variety of outdoor events, including a large electronic dance music festival. They are working to transform the opportunities of the moment into durable support systems for a re-localized future. Every aspect of site development seems built to last and continue functioning in hard times, and yet those same structures and systems exude a spiritual and artistic sensibility that dispels preconceived Doomer stereotypes.

Orren explained to the assembled attendees that Age of Limits is the only conference left that is dedicated to discussing the implications of collapse. The full title for the gathering is “The Age of Limits Conference & Conversations on the Collapse of The Global Industrial Model,” and their website specifies that the gathering is “dedicated to the pioneering work of Donella Meadows, Jorgen Randers & Dennis Meadows and their epochal 1972 report "The Limits to Growth."” There have been collapse-aware gatherings, but with the end of the ASPO gatherings, there is no event left devoted to discussions of collapse and die-off.

The dominant narrative in “Save the Earth” circles is that political and economic systems can be reformed, that “smart growth” can continue indefinitely, and that the human population can maintain itself at its present level without drawing down and permanently degrading the “ecosystem services” it depends on. Dmitry Orlov, author of multiple books with the word “collapse” in the title confirmed that he used to be invited to speak on the topic at various conferences and that those speaking invitations have dried up. His message is no longer welcome at those gatherings. If you want to talk about collapse at an organized gathering, the only option left  is to do it in a campground in the woods in rural Pennsylvania. This is certainly a more suitable venue than assembling in $200 a night hotels to talk about collapse and die-off, and it is a more rewarding setting as well.

The starting assumption for all conversations at the Age of Limits is that the Club of Rome got it basically right in 1972 and no continuation of business as usual will see human civilization through the 21st Century without major upheaval. Within the tacitly agreed upon confines of that starting assumption, attendees explored the possibility of a protracted catabolic collapse as described by John Michael Greer in The Long Descent: A User's Guide to the End of the Industrial Age. Other conversations plumbed the idea space in the realm of fast collapse scenarios.

I see collapse as a collection of lenses through which to view and talk about the future, but I’m also wary of the dangers of having only one story by which to orient myself in the world and by which to navigate my way into the future. You could reasonably count me as a collapse skeptic, but I would add that I fully inhabited the collapse headspace for a time and I still take it seriously. At Age of Limits, I kept my collapse caveats mostly to myself for the sake of letting the conversations in which I took part get well away from their starting point. I did not want to say anything that would prompt the other participants to argue for first principles and thus keep us in very familiar conversational territory. I discovered that I was not the only crypto-collapse skeptic in attendance.

Days at the Age of Limits were organized around presentations by the invited speakers followed by question and answer sessions and comments from the audience. After dinner, both attendees and presenters re-assembled in the presentation space for conversations in the round in which the invited speakers could participate but on an equal footing with the regular conference attendees. On Saturday night, I broke off to run an alternative conversation in the round with about a dozen friends of the C-Realm. You can hear that conversation in C-Realm Podcast episode 317: Timelines for Collapse. If you listen to that conversation you will hear that student debt and the growing danger of a lifetime of debt peonage for a sizable portion of the population ranked high among the concerns that people brought with them to the Age of Limits.

To the best of my recollection, none of the invited speakers explicitly addressed the topic of student debt in their presentations, but it surfaced in conversation again and again at the Age of Limits, as did concern over the rapidly developing apparatus of the surveillance state. It occurs to me that someone committed to the vision of a fast and irrevocable systemic collapse would not worry much about these two trends. Maintaining the records of educational debt and enforcing repayment through wage-garnishment, asset forfeiture and withholding of Social Security and Medicare benefits would require a functioning financial and governmental bureaucracy supported by a working electrical grid and massive IT infrastructure. The same holds true for concerns around a high-tech Panopticon society. The fact that these remain items of sincere concern for so many of the people who gathered in that beautiful patch of Pennsylvania tells me that they still envision some future other than the sorts presented in Cormac McCarthy’s The Road, Jim Kunstler’s World Made By Hand novels, or in George Miller’s Mad Max films.

In short, I had a marvelous time at the Age of Limits. I look forward to participating again in 2015.

The next weekend, I attended the Left Forum at the suggestion  of a C-Realm listener who wrote:

My dad and I have been attending for more than 10 years now. With that experience I must issue a caution: set no high expectations for the conference itself. It is, for lack of a more imaginative description, kind of an odd affair. You will encounter everyone from (deeply) greying academics to young anarchists rebelling their way through school and quite a variety in between. It is at once enlightening, informative, disappointing, frustrating, and down right head-shaking. But I do enjoy it for some reason.

I’m as drawn to a good freak show as the next person, so I visited the Left Forum website to see about getting press credentials. I followed the instructions I found on the site, but I never heard back from the conference organizers. A few days before the conference I called them to see how things were going. There was no indication that the Left Forum organizers had received or considered my request. The listener who suggested that I attend also made a donation to the podcast sufficient to cover my registration, so I registered and paid for one day. By then the symptoms of a vicious summer cold had their claws in me, and I didn’t have the energy to “cover” the gathering like I would have had I been admitted as a member of the media, so it now seems like the lack of administrative rigor at the Left Forum worked out for the best.

The first of the two Left Forum sessions I attended was a panel discussion called Financial Parasitism: Understanding the "Great Vampire Squids.” The panelists were Michael Perelman, Julio Huato and Michael Hudson. I found their presentations lucid, on topic and relevant. My experience of that first session raised my expectations for the rest of the event, perhaps to an unworkably high level.

After that first session I went to lunch with the C-Realm listener who suggested that I attend the Left Forum. He asked me what I thought of the event, and I said something to the effect that while I was impressed with the panelists at the first session, the fragments of conversation I caught in passing, the contents of the vendors’ tables, and the gauntlet of people pushing leftist newspapers outside the venue all gave me the impression that the various strands of resistance represented at the event were old, well-established, well-rehearsed in their criticisms of the status quo and of each other, and not particularly attuned to changing conditions. As such, they present no serious challenge or threat to the status quo.

When we returned from lunch I attended a panel discussion about cloud labor. One of the panelists had researched the topic and had a lot of good information to share. The second panelist had experience campaigning for the rights and well-being of sex workers. That background provided her with a viable entry into the topic. Though she hadn’t researched cloud labor per se, her presentation was still informative, interesting, fact-based, and relevant. The third panelist’s presentation seemed to have no connection whatsoever to the topic of cloud labor and amounted to a very well-rehearsed exercise in identity politics complete with a lot of academic jargon. If I were David Koch, I would give her a well-paid think tank job and spend lavishly to amplify her voice in order to drown out more lucid and incisive voices on the left.

The effects of the energy drink that I had consumed in order to power through my illness were starting to wane, so I called it quits for the Left Forum after that second panel discussion. I know I’m giving the event short shrift, and I’m willing to give it another go next year when I’m firing on all cylinders, but I was neither inspired nor impressed by the quality of criticism or resistance represented at this event.

KMO at CommonBound 2014
On Friday, June 6th, Olga and I loaded up the truck and set out for Boston. Justin Ritchie of the Extraenvironmentalist podcast was leading a team of audio/visual professionals who were handling the livestream for CommonBound, a conference of the New Economy Coalition. When we arrived, Olga and I parted ways. She took on the task of getting us checked into our accommodations and unloading the truck, and I went with filmmaker Mark Dixon, the creator of YERT (Your Environmental Road Trip), to shoot a quick and dirty documentary about the brilliant success that an organization called the Dudley Street Neighborhood Initiative has achieved in arresting the disintegration of a neighborhood blighted by arson and illegal dumping and creating a more livable area while simultaneously keeping it affordable for its original inhabitants and not simply creating a bounty for real estate speculators. This struck me as an auspicious beginning to the conference.

Compared to the Left Forum, the presenters and the attendees at CommonBound seemed much more actively engaged in new initiatives that are less focused on ideological lineages and more attuned to current conditions and the opportunities of the moment. While I was impressed with the focus on positive action, my inner contrarian balked at what I read as naivete concerning the actual dimensions of our predicament. I did hear talk of climate change, and more than a little discussion of divesting from fossil fuel companies, but on the whole, the prevailing attitude seemed to be that with a change in management and a bunch of solar panels, the current system could be made just, egalitarian and sustainable.

I asked one of my interviewees about the challenge of sharing a growing pie versus that of more equitably distributing a shrinking pie. In theory, growth can allow us to address wealth inequality by directing more of the newly generated wealth to people in need without taking anything away from those who already control more than their share. Correcting imbalances in a contracting system is a horse of a different color all together. It requires that people who control more than their fair share actually give over some of their surplus to those with less. His response was that he was optimistic that we will always keep the pie growing.

The idea that growth will support a shift toward social justice without triggering the active resistance of current elites may have been prevalent at CommonBound, but it was certainly not all pervasive. Someone who had attended Age of Limits approached me at CommonBound and asked me how I reconciled my participation in both gatherings, given their divergent worldviews. I felt like a conspirator sharing my less-than-total buy in to the faith in unqualified progress with a fellow crypto-skeptic.
As the conference progressed, I found other heretics amidst the progressives. I recorded an interview with Donnie Maclurcan, co-founder of the Post Growth Institute, and I was thrilled that one of the panelists in a plenary session on Sunday was Adrienne Maree Brown. Brown is an aficionado of the fiction of the late Octavia E. Butler. Butler explored a variety of collapse and societal decay scenarios in her speculative fiction, and Brown channeled Butler in challenging the audience to ask what they are willing to give up in the world that is taking shape in order to retain that which is most dear to them. I found her corrective to the have-my-cake-and-eat-it-too thinking I encountered elsewhere at CommonBound strangely inspirational. Tales of a perfected world arouse my skepticism. Conjured vistas that include a dark side let my skepticism rest unprovoked and allow my battered sense of hope an opportunity to stretch out and explore the space of possibilities.

The Age of Limits and CommonBound both provided a space in which to explore possibilities that currently occupy the government and corporate media’s “no fly” list. There is much to explore, and I hope to continue my explorations at those same gatherings next year. I recognize that my sample size is way to small to arrive at any legitimate generalizations about the Left Forum. My impression is that the conversations there were too insular and too invested in old debates to find the adaptive memes that will transform the zeitgeist of late industrial culture. If I could only attend two out of the three events next time around, I would sacrifice the Left Forum without hesitation, but nobody has asked me to make that sacrifice, so I’ll end with a reminder to myself that all judgments are provisional and any reality-oriented worldview will amend itself in response to new data.









Tuesday, May 6, 2014

Mantra and Collapse

Looking through my notes for the last few episodes of the C-Realm Podcast, I'm drawn to the topic of meditation and collapse. A C-Realm listener sent me a couple of different emails recently expressing his/her contempt for advocates of meditation, asserting, among other things, that sexual abuse of students is rampant in the communities that organize around Buddhist meditation celebrities. (Along similar lines, you can hear a Psychonautica conversation I recorded with Lily Kay Ross about the routine sexual predation that takes place in the context of ayahuasca tourism in South America.) Whenever I invite any sort of comparison between the benefits of meditation and psychedelics I can reasonably expect to get one letter reminding me of the Buddhist prohibition against "intoxicants." The authors of these missives don't seem to draw any distinctions between the effects of drinking alcohol and the effects of taking psychedelics. One opiner went so far as to assert that there is no meaningful distinction to be drawn between participating in an ayahuasca ceremony, sniffing glue, or hitting oneself in the head with a mallet. This opinion has never come prefaced with anything that established credibility or gave me reason to take the author seriously on the issue. A less hyperbolic but equally reliable response that I can count on receiving from people who favor meditation but disapprove of psychedelics is the claim that meditation is spiritual work which gives lasting benefit while psychedelics are the equivalent of a helicopter ride to the top of the mountain that provides no expanded perspective once the ride is over. There is likely an element of truth to this claim, and I don't list it in order to dismiss it. I only mention it because it is something I encounter regularly. To receive a communication saying that psychedelics provide valuable insight but that the practice of meditation, in any of its popular forms, amounts to coercive mental conditioning intended to perpetuate abusive imbalances of power is more of a novelty and deserves consideration. The idea that meditative practice should be seen primarily as harmful is a challenging one for me to entertain, because I have long expressed the opinion that psychedelic experience without some daily practice by which to integrate the expanded perspective into one's daily life is likely to dissipate and leave the experienced psychonaut with the mistaken impression that they have passed some experiential or spiritual mile marker which sets them apart from and above the majority of the population. While I don't count this as an exhaustive list, the most attractive candidates for integrative daily practice for me have been free writing, tai chi chuan, meditation, ceremonial majick and yoga. I live two blocks from a yoga studio where I do work exchange. The more classes I take, the better value I get in exchange for my labor, so I practice yoga most every day. In a given week, I'll take classes with 4 or 5 different teachers. Every class starts with a group recitation of "ohm" but from there each one takes its own trajectory. Some teachers direct the students' attention primarily to the bodily movements and physical details of the yoga postures. Other teachers direct the students' attention inward with the aim of developing sensitivity to aspects of our mental, physical, emotional or spiritual lives which would otherwise get drowned out by the competing noises of our over-scheduled, IT-fixated, urban existence. The most demanding class is ostensibly a beginner-level one taught by a teacher named Michael. He spends more time talking about yogic philosophy and meditative practice at the beginning of class than do most teachers, but then, when we start moving through the postures, he has us repeat and/or hold strenuous postures to the point where I leave the class feeling like I've gotten a real workout. But more than just putting us through our paces physically, he regularly piles on a mental challenge to up the ante. The focus at my local studio for the month of May is mantra, which Wikipedia defines as "a sacred utterance, numinous sound, or a syllable, word, phonemes, or group of words believed by some to have psychological and spiritual power. Carla, whose class I take on Saturday mornings, says that the first mantra is simply the sound of the breath. It can be hard to focus on the sound of the breath in a place like Brooklyn, with nothing but a pane of glass separating our storefront practice space from the traffic noise and cell phone conversations of passers by. The other day, to compensate for these distractions, Carla had us stick our fingers in our ears so that we could focus on the sound of our inhalations and exhalations. This is an instructive exercise, but it's hard to take a downward facing dog position with your fingers in your ears, so a mantra that is more active than just listening to the sound of one's breath can be helpful.
Olga and I take Michael's class on Sunday afternoon and again on Monday morning. On Sunday, Michael had all of us repeat the following series of syllables over and over: "ha" "va" "gu" "de" The point, he explained, is that while you are reciting the mantra aloud or to yourself, you are prevented from repeating some more habitual self-accusation, complaint or unhelpful fragment of interior monologue. The exact meaning of the mantra you choose is largely irrelevant. It can be meaningful to you, but it can also be a single syllable or a phrase in a language you don't understand. So long as it is not something actively harmful, like "I'm too fat" or "I can't do anything right" or "everyone is against me" then it counts as a step in a helpful direction. On Sunday, Michael also had us hold the Virabhadrasana (warrior) II pose for much longer than we normally would, and as my quadriceps and deltoids started to burn with the effort of holding the pose, he encouraged us to find a personal mantra and repeat it to take our focus away from the physical discomfort of holding the pose. The mantra that popped into my head, for the first time in many years, was, "Namu Amida Butsu." This mantra comes from a Japanese sect of Mahayana Buddhism. Amitābha, pronounced Amida in Japanese, is the celestial Buddha of infinite light, and he is believed to have prepared an afterlife called the Pure Land where there are no distractions to divert the sincere seeker from achieving release from the cycle of death and rebirth. Anyone who sincerely invokes his name, even just once, will be reborn in the Pure Land after death, and from there, they will achieve permanent release from the suffering that is existence. The phrase "Namu Amida Butsu" can be translated as "homage to" or "adoration of the Buddha of lnfinite Light," and many adherents use it as a mantra. The practice of reciting this phrase is called the Nembutsu. I first learned about it when I audited a religious studies class at Nanzan University in Nagoya, Japan in the early 90s. I don't recall ever having practiced the Nembutsu with any sort of serious commitment back then, but when Micheal encouraged us to summon up some phrase to focus on to take our mental focus off of the discomfort of holding the warrior II pose, the Nembutsu presented itself to me. I took it up, and it did the trick. The discomfort faded. I used the phrase in my practice again the next morning, and not only did it help take my mental focus away from the discomfort of my yoga practice, but it also helped me to keep my attention from gravitating to the pain in my sore throat. The person who wrote to me about the abusive uses of meditation claimed that Transcendental Meditation, a specific form of mantra practice, is useful for kids in school, people in prison, and forced sex workers as it helps people in abusive situations carry out their assigned tasks without complaint or rebellion. Other critics of yoga and meditation worry that people who direct their efforts to finding peace within themselves will not work to right the wrongs in the world at large. They will not feel the drive to engage in political struggle or to correct the systemic dysfunction that is driving global industrial civilization to ruin. This view equates personal suffering and dissatisfaction with the necessary fuel for taking corrective action in the social sphere. I’m reminded of the perpetual leftist lament, “Where’s the outrage?” The Right has perfected the art of sustaining perpetual outrage in large segments of the working class at snobby intellectuals, effete urbanites, welfare leeches, job-stealing immigrants, dirty hippies and “collectivists.” Their counterparts on the political Left assume that their own rank and file are too smart, complacent and reflexively diplomatic to go in for this sort of dirty pool, and so the Left must struggle at a perpetual disadvantage to the Right. When I think about the angriest people I encounter in real life, on-line and in the media, I get the impression that the focus of their rage runs the gamut from “extremely distorted caricature of reality” to “simply false” to “utter gibberish.” At the former end of that spectrum reside racist dog whistles disguised as a commitment to hard-work and self-reliance in a country where most welfare recipients are white but indignation about taking welfare checks over pay checks is focused squarely on blacks. Closer to the middle of that spectrum, in the region of the simply false, reside things like the belief that the President of the United States is a Kenyan-born Muslim who rules white America with a tyrannical ferocity that bears no continuity with the practices of previous administrations. This region is also home to the belief that peak oil and anthropocentric climate disruption are hoaxes perpetrated by an international cabal of tree-hugging satanists. Alex Jones, while distancing himself from the thinly-veiled racism of the Fox News narrative, works himself into an apoplectic state on camera every day of the week over the globalist plot to enslave humanity with the manufactured crises of resource depletion and climate change. The "utter gibberish" end of the spectrum is home to the word “Benghazi,” which at one time referred to a violent event in Libya that resulted in the deaths of four Americans in 2012. Now the word is just the start of a short stimulus/response circuit which bypasses any pretense at conscious thought and immediately prompt a neurochemal cascade that causes the conditioned subject to feel euphoric rage at “the nigger in the White House.” It seems odd to me that anyone on the Left would look on with envy at this spectacle of human debasement. Of course, I realize that some radical vegans can hold their own with the most vehement ditto-heads in the rage response department, just as some of the angriest environmentalists are no more discriminating in the selection of the data points upon which they build their worldviews and base their fury than are the most highly-motivated climate “skeptics.” Rather than seeing these outliers as “a good start” or “a base on which to build" I would hope that they would provide a sobering reminder that using rage to foster constructive social change is about as viable as using a flame thrower to toast bread. What does all this have to do with collapse? Well, in a recent C-Realm Podcast discussion with contemplative scientist, Katherine MacLean, I explained the history of the C-Realm Podcast and the evolving focus which once centered on the peak oil collapse narrative and coming to grips with the abyss of human suffering that looms on the near horizon. I asked her what role meditation might play in a culture that is distracting itself with trivia on the road to calamity. Katherine responded by saying Buddhism has been talking about the abyss of human suffering for 2,500 years. It has always seemed like we were about to be engulfed by an avalanche of suffering but that the leading edge of that avalanche always seems to retreat into the future as we move forward in time. Katherine mentioned the possibility that neither the Pure Land of love and compassion nor the abyss of human suffering lie only in the future. They are both here now.

The difference between historical Buddhist thought and the concerns of Katherine's generation of practitioners is that now Buddhists are challenging themselves and each other by asking, "When are we going to get serious about addressing human suffering and eliminating it if we can." Katherine admitted that the question poses a real challenge to her willingness to fully commit to Buddhism...
...because it has the ability to make you okay with how really fucked up things are, and for most of human history, being okay with really abject pain and suffering was necessary because there was no refuge. You couldn't just make things better. But now I think we're at a point where we can make a lot of things better, and we just need to take that seriously. I think meditation can make things a little bit worse in the sense that it can make people okay with how things are and not want to change anything, or it can wake you up to the fact that so many people are really suffering, and you are too, even though you feel like you're not.
That last sentence is key, I think. All the examples I gave of mental constructs that propagandists on the Right encourage their followers to build and focus their attention on are not the actual source of their rage. They feel rage because they are suffering, but they have been seduced into identifying the cause of their suffering with the actions of snooty intellectuals, crypto-Muslim socialists, or what have you. Were they to commit themselves to looking sincerely inward on a daily basis, they might realize that their suffering does not originate from wherever Glen Beck, Rush Linbaugh, Sean Hannity or Salin Palin are pointing at the moment, and in coming to this realization about their internal lives they might begin to question their allegiances and commitments. Surely such an internal shift in the direction of understanding the causes of their own suffering would have tangible and quantifiable effects in the realm of public policy. Meditation might actually change the world as a result of changing how individual practitioners feel about their role in the human drama. The uncomfortable flip side to that possibility is that sincere introspection on the Left could bring to light the possibility that the venial capitalists, the media empires they own and direct, their army of lobbyists and the political influence they purchase are also fantasy constructs onto which leftists project the causal agency for their own suffering. Might a softening of the commitment to oppose these forces allow activists on the Left to find common cause with gun nuts, climate deniers, bible thumpers and rednecks and in so doing create a political apparatus that is more responsive to the will of the people than to the needs of Big Money? If that's a hard swallow for you, then perhaps you can feel some compassion for the challenge that people on the Right face in examining and relinquishing their own sense of righteousness and opposition to what they imagine to be the causes of human suffering and degradation.

Consider also the uncontroversial claim that the Right is better than the Left at scapegoating and whipping up rage. Rage is antithetical to quiet introspection, so folks who are beside themselves with anger over Benghazi or the machinations of the Bilderbergers have a much harder row to hoe in softening their stance than do most of the people who concern themselves with income inequality, atmospheric concentrations of carbon dioxide or the abuses committed in the name of the War on Drugs.

The C-Realm listener who condemned mantra meditation as being good for kids in school, prisoners and forced sex workers did so because it alleviates the suffering of exploited people while doing nothing to right the injustice of their situation. The implication being that these types of suffering are all things than could be abolished. Making them more bearable only perpetuates the injustice. This relates to Katherine MacLean's concern that in centuries past there was no practical expectation that the suffering caused by hunger and disease could be eliminated and so it was moral to promote techniques that reduced suffering, even if these techniques did not actually feed people or supply them with hygienic living conditions. Today, however, we might just be in a position to eradicate the physical deprivations that cause human suffering, and to focus on the symptoms while the root cause is within reach would be immoral.

If you believe that it is too late to transition to a post-carbon economy or that the bill of human overshoot must be paid with an abyss of human suffering, then Katherine's concern is moot. If the avalanche really is nearly upon us and the physical consequences of our hydrocarbon-fueled blowout are unavoidable, then anything you can do to ameliorate the intensity of human suffering is not only permissible; it is morally obligatory. It's not your fault that in order to share the tools that alleviate human suffering you must first learn to enjoy their benefits yourself.

If you are certain that the Singularity is near or that the end of human suffering is just an achievable political revolution away, then yes, it's up to you to get off that yoga mat or meditation cushion and supporting AI research or organizing protests, but if you don't know whether the avalanche is upon us or not, then doesn't it make sense to prepare for the worst case scenario and learn to diminish the causal connection between physical and social circumstance and the subjective experience of suffering?

I have no more faith that Amitābha is saving me a seat in the Pure Land than I do that Artificial Super Intelligence will liberate me from the limitations of my degenerating animal body and make me immortal, but simply for the immediate relief it provides when my muscles burn in yoga class or when I'm furious at someone who has done me wrong I hope I will remember to recite the Nembutsu. I don't actually believe that the Buddha of Infinite Light will help me achieve re-birth in the Pure Land, but as I understand it, unconditional belief is not a requirement for admission. All that is required is that I make the sincere request for help in emancipating myself from suffering, and so without dogmatic certainty but with all sincerity, I say, "Namu Amida Butsu."

It seems to me that a blanket condemnation of mantra, mindfulness meditation, or any other contemplative practice is the exclusive domain of True Believers in the perfectibility of human institutions and the irrelevance of the physical limits to growth. I don't consider myself a True Believer, nor do I aspire to join their ranks. Do you?

Tuesday, January 14, 2014

Dirty Pool: A Response to Guy McPherson

Dean Farago, Australian permaculturalist and natural building wizard, posted a link to a long essay by Nicole Foss to both the Friends of the C-Realm and the [Redacted] groups on Facebook. Nicole’s essay, which is a response to a book and an essay by David Holmgren, involves a lot of summation and initial preparatory work before she gets down to presenting her own arguments. Her essay comes in at around 8,000 words, and I know that many more people will start reading it than will finish it.


In response, Guy McPherson lifted ten words from that 8,000 word essay and presented them in a comment on Trends Research Reloaded as if they stood as a fair encapsulation of the position Nicole was attempting to articulate. Those ten words, along with Guy’s pejorative preamble were:


I'd be hard pressed to find a stupider statement than this: "the best way to address climate change is not to talk about it.”


Guy then followed up with an Orwell quote which provided the poetic language he marshalled to accuse Nicole of acting as an apologist for the status quo and as a well-paid shill who articulates the needs of the powerful in exchange for fat speaker’s fees. He wrote:


I'd be hard pressed to find a stupider statement than this: "the best way to address climate change is not to talk about it." In other words, channeling Orwell, "truth is treason in an empire of lies." At least in this case, Foss apparently prefers the empire of lies.


Dean rightly identified this as a dirty pool, and Guy objected that those words actually appear in Nicole’s essay and that he therefore committed no act of intellectual dishonesty in presenting them as he did. As if one cannot mislead or misrepresent by cutting and pasting text. Think of all the dishonesty perpetrated in print media with cropped photos and misleading captions.
Professor Guy McPherson
As I said, Nicole’s essay is very long, and the set of people who will read through to the end will be a small subset of the people who start to read it. I would hate to think of anyone reading Guy’s remarks and then going about their business thinking that they now “knew” something about Nicole's message or the content of her essay. It is my intention to provide here a summation of the relevant portions of David Holmgren’s writings and Nicole's response to them needed to put her statement in context. My hope is to present all of this information and to achieve a reasonable balance between completeness and concision.


Rather than starting at the beginning, let’s first turn our attention to the crime scene. Notice first that Guy has not even quoted an entire sentence.  We know this because a sentence begins with a capitalized first word. Nicole’s full sentence reads:


In other words, the best way to address climate change is not to talk about it.


We can see why Guy did not cut and paste the entire sentence. Those first three words tell us that what follows is not meant to stand alone. To remove that deliberate qualifier and present the rest of the sentence as if it were meant to represent Nicole’s position without some additional context is an act of attempted deception.

That full sentence comes at the end of a paragraph which appears in bold type. That paragraph itself appears after of several pages of preparatory spade work. That full, bold type paragraph reads:

The difference is that both financial crisis and peak oil are far more personal and immediate than climate change, and so are far bigger motivators of behavioral change. For this reason, addressing arguments in these terms is far more likely to be effective. In other words, the best way to address climate change is not to talk about it.

The first three words of this paragraph again communicate that even the full paragraph is not meant to stand alone, but at least we now have a little bit of context for Nicole’s remark. She’s talking about effective ways to communicate with people to motivate adaptive lifestyle and behavioral change.

Nicole Foss
I could continue to expand outward from here with this cut and paste methodology, revealing more of Nicole’s intent in the process, but that would defeat my aim of reasonable brevity. So, from here, I will summarize in my own words with the full knowledge that I will be leaving a lot of Nicole’s points unrepresented and that I may also, inadvertently, misrepresent some of what she and David Holmgren had intended to communicate. Still, if you read to the end of my synopsis, you will actually know something about the open conversation between David Holmgren and Nicole Foss, whereas for readers who accept Guy McPherson’s characterization, total ignorance would be a step in the right direction.


In his book, Future Scenarios: How Communities Can Adapt to Peak Oil and Climate Change, David Holmgren reasons that the petroleum-fueled explosion of techno-industrial culture in the 20th century will be followed in the 21st century either by a techno-explosion, techno-stability, energy decline, or total collapse. Most of the book is devoted to detailing four potential trajectories for energy decline.


Should the effects of climate change prove mild and fossil energy reserves deplete relatively slowly,
then we will have to opportunity to create what David calls a Green Tech future. He describes this potential future scenario as a “distributed powerdown” in which resources flow to a variety of adaptive responses and we achieve a soft landing at low-energy living arrangements. This is the most benign of the four scenarios and the one that most people who acknowledge the serious implications of peak oil and climate change are hoping for.


Should peak oil come on quickly but the effects of climate change remain fairly mild, then we get what David calls the Earth Steward scenario. This is the now familiar peak oil collapse scenario that I first encountered in the writings of James Howard Kunstler, Dmitry Orlov, Albert K. Bates and others in the early days of the C-Realm Podcast. I think most readers of this blog will be familiar with this scenario, and so I won’t describe it further, other than to say that David describes it as a “bottom-up rebuild.”


If fossil fuel reserves decline precipitously and the effects of climate change are severe, this leads to
what David calls the Lifeboats scenario. In this scenario, which David describes as “civilization triage,” most survivors are focused on creating some sort of oasis, strategic hamlet or other lifeboat situation for themselves, but a few people will be devoting whatever resources they can spare to preserving some technology and culture for future societies. There will be no difference in the experience of most people between the Lifeboats energy decline scenario and total systemic collapse of industrial civilization. The difference being that some of the accumulated scientific knowledge and cultural wealth of the current global civilization will be preserved so that the civilization that eventually arises from the ashes of our own will not be starting completely from scratch as they would in the case of total collapse.


Should the effects of climate change be severe but peak oil come on slowly, then we get what David calls the Brown Tech future which he describes as “top-down constriction.” In this scenario, national governments and corporations centralize political power at the national level and continue to maintain the status quo by utilizing increasingly low-grade fossil fuel resources like tar sands, brown coal, shale oil and the like, all of which would increase greehouse gas emissions (GGEs) over those emitted by a techno-industrial civilization powered by light, sweet crude oil and methane (so-called “natural gas”). Essentially this amounts to an official policy of “extend and pretend” by keeping the industrial system running at the cost of ever-increasing harm to the climate.


For people who are more focused on civil liberties and human rights than on energy issues, the primary agenda of the Brown Tech future will appear to be the securing of the privileges of the powerful against uprisings from the growing ranks of the dispossessed. This will manifest itself as a continued push in the direction of a high-tech security and surveillance state. The phrase “police state” will join “usury” as something that can never be spoken aloud in mainstream discourse lest it highlight the fact that a practice which civil society once condemned has become the order of the day.


In the Brown Tech future, the use of biofuels will take agricultural land away from food production, thus increasing hunger and the resulting social tensions. In wealthy countries, consumer-led growth will either falter or be deliberately squashed from above so that limited resources can be redirected to providing the basic necessities for the majority and continued luxurious living for the elites. It will be an era of resource wars and jarring population contraction in poorer countries. This situation can endure for decades before finally slipping into the Lifeboats scenario.


It bears repeating that the large scale, resource-intensive responses to climate chaos in the Brown Tech future will see a larger and more rapid rise in greenhouse gas emissions than in any of the other three energy descent scenarios. In the Green Tech future, we reduce GGEs as we transition to cleaner technologies and adapt to a lower-energy lifestyle. In the Lifeboats and Earth Steward future scenarios, which will be indistinguishable from total collapse for a great many people, increasing GGEs over current levels will be beyond human capability.


Roughly half a decade after he detailed these four potential energy descent scenarios, David Holmgren published a new essay entitled Crash On Demand: Welcome to the Brown Tech Future, in which he writes:


...I remember thinking that [with regard to peak oil] a second great depression might be the best outcome we could hope for. The pain and suffering that has happened since 2007 (from the more limited “great recession”) is more a result of the ability of the existing power structures to maintain control and enforce harsh circumstances by handing the empty bag to the public, than any fundamental lack of resources to provide all with basic needs.


In his essay, David credits Nicole Foss for her influence on the evolution of his thinking. He also credits her for helping to advance a permacultural agenda by “convincing people that they should get out of debt, downsize, and radically reduce consumption and put their savings into concrete assets that build local capacity, as rapidly as possible.”


David notes that during the 20th Century expansion of industrial civilization, economic activity at the household and community level was sacrificed on the altar of growing the formal economy. Now that the formal economy is contracting and beginning to falter, living arrangements that build economic resilience at the household and community level can provide a cushion against the human suffering that would accompany the catastrophic failure of the formal economy. Even so, “the elites of the resurgent resource nationalism and command economies of the Brown Tech world” cannot embrace action that fosters local resilience because such action would undermine their ability to consolidate power and maintain existing hierarchies of control.


Looking back over the last third of the 20th Century, David notes that the “positive environmentalism” of 1970s did not result in top-down mandates or the societal changes necessary to safeguard the integrity of the biosphere. The industrial monster of the Brown Tech future will be even more destructive than the industrial system which adapted to and neutralized the emerging ecological consciousness of the 1970s, and, as such, it must be stopped.


David points out that the same actions that promote resilience at the level of individual families and local communities are also actions that draw vital resources from the rapacious power structures of the Brown Tech world, and that convincing enough people to withdraw their investments and support from the growth-dependent industrial system might just hasten the inevitable collapse of that system. The sooner it falls, the better our chances of retaining a habitable planet.


David realizes that explicitly advancing permaculture and relocalization efforts as a means of bringing down a dysfunctional and unreformable system might result in permaculturists, eco activists and transition-minded folk being demonized in the mainstream discourse “as crazy people, a doomsday cult or even terrorists.” Still, he thinks the arrival of the Brown Tech future with its accompanying acceleration of environmental destruction may justify such a shift in rhetoric and intent.


In her response Nicole summarized David’s thinking and writing to date, much as I have in this essay, and then argued that switching the stated motivation for living the permaculture lifestyle from a positive vision of building local resilience and explicitly linking it to the desire to bring down the industrial system in the service of a larger environmental agenda would be a mistake.


Permaculture has a very positive image as a solution to the need for perpetual growth, and this might be put at risk if it became associated with any deliberate attempt to cause system failure. (...) Much better, in my opinion, to continue the good work with the declared, and entirely defensible, goals of building greater local resilience and security of supply while preserving and regenerating the natural world. While almost any form of advance preparation for a major crisis of civilization would have the side-effect of weakening an existing system that increasingly requires total buy-in, there is a difference between side-effect and stated goal.


Notice that David and Nicole are advocating the same course of action. They differ on what rationale to present in order to motivate people to divest themselves from the disempowering and dysfunctional system of Brown Tech control, but they both advocate withdrawing support for and engagement with the over-developed, larger-than-human scale systems of techno-industrial civilization and re-investing those energies and resources at the level of the family and the local community. The discussion here is how to frame the situation for the increasing number of people who are starting to realize that the industrial system will not make good on the promises and commitments it made to its subjects in the midst of its expansion.


Now we are approaching the comment that Guy found so stupid and objectionable. If we are looking to re-direct the course of civilization and avoid the a course of action that simultaneously sacrifices social justice and accelerates climate chaos, why not talk about climate change? Nicole offers the following:


I do not focus on climate change in my own work, partly because top-down policies vary between useless and counter-productive, and partly because, in my opinion, the science is far more complex and less predictable than commonly thought, and finally because success in generating a genuine fear of climate change is likely to produce human responses that achieve far more harm than good.


Specifically, the harms that would likely proceed from a deliberately induced fear of climate chaos include:


1) Carbon trading systems - Carbon credit trading programs would likely fuel an new boom and bust cycle which would further enrich speculators, bankers and other parasites while doing nothing to reduce global carbon emissions.


2) Massive infrastructure investment in adaptation - If the accepted wisdom is that mitigation is impossible and adaptation necessary, then resources which could have built bottom-up resilience would be squandered on over-built, top-down boondoggles.


3) Geo-engineering - Deliberate attempts to change the composition of the atmosphere to counteract the effects of increased carbon are almost sure to have unintended consequences. The cure could well be worse than the disease.


4) Eco-fascism - Fascists capitalize on fear and insecurity, and they’re not picky about the pretext they use to exert control over people’s lives. Fear of climate catastrophe can serve their purposes just as easily as paranoid fantasies about The Protocols of the Learned Elders of Zion.


5) A mood of collective self-flagellation - Misanthropic environmentalists and doomsday cultists see every aspect of human civilization as corrupt and unworthy of preservation. If this attitude proliferates, and if people started to act on it by, say, blowing up dams or engaging in other destructive acts that would, rightly, be denounced as acts of terrorism, then all ideas held by any environmentalists, no matter how peaceful, could be demonized and thus removed from consideration in mainstream discourse.


Another reason Nicole gives for not focusing on environmental issues in her work is that environmental concerns are more difficult for people to relate to in terms of their own well-being. Unlike bank runs or $20/gallon gasoline, the scale and time frame of climate change are too far outside the scope of most people’s concerns. It’s too abstract and remote for people to connect to their own lives.


Since economic collapse will lower carbon emissions far more dramatically than any top-down, outsized, public policy attempt is likely to do, and because re-localizing as a means of preparing for collapse will contribute to and hasten that collapse, it makes more sense to encourage people to protect their own well-being and that of their families and local communities than it does to try to motivate them with fear of global climate change. If the above is true, then, in the context of motivating people to respond adaptively to our shared predicament, the best thing to say to them about climate change in order to get people to take constructive steps to mitigate it is nothing.


Guy McPherson may disagree with this line of reasoning, but the sophistry he employs in deliberately misrepresenting Nicole’s position and impugning her character suggests a motivation other than a principled dedication to speaking unpopular truths to unreceptive audiences. I won’t speculate in public as to what his underlying motivations might be. I don’t make a habit of cultivating public feuds with people who are working to promote some aspect of collapse consciousness. That’s not my style.


Guy McPherson has accused Nicole Foss and John Michael Greer of proceeding from self-interested and disingenuous motivations. These are two people whose work informs my own thinking and who I think bring much-needed sobriety and depth to the evolving conversation about the converging crises of energy descent, climate disruption, and the self-immolation of global corporate capitalism. Given that Guy has employed blatant sophistry in an attempt to diminish their reputations, I suggest a change of focus. Guy should turn his gaze much closer to home in his search for unacknowledged motivations.