Friday, February 12, 2016

Automation and SJWs: A Conversation with James Howard Kunstler

Here is a transcript of my conversation with James Howard Kunstler for C-Realm Podcast episode 498: Everything's a Racket.

KMO: You're listening to the C-­Realm Podcast. I'm your host KMO and I'm joined once  again by James Howard Kunstler. Jim, welcome back to the C-­Realm Podcast.

James Howard Kunstler: It's a pleasure to be here with you, KMO.

KMO: We're running out of C-­Realm Podcast, actually.

JHK: So, I hear.
C-Realm 498 cover art
Detail from The 4th of July by James Howard Kunstler

KMO: It's not gonna end, but it's going from 52 episodes a year to 12. So, the real estate is about to get precious.

JHK: Well, you've carried on heroically for the past, I don't know, five, seven years. How  long has it been?

KMO: I started in 2006.

JHK: Yeah. Well, you've done a yeoman service for all of us and I thank you for it.

KMO: Well, thanks for appearing on the podcast. I don't remember the exact date of your  first appearance but it probably would have been in 2007 or 2008.

JHK: Yeah. Somewhere after The Long Emergency came out.

KMO: Yeah. I remember, I had checked it out from the library and somebody else had a  hold on it, and I hadn't finished it by the time it was due back. So, I've never actually finished The  Long Emergency.

JHK: Well, that's alright. The Long Emergency is gonna finish us, so.


JHK: There you go. [chuckle]

KMO: Well, you recently published your annual longer than usual blog post for your  review of the year gone by.

JHK: Well, it's my forecast really.

KMO: Your forecast. Well, it starts there with a look back, doesn't it?

JHK: Sure. You're right.

KMO: Yeah. And then your look forward... And I don't have it up in front of me, as I tend  not to look at web pages while I'm talking to people. But well, what to say about this past year,  'cause back when I first started talking to you in 2008 or so, it really seemed like The Long  Emergency was coming down on us fast. And it was a good time to stock up on camping supplies  and such.

JHK: Yeah. I think what happened was that a certain brand of authority in our culture  managed to levitate what remained of our economy and many of the institutional functions in it.  And they just managed through legerdemain and chicanery, especially in the financial realm, to  levitate this leviathan, so that it would just keep on existing for a while. And it did for the last eight  years, and it was quite a feat. It was mostly smoking mirrors. I think it had a lot to do with share  momentum, and the size of our economy, and the complexity that our civilization had attained.  There was a certain amount of inertia connected with it that assisted the authorities in their efforts to levitate things. And they did. It seems to me that, just in the first week of 2016 that the wheels are  really coming off in a pretty serious way globally. But as far as the past year, the past year was a  topping process, not just in finance, I think, but really in our faith that these things could continue.  And I've said many times in my own blog and in my books that we depend on a number of complex systems to make up this meta­system of complexity. And the system that is the most fragile is the  financial system because it's the most abstract and it's the one that is dependent most on faith and  our belief in its credibility. And lately, that has translated into the... Our credulity that central banks  can keep on artificially propping up economies.

KMO: I do wish I had your piece up for one sentence because it was really well worded,  and it packed in a lot of meaning into a short space, but it was something to the effect of an  economy that is based on debts that will never be repaid back is not long for this world.

JHK: Well, that's exactly... Well, pretty close enough to what I said. And we're in a  peculiar situation that... I suppose the main device that the cabal of business, the Federal Reserve,  and the government used was the manipulation of interest rates in order to conceal the fact that we  had attained peak maximum credit or debt, and that we had reached the point that we really couldn't manage it anymore. And by that I mean, we could no longer manage the interest payments and the  servicing of all that massive monumental debt we'd racked up. And we had racked it up in the first  place to borrow from the future to keep all our systems running in the present. And by that, I mean  our trade systems, our manufacturing systems, the huge government systems that make payouts to  both their employees and the various people who don't do anything who get paid. We reached the  end of the line with the debt. And from my mind, a lot of it had to do with the relationship between  energy and the economy, and that whole story got very, very confused especially over the last five  years with the rise of the shale oil effort.

JHK: I published a book in 2012 called, Too Much Magic, and the subtitle was, Wishful  Thinking, Technology and the Fate of the Nation. And it was strategically, as a writing professional, it was an unfortunate move because I wrote a book about wishful thinking just when the nation  entered about a five­ year period of extreme wishful thinking. And the last thing they wanted to hear  was a criticism of wishful thinking. But at the center of a lot it was the shale oil, the so called  miracle, which persuaded people that the Peak Oil story was false, and that we didn't have a problem with the primary resource that we needed to run industrial economies. That is turning out  to be violently untrue now as the shale oil industry starts to shake apart. First, financially, and soon  to follow in terms of productivity.

JHK: But that allowed people to think that we didn't have a problem, and that we would be able to continue all of the rackets that we had rigged up. And I think that the term racket, and the  idea of racketeering is also very central for people to understand what has happened to us. And a lot of the activity that goes on in our economy now and in our culture has turned into racketeering. And by that, I mean, to be precise, the unethical and criminal pursuit of money grubbing.

JHK: And you can see it in endeavors, like medicine and education where racketeering  used to be the last thing that they would be interested in doing or able to do. These were professions that really relied on the cardinal virtues of humankind, on duty and diligence, and honesty, and  qualities like that. And they've become among the most dishonest industries in our culture right  now. You don't have to go far to understand the college loan racket and how it has changed  education. Or anyone who's tangled with the medical establishment in recent years knows what a  dishonest racket it is, and how untransparent the cost of this stuff is and how absurd the charges are. I mean, you go to the emergency room with needing five stitches in your scalp, and five weeks  later, you end up with a bill for $7,000. This is a very common thing, right?

JHK: So, racketeering has taken the place of honest endeavor. And it's one of the side  effects of living in a culture that engages in continuous lying and pretending. And when you're  constantly lying about everything, you've unfortunately entered a place where anything goes and  nothing matters. And that's the bottom line.

KMO: Well, Smedley Butler, a US Marine Corps General, famously said in his  autobiography in the first half of the 20th century, that war is a racket.

JHK: Oh, yeah.

KMO: And rackets, they don't seem to be new, although particularly with the medical  establishment as you just mentioned, it's grown to an unbelievable level. A couple of years back.  Well, it's been a few years now, but in 2009, I had sinus surgery.

JHK: Oh, you had your brush with the medical industry?

KMO: Yeah. And I had a job at the time with medical insurance, so it was mostly all good. But when I came out from one of the anesthesia, I basically couldn't pee. The anesthesia had made  my prostate swell up so much, there was just no passing urine. And so they kept me, just basically  for observation and catheterization overnight. And just basically having a bed, I wasn't... This is not  the cost of the surgery. This is just the cost of staying in the hospital overnight was $10,000.

JHK: Oh, hey dude, I had a hip replacement in 2013, one of many. And I got a one line bill from St Peter's Hospital in Albany that just said, "Room and board, 36 hours, $23,000." Say what?  All they really did was take my blood pressure 20 times and my pulse. $23,000?

KMO: Yeah, exactly.

JHK: Hello?

KMO: Yeah, so that doesn't seem like it can last. But you mentioned, debts that are unpayable.

JHK: Yeah.

KMO: And a few years back, David Graeber published his book, Debt: The First 5,000  Years, which is really an amazing read. And people in power figured out how to control other people with debt a long time ago. And there is always a perpetual moral hazard. There's always the temptation to create more debt than can actually be paid back. So, this has happened many times before. And typically, what happens is, and this is what's different from us, typically in the past, the  debts have been owed to the sovereign. And eventually, the sovereign realizes they're unpayable.  And he just says, "Okay, jubilee, we've wiped the slate clean. We're starting to accumulate new  debts starting today." And that basically fixes the problem. And we're in a situation now where the  debts aren't owed to a sovereign or even to a government that can declare jubilee. And as long as  the system is running, the moral hazard is in place to just keep cranking up the debt overhang.

JHK: Yeah. Well, there are some differences. And I think it has a lot to do with the fact  that the techno­industrial economy and civilization that we developed has some slightly different  rules and procedures. And one of them is that... And we saw an early example of that was, what  happened in Weimar, Germany in 1923 which is that, you manufacture a jubilee by other means,  namely, hyper­inflation. They didn't mean it to go that far, but it got out of hand. And what's  happened in the USA for the last couple of decades is an attempt to inflate just enough to eventually erase the debt and the magic number is supposedly like 2% or 3% a year which doesn't seem very  much but if you do it over time, you end up not having to pay back an awful lot of money in dollars  that are worth the same as what they were originally borrowed at.

JHK: But that's exactly what the Federal Reserve has tried to do, especially since the crash of 2008. But they've been completely unable to do it through all of their chicanery. They haven't  been able to manufacture a 2% inflation rate. And instead, what we find ourselves in, is a  compressive deflationary environment. And that the reason for that is, because as debts are not paid  back, and as loans are not repaid, and as interest is not repaid, money actually disappears from the  system. And as money disappears from the system, there's less of it and that's a classic deflation.

JHK: So we're not gonna get that kind of jubilee that you got in an old monarchical society in the olden times. What we're gonna probably get is either, or probably both, first a tremendous  compressive deflationary bust, followed by desperate attempts to reflate the economy and then,  ultimately destroying currencies.

KMO: Well, you mentioned that the financial aspect of the current economy is the most  abstract, and a few years back Dmitry Orlov wrote his Five Stages of Collapse essay which he then
expanded into a book, and one of his arguments is, there are different types of collapse, and collapse can precede in different orders and the financial system can collapse without the rest of the  economy collapsing. And at our present state of debauchery, that would probably be a good thing, if the financial system were to collapse.

JHK: Well, yes. Although, I would argue that, I think Dmitry did actually intend them to  be sequential. His classic view of it, there would be a sequential progress from financial to  commercial to social to cultural collapse, etcetera, etcetera. But what's happened here is like what  happened in Cuba when the Soviet Union fell apart. You and I probably get a lot of notes from  people who are always saying, "Look how well Cuba managed its transition from being a vessel of  the Soviet Union to being a world made by hand economy," right? You've heard that, right?

KMO: Oh, certainly, yeah.

JHK: Yeah. But the thing that they never take into account is that it happened against the  background of a world that was still humming along in the background; they were still functioning.  And in particular, what was happening was, the Cubans were receiving remittances from the people  outside of Cuba, namely, from a lot of Cubans who had move to the United States, who were living  in Florida, and they were sending money back to Cuba. So, if that happens against the background  of a world that's still largely intact, there's a cushion there. To a certain extent, the same thing might be said of the Soviet Union collapse that, yeah, it was a mighty fall and it had some pretty terrible  resounding consequences, but when all was said and done, the rest of the world was still humming  along, and they could, for example, depend on Jeffrey Sachs coming over from the USA and trying  to retool their economy into a capitalist economy. And they could depend on the fact that the global  economy was actually building up at the very time that the Soviet economy was falling. And that  was a cushion for them that kept them from going all the way to cultural and social collapse where  nothing works and you're living, basically, in a anarchic society with no law or no safety. So, they  didn't get all the way down.

JHK: This time, the whole global system is wobbling, and there isn't gonna be the cushion  for any of the players. When the United States gets into the trouble that it's now entered, all of the  other nations will be going through a similar thing. And all the trade relations that we depend on to  keep this behemoth going, they're gonna get in trouble, and they won't be there for us anymore, and  we'll be thrown back on our own devices. And what it basically means is we're gonna have to reset  to a much lower level. And of course, the major question is, how do you make that journey without  a lot of destruction and without a lot of social disorder, and hardship, and cruelty, and all the bad  things that come with a badly upset culture?

KMO: And that's a question I don't expect we will answer in this podcast but I think,  experience...

JHK: No.

KMO: Will show us the answer, over time.

JHK: Well, it's an emergent process, and it will be a self-­organizing thing, and there isn't...  I think that there are clues and historical cultural roadmaps that can inform us about what we face,  but it's an emergent process, and it's gonna be full of weird surprises. And for example, who would  have thought that a buffoon, a dangerous buffoon like Donald Trump would emerge as a serious  possibility for winning the nomination of a major political party? Like I said in my forecast, I  consider Trump to be Hitler without the charm or the brains. But the fact that, so many people  actually take him seriously is to me a huge danger sign. And who would have expected that? And  you can predict other things arising out of that. Now, I'm inclined to make wild­-ass guesses about  things, and I do that in my forecast, sometimes just to be cute, and sometimes because I also really  mean it. But one of the things that seems plausible to me is we end up in a situation where Donald  Trump, for one reason or another, gets elected, and I think that there would be a serious effort by  other authorities in America to remove him from office, after not a very long period of time. And  that would be sort of farewell to our constitutional system, or a welcome to a constitutional crisis.

JHK: And it's not unthinkable, countries go through political crisis, and we've had a good  run for about 230 years as the constitutional USA. But if a clown like him were to get in office, a  guy with very poor impulse control, [chuckle] and some rather dangerous ideas about how the  world works, I can see a bunch of Pentagon generals kicking back and saying, "You know, we're  patriots and we just can't let this happen, we gotta get this guy out of there." And who knows,  maybe they'd say, "Okay, we're gonna have a new election in eight months and we'll start all over  again and this time Trump won't be a candidate and we'll try to find some better people." That  might happen too. But that's just an example of the weird things that will, or could, emergently pop up.

KMO: Science ­fiction author David Brin is fond of saying that the George W. Bush  administration demonstrates just how resilient the professional governmental bureaucracy is, in the  United States, that a president that catastrophic could sit in the White House for eight years and not  destroy everything just bespeaks what a solid foundation the US has in terms of it's professional  bureaucratic class, and I could imagine the US surviving a Trump presidency, as well. What I find  really interesting about Trump is that he is already making signals that he wants to be buddy ­buddy  with Vladimir Putin, and I've been very disturbed by the Obama administration's steady creep back  into a cold war doing everything they can to stoke old cold war animosities and provoke Putin at  every turn.

JHK: Yeah, me too. No, I completely agree with you about that. And there have been many times in the last couple of years where Vladimir Putin seemed like the only grown up in the room  full of world leaders, and he explained himself actually very well in his speech to the UN General  Assembly last fall, where the question of Syria had come up, and he basically said, "It's not a good  idea to go around destabilizing all of the institutions of a society," which is what the US did in Iraq,  and Libya, and Somalia, and all kinds of other places. And he said, "Actually, we probably would  be better off if we could support some of these institutions, so these people could govern  themselves." And that's the kind of thing that oughta get the attention of intelligent people.

JHK: I'm not necessarily reassured by the fact that Donald Trump feels similarly about that because there are other things about Trump that I just find odious, but it must be said that, above all, Trump does represent something that's really going on in this country and that is a real revulsion
against the establishment, and a revulsion against the elites that have been running things. And I  think that's legitimate. I'm just sorry that Trump ended up being the one to represent that consensus.

KMO: There is another candidate who seems to be doing well, who also seems like  somebody that would never have been a serous candidate in the past, and that is Bernie Sanders, so  what are your thoughts there?

JHK: Well, I think Bernie has... He's really an admirable figure in so many ways. It's  interesting 'cause I interviewed him about 20­ or 25 years ago for a Vermont newspaper called 'Seven  Days', and I spent a day with him in his office when he was Mayor of Burlington, and I was pretty  impressed with the guy, just his energy and his charisma. And I think, we should all be glad that  he's been there, mainly because he's opposing another odious character on the scene, Hillary Clinton, who I can't stand because I think that she's just thoroughly corrupt and dishonest. And  that's not an original idea, but it's an idea that's shared by a certain part of the population.

JHK: I happen to be a registered Democrat, although not a very enthusiastic one in recent  years, and I object to her being the candidate for president. I'm glad Bernie's there. I think, Bernie  has been a heroic force as an independent senator, and really kind of a great figure of our time. My  problem with Bernie is that, I think that he's basically an economic redistributionist. Being the self­-proclaimed socialist that he is, I'm afraid that he would be interested in creating larger schemes for taking people's money and choices away from them. And another side effect of that would probably be increasing the size of the government.  Now, it happens to be my belief that we're in a situation where government is going to get smaller,  whether people like it or not. It's already become hugely ineffectual and impotent at carrying out a  lot of its basic functions. And the things that it does do well now, are things that are not very  encouraging, like spying on people and collecting information about citizens. That's something that  we don't want government to do.

JHK: So, when all is said and done, I'm afraid that what Bernie would support would end  up being an attempt to keep big government big and to keep on giving free money to people and  endeavors that really ought not to get it. I would not really be happy about voting for Bernie, but I  do appreciate his independent voice and his heroism. Does that make any sense to you, KMO?

KMO: Sure. And if it came down to a choice between Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump,  I would think that would be a no brainer.

JHK: I'd vote for Bernie Sanders.

KMO: Yeah. Although, apparently...

JHK: Yeah, no question about it.

KMO: Apparently, if you select the poll questions right, there's a significant percentage of  Democrats who would crossover and vote for Trump before they would vote for Hillary Clinton.

JHK: That's what I hear. That's what I read in what used to be called "the papers."


KMO: Do you still subscribe to a daily newspaper?

JHK: Well, I subscribe to the New York Times. I find the New York Times to be  enormously annoying. It just bugs the hell out of me the way they cover stuff and fail to cover stuff. But I do subscribe to it as kind of a vestigial duty.

KMO: Well, you mentioned that in relation to Bernie Sanders, the phrase, I think, "Giving  money away" or "just giving people money," and...

JHK: He's a redistributionist.

KMO: Well, I've been talking to a lot of people about this notion of technological unemployment because the big digital companies that are displacing the old companies are doing so with a lot fewer... They can service a larger customer base with far fewer employees. And so,  there's a lot of jobs that are being destroyed by technology that are not... That that technology is not  creating new jobs in equal numbers, and a lot of people are saying, really the conservative response  to this is to basically cut everybody a check every month and give the people who don't have jobs  money to go shopping; it keeps the consumer economy going.

JHK: Yeah. I believe Finland is one of the first nations to actually propose that concretely  in their legislature. And yeah, I've certainly heard that. I think, it's gonna play out differently  though. I think that the diminishing returns of that trend of replacing human labor and human  thought with just machines and computers, I think it has tremendous diminishing returns and  unintended consequences. And one of the more interesting ones is that, among other things, it  alienates customers hugely, and we can see that and how things have gone for that last 20 years  where corporations have off loaded a lot of their former responsibilities onto their customers by  making their customers' lives more difficult. For example, instead of making it easy to contact  somebody at a company that you need to do business with, like Apple, or Microsoft, or really any  company, they've used the internet not to communicate but to erect a firewall between their  customers and them, so they won't be bothered by them. And they offload their own problems by  doing things like making you wait 45 minutes to have your call answered on a phone queue.

JHK: And after a while, you get enough of that and people just sign off and say, "Fuck it. I
don't wanna be involved with this company." And I don't think that it's going to work as smoothly  as people fantasize about. I think that process of replacing human work with robot work is gonna  basically trip over itself and make our... It'll be like an idiocracy of robotic business, and it's not  gonna work. At the same time, I think that in reality something else will be happening in the  background. And probably, pretty loudly and pretty rapidly, and that will be our journey to  becoming a Neo­medieval society where a lot of the things that were provided by corporations  won't be, and they'll have to be replaced by actual people doing skilled work that requires real skills, like, growing food locally and then finding ways to distribute it locally as things like national chain  shopping and supermarkets start to fail, as their supply lines stop working.

JHK: And I think, it's gonna work out hugely different than people fantasize about. In fact, I would put the robotic work society idea in the same folder that I would put the idea that we're  going to continue the happy motoring system by electrifying all the cars, 'cause that ain't gonna  happen. But it's an amazingly popular and commonly accepted idea that of course that's gonna  happen. We'll just have electric cars and that will solve all the problems. Not only that, they'll be  self driving. And that's not gonna happen for a lot of reasons. One of the reasons by the way is,  something that most people are not paying attention to, and that's the fact that the effect of the crash of the financial system on the way that Americans get cars. Americans are used to buying cars on  installment loans. That's how we buy cars, we make payments on them. But what's happened is, the  collapse of the middle class has left far fewer people who qualify for car loans and we're going to  enter a period of capital scarcity as the debt deflation moves on, which will provide far less capital  available for people to get car loans.

JHK: So, the whole motoring thing is gonna probably fail on the financial end before it  even fails on the fuel end. Although, those two things could converge fairly rapidly. And what's  happened in the last several years is that the smoothies on Wall Street have taken the same model  that they used for creating janky mortgage loans and bundles of mortgage loans, like the  collateralized debt obligations that went bad in 2008, and they've applied the same principle and the same model to auto loans. So now, they've securitized a lot of really bad auto loans, like six year  loans to people who have very poor prospects of making their car payments.

JHK: And we're gonna see exactly the same thing happen with that, those bonds are gonna fail. But as that happens, of course, we're gonna see a whole lot of damage in other parts of the bond world. And it's already happening in the margins of the so called 'junk bonds' or 'high yield bonds.'  A lot of those high yield bond were put out by the oil companies and the shale oil companies in  particular. They have no prospect of servicing them, paying the interest, or paying their bond  holders back, and they're going bad. And in the whole chain of bonds out there, the securitized auto  loans bonds are, they're right there behind all that crap, and they're gonna go bad too.

JHK: And the thing after that that we probably have to worry about is, what are the  derivative consequences of that? The hedges that these sharpies put in to get paid even if their  bonds went bad. And there's a whole lot of wreckage out there waiting to happen. But anyway,  getting back to the robotic thing, I put that idea in the same folder as the idea that happy motoring  will continue.

KMO: Well, I can certainly see a fairly short ­term scenario where, because of the reasons you just described, most people can not afford to get a new car and they will either be like me  driving a twenty year old car, or they will be dependent on ride-­sharing services like Uber, which  are about to get a whole lot cheaper 'cause they're about to fire all their drivers and replace them  with self­-driving cars. Those drivers have basically been training those cars for the past few years.  And self­-driving cars are not science fiction, and they are not anything that is projected to be  developed. They exist today. They travel the roads today and the only thing keeping more of them  off the roads right now is regulation.

JHK: Well, I take your point, although, I think, there's room to argue that it's not gonna  work as smoothly as people think. For example, there was a similar idea about 10 years ago, or so,  that we were gonna have so called 'intelligent highways.' It was, for practical purposes, the same  idea as the self­-driving car but they had vested the technological part in the roadways themselves.  And the idea was, you'd be on board with your computer, and just the car and the road would have a conversation, right? And all these, you'd be able to cram more cars into the limited space of, let's  say, the 405 freeway in Los Angeles, and the traffic would move more smoothly because the  computers and cars would all be having this conversation.

JHK: Well, the thing is when you really think about it, right now in any given place in  America, lets say 7% of the people driving out there are only pretending to have insurance, right?  What happens when you're in a situation where 7% of the people are only pretending to be in cars  that have a computerized smart car stuff? It assumes that absolutely, all the cars will be capable of  doing this, but in fact, it won't be the case. There will always be some rogue cars out there with live  humans in them who are capable of making mistakes, especially in a system that's overly  computerized that is based on the idea that there will be no mistakes. So, I don't see it happening. I  think we're actually gonna leave happy motoring behind. I could see that there could be much more  of a ride­-sharing thing in the short to medium ­term that that could be a way of getting around the  fact that fewer people will be able to own private cars. That makes a lot of sense, and it's really no  different from, or little different from the jitney arrangement that you find in third world countries,  where just a lot of people operate in formal taxi services with vans and things. That's what you see  in Mexico a lot. So, I think it could easily go to that but I don't think we're gonna have like a George Jetson automatic car system.

KMO: Well, the future I was describing is not utopian in the least. As long as those cars,  those Uber cars are still running and they're still making money, there's no real reason to do any  unnecessary maintenance on them. I could well imagine you've summoned your next ride and it  shows up, of course it's driver­less and the door opens up, and you can tell that the last occupants in  this car were having sex in it or shooting up.

JHK: Or they threw up.

KMO: Oh, yeah. Exactly.

JHK: When I drove a cab, like every week some drunken guy would throw up in my cab.  That was about 30 years ago, by the way.

KMO: But your cab had a driver who could stop and clean up the barf.

JHK: Right.

KMO: But if that car doesn't have a driver and can just go to its next destination and it's  going to get paid regardless of the state of the cab then it will. I'm not describing a George Jetson  future at all, I'm just saying that automation isn't going away and because of the financial incentive  to get rid of human labor whenever possible, I think we're gonna see a lot more automation before  things are done.

JHK: Well, I think that we can have a valid difference of opinion on this and just kick back and see how things work out. I'm more inclined to think that we should all become more interested  in mules, for instance. But we'll see how it works out.

Thursday, January 22, 2015

It's official. The Age of Limits gathering is on hiatus

Last year I attended the Age of Limits gathering at Four Quarters Interfaith Sanctuary in rural Pennsylvania. Most of the presenters were repeat C-Realm Podcast guests, and it was good to re-connect with them. I also enjoyed the opportunity to re-connect with C-Realm listeners and meet others for the first time. As denizens of countless subcultures have learned in the brief span of years since the dawn of the internet age, the internet is a great tool for finding the others, but no amount of screen time can match time spent together, in the flesh, for creating genuine human bonds.

That said, I understand and support Orren Whiddon and the other stakeholders invested in the annual AoL gathering in their decision to take a break from preaching the good word of collapse preparedness and to devote their energies inward. Here is the text of Orren's official announcement on the subject:


Hello All

I wanted to let you know that we have made the decision not to host The Age of Limits Conference in 2015.

There are a number of reasons for our staff having made this choice, and the relative break even status of the finances is actually a minor reason. More important is that our volunteer staff has come to the realization that they have simply taken on too much with our packed schedule, and AoL is very demanding of our volunteer resources.
Here on the Land we need to tend to our own growing list of collapse mitigation projects, some of which I spoke to in my presentations. The Water Works is large on that list with its integrated windmill pumping, distribution, catchment basins and fish ponds. And we are considering expanding the land holdings of our income-sharing community. Last year we harvested our first large crop of rye and have now earnestly begun a regular cover cropping program. And our construction projects are never ending. All of this takes time, a commodity that for us is more precious than money.

Many of our presenters also feel the pressure to "take care of business." The pace of change quickens and as I like to say, once you understand the science of collapse, there you are! At some point we start repeating ourselves, and many of us prefer to be engaged in our own personal preparations. The specific techniques of mitigating collapse in ones personal life are well known and broadly disseminated, it simply remains to begin. 

As for action on a national or global scale, certainly there is room for that, but I suspect it is a small room. My own opinion is that we human primates are hard wired, for a host of good evolutionary reasons, to dissipate energy and resources as quickly as possible, turning those resources into as many chattering, charming and hopelessly flawed replication units as time and resources allow. 

It may well be we will return to The Age of Limits Conference in three years or so. That would allow time to sharpen your own interest, and allow for our presenters to refresh their ideas on the accelerating unfolding of events. So pencil in the date, sometime in 2017. Until then I thank you for your support and offer my best wish that you may "Collapse Now and Avoid The Rush!"

Orren Whiddon
The Age of Limits

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.