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.

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