November 22, 2015 § 9 Comments
Cold northern air pushed south for a few days granting us the slight chill we have come to expect on a November morning. Heavy winds rattled the bare fingers of oak and hickory like blades of prairie grass. Woodsmoke seasoned the air and warmed my soul as I walked the compost toilet bucket out to the pile to be dumped and covered. Two days later temperatures were right back up again as firearm deer hunting season opened. I wanted to spend my Sunday morning waiting quietly in a tree, scanning the ridge line for a sizable white tail, but decided against it when I saw that the high for the day would be seventy degrees. The forecast calls for the cool air to return, so for now, I postpone the hunt, and cross my fingers in the hope that driving home from work late at night I will see a freshly hit roadkill deer that I can harvest instead. Their habitat long converted to highway, I honestly prefer making use of a collision killed deer than pulling the trigger anyway.
The collapse blogs and forums are often rife with talk of such things. There are those who suggest that in a world where grocery stores are shuttered or where there is no money to purchase what they might still contain, people will need to return to hunting and foraging where possible. At such suggestions, there are those who counter that the skill to harvest and process and meat is lost of the vast majority of the population. There are others who then counter that actually, in such a scenario the fields and streams would quickly be stripped bare of any game or fish as hordes of people begin shooting at anything that moves, whether they know how to properly process and preserve the meat or not. After years of collapse minded discussion on the internet, I think it is fair to say that there are many pockets of cliches and conventional wisdoms that have taken root and found their loyalties. Fast collapse, slow collapse, hyper inflation, deflationary depression, bug out, bug in, long slow die off, near term human extinction, etc. ad nauseam. Flow charts of collapse hypothesis each complete with their experts and their laundry list of survival purchases.
Over the years I have found myself settling in the realm of thought promoted by the Dark Mountain Project. I do my best not to make a lot of predictions that don’t go beyond vague guesses at trends, and I primarily try to push the notions of personal and communal endurance, adaptability, and dignity. History’s arc is very long, and it is easy to find ourselves as individuals belonging to a time that we believe from where we stand to be of particular importance or meaning. Such assumptions are vanity. The decline of industrial civilization, yes, will result in the creation of miserable conditions for most of humanity, and as we live through and beyond such times, we shall be tested. We are not going to solve the major crises. We are going to be called upon to endure them. Such endurance is likely beyond many in the western world who have never imagined, let alone suffered true hardship. The age of fossil fuels has not only softened rich bodies, but it has softened rich hearts and minds. It has convinced many that death and pain are an unfairness, one that we could, and should, banish from existence. More vanity. More hubris. To be sure, more blindness, as such soft minds are closed off to the suffering and death that formed the foundation of their very comfort to begin with.
Banish your vanity now. Welcome the dirt under your fingernails. Accept that you are not, nor your culture, the protagonist in a meaningful drama. Visions and stories you have created in your mind in which you are a central performer are phantoms of your own amusement. Dispel them. Be here. Take a good stock of who you actually are.
Mutant zombie bikers (MZB’s for short) are the foil of those who monitor collapse. MZB’s are the unwashed masses. Unprepared for collapse, they don their truck tire armor and necklaces strung with the teeth of their victims and then move over the suburbs and hinterlands seeking families and farmers to massacre in their grand quest for canned peaches, gasoline, and murderous skin harvesting glory. They are the primary enemy portrayed in the dystopian future sketched out in most collapse related conversation.
I would like to offer a counter notion; your worst enemy will be yourself. This suggestion, I hope, can steer us from the primacy of the notion that navigating social collapse is going to be best achieved by those who most willingly point guns at everyone else.
If in fact, a grand collapse of sorts occurs and the social and economic systems that the vast majority of people rely upon fail, it will not likely be a man built like a WWE wrestler riding a tricked out Harley and brandishing a flaming nail bat who kills you. It will be your own inability to work with a group. It will be your own lifetime of poor health choices. It will be all of the ebooks about wild edible plants that you downloaded and never read. It will be your hubris, your panic, your depression, your anger, and primarily your inability to adapt to unpredictable and ever changing conditions.
For what it is worth, this is the concept I would like to toss into the gyre of collapse discussion. How self improvement now not only increases one’s chances of survival in the event of any emergency, short or long, but further, how such improvement greatly benefits one’s life even in the absence of societal breakdown. Successfully navigating dire circumstances that present physical, mental, and emotional challenges requires fortitude on all fronts – body, mind, and soul. Doing the work to improve oneself on these fronts is not likely to be a waste should calamity never strike, in the same way that “prepper” purchases of five years worth of EZ Mac and banana chips might be. Mice will never eat your improved physical stamina. A flood will not wash away your uncluttered mind.
Let’s face it, life in the modern era in western nations has shaped most of our interactions to flow along the patterns and dictates of the economic system; capitalism. Short, shrift transactions where one exchanges paper notes for food do not establish a bond between buyer and seller. More often than not, the owner of such food is not even present, and we interact with low wage workers who operate cash registers, and the bulk of our acquisitions of necessities is at the behest of a system which at times even generates resentment of all the other humans around us. We are infuriated by traffic, long lines, and crowded spaces. Community bonds are threadbare. True reliance on one and other that flows equally back and forth is rare. So what happens when this social and economic paradigm crumbles? Do you have the ability to work well in a group? Can you keep from yelling or being over bearing? Do you dominate conversations and interrupt others? Do you dismiss women or people who aren’t white? Do you even notice if or when you do these things? When the humans around you become a de facto band that must cooperate to survive, can you set your ego and your ideology aside? Can you be the first to give before having received? Can you politely disagree? It may seem silly to present such concerns, but truly, communication has been so degraded by generations of commercial transaction replacing communal reciprocity, not to mention newly invented forms of abbreviated, faceless, eye-contactless device to device texting, that I think a focus on just being able to talk to one another in order to effectively organize crisis response should be a priority. Do you really want to find yourself outcast because everyone around you thinks that your a blowhard asshole?
Of course, habits that trend in the opposite direction could be just as deadly. Are you a doormat? Do you speak up for yourself? Are you easily manipulated? Do you fear speaking your mind when your opinion is unpopular? Can you say “no” and mean it? An ability to judge when to defer to group dynamics and when to pull back from activities you believe to be foolish, dangerous, or a waste of energy is crucial. Of course, navigating the emotions and egos of others is a delicate matter, and doing so forms the basis of politics. When your life is on the line, you will need to swallow your pride one day, draw a line in the sand the next, and hopefully make the right choice as to the when and why for both.
Meanwhile, our habits and addictions will haunt us when all of the usual patterns change, and then change again. If right now you are a smoker, a drinker, if you are addicted to sugar, to caffeine (my personal drug of choice) or just happen to need a particular anti-depressant or antipsychotic to get out of bed, how will you fare when the chemicals your brain requires to function are not available? What is your current physical status? Here in the US, the lion’s share of the population travels by some form of petroleum powered vehicle on a regular basis. Has this made you a bit soft around the middle? Or has a steady diet of sugar softened you sort of all over? The ability to walk long distances over varied terrain while carrying a load, perhaps water, perhaps wood, perhaps a child, would probably serve well. The ability to defend yourself without a weapon, would probably serve well. The ability to live two weeks on nothing but mashed turnips without flipping out on everyone around you at the slightest annoyance because your body is craving a Diet Coke and a Parliament Light might just serve you well.
And I am not pitching machismo. I know too well that a smile, a nod, a low calm voice, can in the right circumstances carry more power than a grounded right cross. Well rounded and adaptable, clear headed and resourceful, that is what I am pitching.
This is why I decry the prepper mentality of stockpiling large caches of goods. That is just consumerism. That is just altering a bad habit to feel like a good habit. Sure, having food in the house, useful tools, toilet paper and jumper cables does make sense. Twenty-Five buckets of mylar sealed white sugar is an absurdity. No matter what emergency you encounter, be it a car accident on a stormy evening, a house fire, or full on “the-grid-went-down-thanks-to-Chinese-hackers-cracked-out-on-energy-drinks-and-promises-of-state-provided-communist-love-girls,” the one thing you will always have on you, is you. Your mind, your body, and your spirit are primary. If these are out of balance or in a dysfunctional state, why would you assume that a Rubbermaid Tub full of Pepto-Bismol would be of any use?
You need to fill your mind, hone your body, and steel your spirit. This is a constant as we live. The work never stops. But as we travel, and work at our wisdom, our knowledge, and our fitness, we must also learn how to successfully integrate this blossoming self with others. Communities don’t just happen, because trust doesn’t just happen; communication doesn’t just happen.
Tribe is hard. Manufactured tribe, anyway. I have never experienced a true tribe; a family linked through time and space, culture and common cause. What I have experienced are groups of people who came together with grand purpose. The torment of hours long meetings with Occupy, the drama of interpersonal conflicts with pipeline blockades, the sheer inability to commit to the work required at failed communes and intentional communities; I have seen it all. In each case, there was success and their was failure. In each case, good intentions ran head first into fatigue, a lack of resources, and at times, post traumatic stress. And in each of those cases, the greater support system of society still existed as a fall back. Dirty, cold and hungry, I watched people do unexpectedly amazing things, no doubt. But stores still had food, even if the only food we could afford was in the dumpster. We could check out, step back, any time we wanted. When the stress of it all was too much to bear, one could return to the “real world” and level out. A collapse scenario will offer no such quarter.
It is said that tough times don’t last, but tough people do. I am not trying to sell some notion of myself as complete or without flaw. I am just as guilty of seeing myself not as I am, but as I have imagined myself to be. I possess plenty of traits and habits which I need to work to better, starting with my ability to calmly and accurately communicate. If I were slower to frustrate and to anger, that would likely be a boon. Despite the constant work that living in a post collapse world would require, I could personally benefit from a greater ability to slow down, to sit still, and to meditate. To just breathe and exist. I think it would strengthen my spirit, even if only by allowing me to take in more beauty and joy that I currently let pass me by in favor of tending to endless tasks. We talk tirelessly about survival, but forget sometimes that without attention to the things that make life worth living, we can never truly thrive.
The time to work on ourselves, is now. Your communication, your patience, and your tolerance, all are best improved now while daily caloric intake doesn’t necessarily rest upon them. The time to break habits of sloth, or poor diet, or of resistance to any work that makes muscles sore and brow sweat, is now. The time to take self dense classes and to increase your self confidence and endurance, is now. The time to abandon phantom notions of your protagonist self in favor of honest assessment of your strengths and weaknesses while simultaneously relieving yourself of your doughy first world comfort requirements, is now. Take cold showers. Eat more vegetables. Forgive small debts. Compliment and be patient with others. Walk.
Of course, the hard part is that the pizza is still hot, the beer still cold, and the new season of Game of Thrones is on, and all of it is available twenty-four seven and you wouldn’t even have to speak to another human being, let alone be kind to them, to get any of it. And there is work. And there are bills to pay. Maybe next month when I get a little further ahead. I’ll quit smoking. I’ll quit drinking. I’ll spend less time on the internet and more time with other people. Next month.
You are your worst enemy, but you don’t have to be.
November 16, 2015 § 2 Comments
I was recently invited to participate in a discussion with RE on the Doomstead Diner’s “Collapse Cafe.” Here is the video:
November 9, 2015 § 8 Comments
Deep in the hardwood forest I watch the first orange light crest over the eastern ridge as dawn unfolds casting its warmth on the surface of the yawning Earth. Poplar trunks stand firm above the gold and brown leaf cover that now mulches the hopeful seedlings while granting the white tail deer an auditory advantage over those who would stalk them through the hollers. At this time of year the forest exhales and retreats from the above ground toil of photosynthesis to a season of focus within the dense and teeming skin of the planet. Without the brush and laden bough, one can see for miles across the waves of ridge and ravine. Sound is without obstacle, and seems almost propelled by the chill wind when it punctures the otherwise heavy silence. The feeling is one of calm, of that restfulness that comes when one crawls into bed and their leg muscles finally release the day’s tension. Autumn contains a library of lessons, none of which can be learned until one is still, patient, and not fucking talking.
My year was not what I had planned for it to be. Many tasks remain undone. Our family was interfered with by a local government body, and we are now in the process of installing an overpriced septic system for our cabin. It is a headache, to be sure, dealing with puffed up bureaucrats and their ad hoc adherence to antiquated and at times contradictory laws. As is often the case in this society, compliance is cheaper and faster than justice. Proving to a judge my case that I should not be required to acquire such a system would find me spending more money, time, and personal energy than just going along with the racket that the good old boys and connected families have established in these parts. I have made my peace with the conflict, and am calmly dancing through the hoops laid out for me. When all is said and done, the cabin I built with my two hands will be a legal residence in the event that we ever decide to move and to sell our land. Property value and all that, right?
Here we are again, dear readers, staring down another winter in which we can together reflect on the state of the world, both the portion that modern humans point their attention at, as well as to the far larger portion where, as Cormac McCarthy wrote, “Storms blow and trees twist in the wind, and all of the animals that God has made go to and fro.” Despite a massive downturn in the global economy, money moves and the smokestacks belch their poison. To be sure, man’s world of markets and digital notations percolates. An event is brewing that portends itself in plummeting rig counts and commodity prices. What grand show this event will perform for people rich enough to have a stake in it is to be seen. The rest of us will scrape by like the peasants that we are until even scraping fails, and only bloodletting remains.
Superstorms and hurricanes ravage from Texas to Yemen. Starved and hopeless human beings are playing the only card they have and abandoning the sure death that awaits their children in the war ravaged and drought plagued middle eastern and north African regions. Rich white people who are to blame for such wars, droughts, and famines are bellowing from the America’s, clear across Europe, and down to Australia about the brown victims of centuries of Anglo-capitalism and how they are not supposed to do anything but suffer their circumstances in place. Where these white adherents to national boundary and culture were as the US, UK, and other global powers were setting about to wage war and destabilize governments in these now uninhabitable places, I’m not exactly sure.
This is the crisis unfolding. This is what it looks like. Real life plays out a lot more slowly than the Hollywood scripts that have to crunch collapse adventures into one hundred and twenty minute films complete with explosions, comeuppance, and a love story for the girls. Tracking the decline of global industrial civilization is seemingly gaining in popularity, and it is all too common for those new to such a curiosity to expect an impending grand finale in which all bets are off; the power grid fails, store shelves empty, gas pumps get bagged, and all hell breaks loose in suburban cul-de-sacs where soccer moms in body armor pump 7.62 into hordes of urbanites (read: blacks and latinos…OK, and maybe a few white guys with neck tattoos get plugged for good measure) who are scouring the once idyllic portions of America in search of condensed soup and cheerleaders for their rape rooms.
Instead another year grinds by in which forest fires destroyed more than they ever had in North america, heat waves killed thousands in Pakistan, sea levels continued their upward march, and political institutions seemed ever more and more inept in the face of all the compounding emergencies that industrial civilization faces. Even my own humble region was affected by unseasonable levels of rain this July which were punctuated by a night of flash flooding that tested my mettle and resolve as I spent hours trying to find an unblocked path home.
Of course, we know that there are no solutions, not for the major crises. There is no putting back what is broken, and limits to growth are not optional. They are not suggested daily values. Sustainability isn’t a lifestyle choice. That which cannot be sustained will not be. For us as individuals, families, tribes, and communities, there is only endurance. How do we get by, and not just with the calories in our gut to labor forth, but with the joy in our hearts to make us want to carry on? Times of decline are times of darkening in the human heart and soul. Atrocity follows shortage. A world of hunger, hate, and blood is a world in which human conscience is called upon to rise, to shield, to burn brightly, despite less and less obvious motivation to do so.
The year draws down and grants us all yet another season to breathe. Let us use the time wisely.
April 7, 2015 § 7 Comments
April 1, 2015 § 20 Comments
“We are what we pretend to be, so we must be careful about what we pretend to be.”
Daffodils have thrust their green blades through the warming soil, and despite the softly falling sleet tapping on the still barren branches in the forest all around me, spring is here to stay. With spring came the thaw, and last week my gravel driveway was subsumed by the clay Earth under the weight of my truck. Life lessons are everywhere if we listen. Watching hundreds of dollars worth of heavy limestone sink into mud tells me something about man and his works, about diminishing returns, entropy, and desire. It also tells me that if we had no capacity for laughter, we would likely have all died long ago.
This is going to be a year of stone for me. A friend helped me acquire many tons of reclaimed, hand hewn brownstone which I will now have the pleasure of carrying and stacking one at a time around the perimeter of our home. It was not long ago that I finished filling the trench atop which our cabin is built with gravel, all carried into place by hand in five gallon buckets.
Such work gives one time to think. And to re-think. And then to think some more.
One of my favorite writers of the current era is John Michael Greer. He posts a weekly essay at his website thearchdruidreport, and he posts a monthly essay on his more esoteric blog thewellofgalabes. Aside from his amazing ability to step back from the time we are living in, and to try to view the world through a wider temporal lens, he also has been keen enough to brave the topic of our subjective perception of reality. As the edifice of civilization weakens, such ideas are of great importance. From his piece “Explaining the World.”
“Most people nowadays think of the world as a static reality, over which time flows like water over rocks on the bed of a mountain stream, and to this way of thinking the rocks and the water are both “out there” existing by themselves without reference to any human beings who may or may not be observing them.
The interesting thing about this sort of thinking is that scientists pointed out a long time ago that it’s wholly incorrect. The world you experience is not “out there;” what’s “out there,” as any physicist will tell you, is an assortment of subatomic particles and energy fields. Your senses interact with those particles and fields in idiosyncratic ways, triggering electrochemical flows in your nervous systems, and those flows produce in your mind – we’ll discuss what that last word means later on – a flurry of disconnected sensory stimuli, which you then assemble into an image or representation.”
What Greer then goes on to extrapolate is that, in essence, the world as you experience it is a story you tell yourself based on cultural, biological, and sensory factors. Philosopher Thomas Metzinger delves into the same territory with his book, “The Ego Tunnel,” in which he ultimately postulates that a self does not objectively exist. As a biological entity of significant complexity and mobility, traveling through an unpredictable environment, we require an internal sense of wholeness to navigate the events we are presented with. The combination of a sensory image of the world before us combined with the perception of a unified center that is ínside as opposed to outside, creates what Metzinger calls, the Ego Tunnel.
Metzinger’s work is involved and discusses our perception of time and where we reside within it, and ultimately describes the same phenomenon Greer wrote about from a neurological perspective. The long and short of such theories is that, we are a story that we tell ourselves. Most of this story is delusion.
The more in depth explanation is that our perceptions of ourselves and of the world in which we live are representations. You are a story that you tell yourself. The world around you is a story that you tell yourself. When you become despondent with the state of things, wondering why people aren’t rising up and changing the world for the better in light of just how bad the facts of our situation are, remember that by and large, we are not motivated by facts so much as we are motivated by stories. Remember as well that stories, like all of the creations of human beings that are intended to serve us as tools, are subject to the laws of diminishing returns. This is to say, they have shelf lives of usefulness. When a story people tell themselves no longer serves them under the conditions in which they exist, and when more effort goes into preserving the story than people gain in benefits from believing it, the story becomes useless, and the people who are wholly bound to it, who benefit the most from it, can become dangerous. This applies to individuals as well as to entire societies.
Writing of a demon that destroys souls and leaves vacuous skinwalkers wandering the landscape in search of fried cheese and alcohol is certain to anger some readers. In our culture, objectivity is king, and any suggestion of a non-quantifiable phenomenon is treasonous to the dogma established and maintained by the church of math and science that proclaims their order has brought us all of the good we see in the world – medicine, computers, Instagram – and that those who promulgate non-measurable ideas are the source of all that is evil – superstition, war, fear, etc. They would say my talk of demons is nonsense that only obfuscates the truth of our circumstances.
I claim no objective truth. I make no promises that the right Geiger counter or infared camera will detect the fell beast behind the persistence of the system. But I do humbly suggest that the story we have been told – and have ourselves been retelling – is a story that is doing more harm than good. As evidence for my claim I present the tragedies unfolding in the world right now that are colliding in an exponentially more dangerous synthesis with every passing day.
Let’s be clear, the people responsible for acidifying the oceans, clear cutting the rainforests, and completely inundating our very blood and tissues with industrial fire retardants and other carcinogens are people who all subscribe to a particular story about themselves. It isn’t the people who tell themselves a story in which they are children of a mother Earth, bound by responsibilities to their ancestors, descendants, and land bases who are causing these traumas. It isn’t the people who tell a story in which the animals and the plants and the rivers are alive and sentient who are operating slaughterhouses, mono-cropping Round-Up Ready soy, or leeching coal ash into waterways.
We know which people do these things. We know the story that they tell themselves, because we are barraged with it. It is a hot iron brand that scars our hearts from birth or maybe before. We are hopelessly traumatized by and unflinchingly committed to this tale.
It goes like this:
We are the wisest ape, having discovered our place in an objective and material universe we set out conquering nature and are on a trajectory to move off toward colonizing the cosmos. Having beat back the jungles of irrational superstition we have ascended to the summit of being, as civilized and democratic individuals we have conquered our Hobbsian state of nature which was always nasty, brutish, and short. Our very nature is one of yearning for constant technological progression that consistently nets benefits in health, freedom, intellect, and ability.
But this is a tale, a myth, a television screenplay. As individuals we have been cast as characters, and we have lived the story so entirely for so long that we have forgotten that we dance about a thespians stage.
Nature cannot be conquered. Nature is not a thing apart from ourselves. We are spun of the same swatch of fabric as every tree, spider, moss, and pebble. Technological progress has brought us a body burden of toxicity and a land base that is struggling to survive, not to mention a near total erosion of personal autonomy. Behind every smart phone is a dragline, a smokestack, a poisoned waterway, and a whole mess of miserable human workers, shackled to cubicle or an assembly line while overseers look on, weapons aimed. Not to mention the entire host of police, spies, and spooks all collecting every bit of data you generate should ever a case need to be manufactured to demonstrate your guilt.
And then there is us. We see ourselves as job titles, confused by shiny badges and expensive suits. Roles are internalized and we believe that police, and judges, and presidents are as real and immutable as rocks and rivers and trees. We forget that a throne is just a chair, and never even question the true nature of chairs. So as the world falls into chaos, as armies of maniacs establish oil empires, currency unions, and caliphates, we must remember that these are all just stories that have out lived their usefulness in a time of diminishing net energy and growing ecological catastrophe. This will be the hallmark of our age; a cacophony of myths from all corners of the globe parading into a Colosseum at the end of history, waging war to see who can stand as grand master of the steaming heap of slag and bones together they have wrought, all before the grand consequences of several millennia of civilization come torrenting down upon us like a deluge.
What story will be left standing to define who and what we are? Stream live with the Google app. Vote for your favorite cultural delusion at #TeamBabylon.
Previously I wrote that a driving reason so many people daily scroll through blogs and forums and news feeds all reporting in on the latest horror stories civilization had to tell is because, they are in effect, hoping to come upon a plan. Maybe today will be the day some individual or group will have posted an effective guide as to how we can all finally come together and act to destroy the current hierarchies of power, end the needless daily violence doled out by agents of state and capital, and maybe even to reverse the ecological destruction that is wiping out innumerable species and habitats.
I wish I had that plan to offer, but I don’t. I’m not sure that anyone could. This is an unsettling thought for many because we are so used to conceiving of problems as necessarily having solutions, as if both are cast simultaneously in a factory somewhere and the existence of one thus proves the existence of the other. Of course, when most people consider the totality of the crises bearing down on us, when they seek solutions, what they are really seeking are solutions that fit into the narrative of their current existence without disturbing its boundaries. This is to say, the solution must not involve too much discomfort, heartache, or death. It certainly must not call into question who we believe we are and what we believe we have been spending our entire lives or even our collective history doing.
Our blood is just too precious to spill. Our story is just too important forget, or God forbid, to erase.
So you, dear reader, my digital comrade, my friend unmet and so far away, are going to have to figure out how to endure. To persevere.
These times are bigger than you or I, and indeed, all times likely are. Remember, we are hunter gatherers who have been endowed by nature with a plethora of tools for navigating and thriving in the environment in which we evolved, and whether by some stroke of cosmic irony or demonic cruelty, we now live removed from the environment in which those particular tools serve us best. You exist as you do to successfully participate as a tribe member in an organic environment of subjective experience. Instead you stand in line, you sit in traffic, you fill out the paperwork in duplicate before retiring to your domicile dominated by right angles to sit with your eyes open while advertisers spoon-feed you your dreams. Awash in symbols and slogans and a depressing amount of pornography, is it any wonder that the bulk of the population requires some sort of stimulant or depressant or anti-depressant or anti-psychotic just to keep from lashing out?
To quote a bit of pop culture, “The odds are never in our favor.”
So I apologize, I have no plan for solving the massive and converging crises of age, but I do have some thoughts on how to persevere. Every one of us is laden with emotional and psychological baggage, and as we move through ever more difficult and tragic circumstances it will not be of service to anyone to cling to old narratives and myths that have outlived their usefulness. The work of finding a truer tale, a better tale, a story that we can tell ourselves that is healing and has the ability to carry us for generations will be difficult and will likely take a long, long time. But we have to stop telling the wrong story. The story we need to be telling is one we will all write together over the coming generations, and the process of altering from what is to what will be is likely to be heartwrenching and backbreaking for a long time to come. For a beginning to be made, and one must be made, we must remember to catch ourselves in the moment when we demand that others keep up their end of the current tale, when we out of habit demand that they continue playing the old roles. We cannot be afraid that if we walk away first, we will walk alone. The desire to end the current story is palpable, it percolates just beneath the surface.
In this moment we may not have the collective power to slay the demon, but dammit we can stop doing the heavy lifting of immiserating one and other for him simply by being so very careful about what we pretend to be.
March 15, 2015 § 21 Comments
“Protect your spirit, for we are in the place where spirits get eaten.”
– John Trudell
Spring is moving in quickly, more quickly than I might necessarily want. My arms are worn enough to keep me from complaining about the break from hauling and splitting firewood, and sleeping the night through instead of waking up at three a.m. to stoke the embers and add more fuel to the stove is a welcome respite. I am quite concerned however, that the season for collecting maple sap may be cut abruptly short. For the best syrup season, night time temperatures need to drop below freezing, and day time temperatures need to rise to just shy of forty degrees Fahrenheit. A week ago, nights were just above zero and days didn’t creep past twenty. This week, nighttime lows hover in the high thirties and the days are approaching sixty. Of course, this could be a fluke, and I don’t want to scream “climate change” with every strange localized weather event, but the songbirds seem to be dropping anchor for the season, and I am recording the details of this winter’s drastic waning in the ledger book of such things in my mind.
The arrival of spring brings for me a surge of energy as I feel life return to the above ground world from the root-balls and burrows where it slumbered during the frigid and dark portion of the year. Spring also brings with it a workload beyond what I ever have time for, so the energy I feel running through my limbs as the sun shines down on my jacketless body is quite a gift. I mention such things because as the days lengthen and grow warmer, I have commitments in the garden and about the homestead that keep me from writing, so this will likely be my last piece for a good while. Such a hiatus comes none to soon, as I feel I am running short on things to say for the present time.
Why do we seek such writing anyway? If you’re like me, you are reading this very piece as you drink your morning coffee or tea. You are mustering the wakefulness required to go about your daily activity, but before you do, you are washing your mind in a bit of confirmation bias concerning the state of the world. Everything is going to hell, and on a daily basis you check in with the news feeds and blogger community to peruse the latest data points that confirm what you already know: climate change is accelerating as superstorms and droughts increase in ferocity. The people in power are still maniacs insistent on walling themselves off from the public with cordons of brutish and overly armed police. People without power are still being brutalized when they stand up for their dignity or merely exist between a capitalist and a resource. Some species went extinct. Some rainforest was clear-cut. Some stretch of ocean was overfished, or used as a radioactive dump-site, or both.
Rise and shine, the world is right where you left it when you went to sleep last night. Now go to work.
A few days ago I asked a young man I know who works as a dishwasher in a deli, “Why do you get up and go to work every day?” He answered, “To pay the bills.” I then asked, “What would happen if you didn’t pay your bills?” “I would be evicted eventually,” he replied. It quickly became evident that I was engaging in an exercise more than I was asking sincere questions, and he quite happily humored me as we ran through the entire sequence of events that would follow his not paying his bills. There are the police who would serve his eviction and the consequences they would face if they refused to do so, the police chief who would fire them, the mayor that would fire him if he didn’t terminate non-compliant police, and on, and on down the line. It wasn’t a new line of thought for him, and after playing the game of hypotheticals, I asked him what was behind this whole machination of human dominoes that forces people to work doing things they hate, like washing dishes in a deli.
He said, “Money. Greed.”
I offered a different possibility. “There is a demon behind all of this, manipulating us. It is an invisible and nameless demon that is trying to eat our souls.”
He laughed. I told him I was serious.
Perhaps you don’t believe in demons. It doesn’t really matter. The point is that no matter how much we know, individually and collectively, no matter how much anger we harbor, no matter how much we hate what it is our bodies and minds are engaged in for hours at a stretch every single day, we still go and do it. Minute by minute, hour by hour, no one is standing there making us do anything. It is all internalized. We are obedient. We are docile. We are domesticated.
Here is where you jump in and interject that bosses and landlords and police and judges all are waiting in the wings to punish disobedience. Of course they are. I don’t disagree. But remember, there are more bosses and landlords and police and judges all waiting behind the first set to make sure they keep to the rules and continue the game of civilization uninterrupted. Though this is obvious I point it out for a reason: there is no one to kill. There is no one person who if eliminated would provide for us the opening we need to stop the insanity of industrial civilization and to build something new, something sane, something with the potential for longevity.
Thinking of such things reminds me of “The Grapes of Wrath.” In the story, Steinbeck writes a scene in which the agents of the landowners come to tell the tenant farming families that they have to leave.
“Sure, cried the tenant men, but it’s our land. We measured it and broke it up. We were born on it, and we got killed on it, died on it. Even if it’s no good, it’s still ours. That’s what makes it ours – being born on it, working it, dying on it. That makes ownership, not a paper with numbers on it.
We’re sorry. It’s not us. It’s the monster. The bank isn’t like a man.
Yes, but the bank is only made of men.
No, you’re wrong there-quite wrong there. The bank is something else than men. It happens that every man in a bank hates what the bank does, and yet the bank does it. The bank is something more than men, I tell you. It’s the monster. Men made it, but they can’t control it.”
The tenant farmers are pushed to anger at the blamelessness and absurdity of their situation.
“We’ll get our guns, like Grampa when the Indians came. What then?
Well-first the sheriff, and then the troops. You’ll be stealing if you try to stay, you’ll be murderers if you kill to stay. The monster isn’t men, but it can make men do what it wants.”
Steinbeck does a masterful job outlining the maddening and perplexing nature of our conundrum; people comprise the system, people act out their roles within the system, but people are not the system. So what the hell is the system? It seems so innocuous. It is rules. It is expectations. It is a series of triggers by which one human action results in an automatic response by another human who is just doing their job, and if they weren’t doing it, someone else would be. Of course, I am not trying to absolve any single person of the responsibility they bear for the actions that they individually engage in. I am however, interested in exploring the construction of the invisible forces that keep all of us participating in a system that we know is toxic to us physically and spiritually, as well as to the living planet at large.
It is so easy to blame the system. It’s just a word, and it is a stand in for the pieces and the whole of everything we see that is wrong with the way human society is behaving. Poverty? Blame the system. War? The system. Racism? The system. But what is the system? If it is just rules, expectations, and essentially stories that we tell each other, then why is the system so hard to change? Why is it so seemingly immutable? Why are we so damn helpless and ineffective at altering something so fragile, so simple, so made up? Could all of us really be so captured by something invented, something spoken into being and jotted down on flimsy pieces of paper? It’s as though we all began playing a game, only to realize that the game was playing us, and once begun there was no way to stop playing, even as we watched our movements destroy the world.
Maybe there is a demon after all. Maybe ignoring the demon, pretending it is not there endangers us further. Maybe the demon is an eater of souls, and its strategy is to diminish our power and our will through mindless labor, through a dulled existence of symbols and static, flashing lights and loud noises, addiction and poisonous food. Maybe for millennia, this demon has been slowly at work, gaining strength and refining its strategy, inserting its desires and ploys into our lives as politics, as capitalism, as war, as revolution, as status, as sex, as culture, as normal, as human nature.
Is it so hard to believe? Look around. Walk through a gas station. Look at the racks full of five hour energy bottles, E Cigarettes, scratch and win lottery tickets, chili cheese flavored corn chips, male enhancement pills, and thirty two ounce aluminum cans full of Monster and malt liquor. Step outside and see the fifty-foot glowing signs advertising Arby’s, Taco Bell, and some nameless pornography and sex toy megastore. Each establishment is serving up a small slice of death, of exploitation, of misery. Each storefront and corporate logo is masking a sweatshop, a slaughterhouse, a slave, an oil spill, another species gone from the Earth forever.
But we don’t believe in demons. We are too rational for that, too objective, too advanced. At least, that is the story we tell ourselves. But then I look around at the tortured landscape and the careless people moving through it who don’t seem to notice that they are traversing a spiritual wasteland, and I have to wonder.
Maybe when we go to the internet in the morning and look for the daily headlines and editorials, we are really looking for a friend, someone of like mind to join us in our knowledge and our fear of the events taking shape all around us that individually we are just too damn small to do anything about. Like office workers who jumped from the upper floors of the burning World Trade Center, we want someone with whom we can hold hands as we take the plunge into a future that has no good outcomes.
Or maybe, we are looking for hope, logging on and scrolling past link, after, link, after link until we find what we have been waiting for; a set of instructions. No more data points, no more statistics and measurements confirming what we already know, but a plan. For God’s sake, the catastrophe is spelled out in neon lights and it howls from a megaphone all day, every day. I have more awareness than my mind can bear, but what the hell am I, are you, supposed to do about it? We are so small. We are just one person. We are already late for work.
Step one: Protect your spirit, for you are in a place where spirits get eaten.
February 11, 2015 § 32 Comments
“He said that men believe the blood of the slain to be of no consequence but that the wolf knows better. He said that the wolf is a being of great order and that it knows what men do not: that there is no order in this world save that which death has put there.”
― Cormac McCarthy, The Crossing
In Theodore Kacynski’s manifesto, “Industrial Society and Its Future,” he lays out many premises concerning the existence of man in relation to technology and technological societies. One of these premises is that modern people in technological societies are afraid of death because they have never lived. They have not used their bodies, minds, and souls to their full potential, and thus even in old age, feel like they are yet to begin. Kacynski writes about the primitive man who in his sixties, having seen the successful life of his child and feeling the weariness in his muscles and bones, does not fear, but welcomes his turn to sleep. Where these intuitions were passed on, cultures of indigenous peoples were able to form warrior societies whose success rested on the fact that individual braves had no fear of death. They viewed themselves as one with their people and their land, both of which were timeless, granting them strength of conviction when the situation called for it.
When we hear of people dying in our culture, such news is often quickly followed with statements about the unfairness of one dying so young. Even a fifty-year-old heart attack victim will generally be granted laments and declarations that their passing was too early. While of course the loss of a loved one is saddening, there does appear to be a trend throughout this culture that seems to speak of death as if it is not the ultimate outcome of every life. Death, like the environment, is but another inconvenience to be conquered by our cleverness.
In this culture, there is language of “rights” concerning life. It is said that individuals have a “right” to life, meaning then that death is some violation against the individual. There are even those who would like to extend such rights to animals. No one, according to modern people enculturated by the dominant dogmas, is supposed to die. Ever.
Of course, every living being is only so for a limited time. Death and birth are two phases in the same biological process, and where there is the latter, inevitably we will come to the former. What I find so maddening, is that this culture, so lacking in its ability to confront death, let alone to create and support the psychological and emotional infrastructure to deal with death, is such an efficient bringer of death. How a people so vocally dedicated to peace and the preservation of life can then unflinchingly create nuclear and biological weapons, institute economic castes which immiserate the majority to establish the privilege of the minority, and daily exterminate upwards of two hundred species is possibly the grand irony of our time.
The mind reels.
When just last month, the study “Planetary Boundaries: Guiding Human Development on a Changing Planet,” was released, it got a lot of traction across the internet. The study, prepared by eighteen scientists from various international universities, grabbed headlines by claiming that human civilization had crossed four of nine environmental boundaries.
Of course such studies digitally shared from hard drive, to hard drive, to hard drive have never served to accomplish much in the way of real world action towards deindustrialization, and likely this one was and will remain no different. The trend seems to be that alarming data confirming that human industrial civilization is driving the global ecology to ruin, likely even to the near term detriment of this very civilization, only ends up spurring on those who believe that human industrial civilization can be done in a less harmful way, perhaps with the addition of more solar panels or the subtraction of capitalist motives.
Those who dare argue that civilization, and industrial civilization in particular, is the root cause of the destructive habits which are bringing all living beings to a point of potential collapse or extinction, are routinely dismissed as extreme. Such critics, before dismissal, are reminded of the dominant culture’s primary directive; “We cannot go backwards.” Suggestions that we must, in order to maintain a survivable habitat, drastically reduce reliance on industrial methods, products, and infrastructure are waved off as impossible, insane, or even genocidal. Defenders of the dominant culture and systems of industrial civilization claim that such reductions in technological application will axiomatically mean reductions in human population, and thus are off the table. These claimants are either oblivious to the fact that “going forward” with the methods and practices of the dominant culture would be at least equally genocidal, if not more so, or they harbor a quasi religious belief that human invention will save us from every single problem caused by previous scores of human invention. Always ignored is the clear fact that so called “going forward” will mean an increase in human population before the ecosystems which support them collapse, meaning there will be more humans to die when drought, famine, sea level rise, resource scarcity, and every other calamity currently rising to crescendo ultimately manifest in a symphony of systemic failures that existing political, technological, and economic structures are incapable of mitigating
And then there are the non-human genotypes that most defenders of the dominant culture refuse to ever enter into their calculations.
When someone refuses to acknowledge a solution to a problem because it will indirectly involve death – even when the solution in question is attempting to select fewer deaths sooner as opposed to a great many more deaths later – this person is inserting hidden premises into the discussion, the most obvious of which is that people alive now have the right to exhaust the health of the land which people not yet born will need to rely on in the future. If upon the suggestion that we must globally act to deindustrialize in order to prevent overwhelming climate catastrophe, a person floats the counter argument that such deindustrialization will result in a reduction of currently available medical technologies, and is therefore an unacceptable proposition, this person is inserting into the discussion a premise that the lives of those who would no longer have access to the medical technologies they require are more valuable – this is to say, they have more of a right to survival – than the lives that will be lost – human and non – when industrial civilization fails and brings down with it the functioning ecology of the planet.
Such premises, to me, seem insane. A patent refusal to acknowledge the bare reality that all life, including human life, requires as a foundation a healthy and viable habitat is either obstinacy or a shameful level of ignorance. Claiming that one group of humans has more of a right to survival than others, or that humans have more of a right to survival than the rest of the web of life, is doubly insane.
At the end of it all, defenders of the status quo are not defending life, they are defending lifestyle. Proponents of the dominant culture and its myths of progress are really arguing for their own comfort, of both body and mind. Changing nothing presents no difficult ethical questions or messy physical conflicts. Going forward is the easy choice. This fact alone should ring alarm bells.
Why is death so unacceptable? If we cannot come to grips with death, then we will find ourselves collectively at an impasse where no necessary action will be taken, and industrial civilization will continue unimpeded on its course devouring forests, wiping out species after species, washing away topsoil, and rendering the oceans a lifeless acidic soup of plastics in various stages of photo decay. Somewhere buried in all of this is yet another premise; that to elect the death of even one is unacceptable, but to remain passive while existing systems dole out death to many is forgivable. Human agency seems to be the determining factor. The people who own and operate chemical plants that cause regional cancer clusters in children are forgiven. A death by one million pinpricks is too diffuse to assign blame. On the other hand, to intentionally kill the CEO of such a chemical company would be an outrage. It would be a tragedy. People on TV would say he died too young.
The dominant culture not only protects those high on its hierarchy, blurring lines of responsibility for the actions they take in the name of progress, but it also blinds every day people from the realities of just how it is they come to have the things that they do. Major systems of production and distribution that segregate individuals from the sources of their food, their clothing, the materials that built their homes, the fuels that power their cars and gadgets, create an illusory sense of existence. If a person perceives that food comes from a grocery store, gasoline from a pump, shoes from an online retailer, it is reasonable to believe then that this person’s perceptions have been skewed into believing that nothing must ever die for us to consume whatever we want in whatever quantities we desire. As long as the blood is on someone else’s hands in some other land far from sight, then there is no blood at all. It is this willful blindness to the day to day functioning of industrial civilization on the part of the world’s wealthier populations that allows a people draped in slave made textiles who are kept fed by the mechanistic rape of stolen land powered by stolen oil to stare up with their doe eyes and without a hint of irony ask, “But why do they hate us?”
So it is that so often we hear the claims of “green” capitalists who declare we can have our planet and kill it too. We are to shut our eyes and believe that solar panels, electric cars, fair trade mocha lattes, soy burgers, iPads, internet service, and all of the pills and processes in a modern hospital all just manifest from the ether. The rainforests clear cut, the oceanic dead zones caused by agricultural run off, the open pit mines, the oil spills, the nitro-tri-fluoride and other greenhouse gasses, and all of the whips and prods physical and not that herd about the masses of humans who do all the lifting, stitching, assembling, dismembering, and dying to bring such wonders to our shopping carts just don’t add up to dry shit.
That is how the dominant culture deals with death. It hides it. And when it can’t hide it any longer, it calls it “business.”
Various indigenous tribes have been able to maintain steady populations. In fact, for millennia, a handful of commonplace practices aided in keeping a tribe or band’s numbers in check. Breastfeeding infants until they were four years old helped prevent mother’s menstrual cycles from resurging, thereby keeping birth numbers down. The use of abortifactant herbs also helped women in the event of untimely pregnancies. When a group’s population was at a point where another child would bring great hardship, some tribal people would turn to infanticide. Picture the heartbreaking scene, as a mother lays a newborn infant on a cold hillside to freeze as the sun sets on a winter day. On the other end, tribes would at times decide not to work to heal ailing elderly members, and instead would begin ceremonial death rites when an older person fell ill.
This is the cultural imperative I am interested in. The ability of a people to confront the hard reality of their lives, and to make the soul wrenching choices that they must make in order to survive is not present in the civilized paradigm, not when it comes to allowing death. This is a delicate topic, to be sure, but one of necessary import as the world now hosts almost eight billion people, while conversely non-renewable resources are consumed at increasing rates, and the ecology is pushed beyond the breaking point.
Cultures that accept the inevitability of death create ceremonies and social forms for processing death. This is not to suggest that these people do not feel the pain of loss when a loved one passes, but rather to highlight that they develop a maturity surrounding death. They can talk about it. They can incorporate it into their survival strategies. They do not treat it as a cosmic betrayal of the individual’s right to exist for seventy-five years before a midnight expiration in a beach condo in Florida. Most importantly, cultures that make room for death do not become locked into a suicidal social paradigm, refusing to veer in their direction because doing so would result in the death of some, even when going forward would result in the death of all.
In my last essay I spoke of needing a new cultural ethos in order to prevent the wanton annihilation of the Earth’s life giving systems. This psychological and spiritual evolution must include maturity in the matters of death. Culturally, we must not shun death from our view, for when we do, we push his presence beyond sight, but not beyond efficiency. Beyond the hedge where death lurks ignored by modern man, he does his work still, and he plots against those who believe they have banished him with their cleverness. He plans a great party indeed.
My daughter is nearly a year old. She is my connection to the future, as my parents and ancestors are my connection to the past. I love her to my core, each cell in my body resonating with an urge to guard her, protect her, and to see to her survival. I think about the emptiness that would devour me if she were to die, so I do have a sense of the gravity concerning that which I have written. I look at my little girl, and the truth of life comes to me plain as the new day: we cannot banish sorrow. Heartache is the handmaiden of joy. The history of our species is the history of finding the strength to endure when it seems that all is lost, and when we see no reason to go on, feeling that the ground holds us still.
The complex problems we face require sober, adult analysis, but here and now we lack the methods and ceremonies necessary to act as a mature culture. Our unwillingness at all levels to confront uncomfortable realities has made dangerous adolescents of us, as our orgy of consumption and self aggrandizement has pushed the planet to the brink. There are tasks which demand our collective attention, and undertaking them, while necessary, will not be without consequence. There are few good options on the table before us. Meeting such difficult questions head on, with humility and grace, is the mark of greatness.
It is time to ask, “who are we?” and “who do we want to be?” As we stand right now, we are a belligerent cult of ego, drunk on the self, screaming our greatness as we charge forth trampling everything underfoot. We have a lot of work to do, and not nearly enough time to do it. Death rides whether we call to him or not.
January 12, 2015 § 31 Comments
When I was a younger man, I very much wanted to be taken seriously. To be taken seriously was to be asked your opinion. It was to be allowed a seat at the grown-up’s table in politics, economy, and all other matters that intelligent individuals busied themselves with. I wanted to be considered smart by other people who were considered smart. This meant that I had to be skeptical of any claims not supported by the dominant culture, shucking anything deemed mystical or superstitious. To be considered smart meant carrying an attitude of superiority, even open hostility towards anyone who claimed any truth not stamped with approval by the science of the dominant culture. Now I talk to trees.
My younger self would ridicule my present self, haughtily proclaiming the superiority of his well founded, reasonable ideologies. My present self would pity my younger self, and exit the conversation, too tired to expend what little communicative energy I have on someone so seemingly bereft of the ability to even momentarily entertain an idea that ran contrary to their set of inherited cultural dogma.
It is easy now to see that I was in a trap back then. As most young people are, I was attempting to make my way in a culture of accumulation, and thus I had to look and sound the part if I wanted to be accepted into the fold of “productive society.” Since abandoning any ambitions for career I have taken on various forms of employment to get by, and this has meant a lot of work in bars and restaurants. Briefly, I worked in a breakfast cafe in a college town that was home to a popular business school. Working there I would see students, mostly young white men, sitting at tables wearing ties and speaking in the language they were being conditioned to speak. It was strange to witness. I would wonder exactly where the break happened when these young men decided that they wanted to be just like their fathers. They probably wanted to be called “successful” by other people. They probably wanted to be considered smart. This would mean dressing, speaking, acting, thinking and even at their very core believing as their predecessors had initiated them to. They wanted to be taken seriously.
The year two thousand and fourteen was the hottest year ever recorded on planet Earth. Over the course of the year we were bombarded with statistics highlighting the peril of our time: Fifty percent of animal life has been killed over the last forty years, the Antarctic ice sheet melt has passed the point of no return, and coal use is still on the rise globally. Even the timid, watered down, almost entirely feckless mainstream US environmental movement is starting to make a tiny bit of sense, in noting that capitalism has got to go if we are to survive. Of course, much of what these liberal environmentalists are seeking is capitalist reform, but I digress.
The truth of the matter is that of course capitalism has to go in order to preserve the habitability of the planet. That’s just the beginning. All of industrial civilization must go, but because this is a forbidden concept amongst the serious folk who attend conferences, do media junkets, or – I don’t know – hold a senate seat, it will never even reach the table to be laughed at. The maintenance of the dominant culture requires that certain ideas are forbidden. Such restriction of thought is achieved in a myriad of ways, including by what Noam Chomsky termed, the “manufacturing of consent.” By and large, forbidden ideas are boxed out of public discourse by professionals who frame debate very narrowly, permitting only officially acceptable viewpoints, which then filter down to the masses.
We saw this recently with the uprisings in Ferguson, Missouri. The people of that city fought the police, and many of them had no problem declaring complete and utter disdain for the police as an institution. Despite the nearly five hundred Americans killed by police every year, and the untold number of assaults, robberies, frame ups, false arrests, and rapes committed by uniformed police officers, the dialog of so-called serious people is forbidden to ever move to a discussion of self defense against these villains, let alone abolishing them from civic life. Peter Gelderloos mentions this in his quinessential three part essay, Learning from Ferguson.
To allow people to fight back against the police, or to allow discussion of eliminating the police is forbidden because the police are a necessary component of a society of haves and have nots. In fact, I would be willing to bet there is a strong correlation between people who adamantly and unquestioningly support the police, and personal wealth, for the obvious reason that the more you have the more you have to lose. That means being happy that the taxpayers subsidize the jackboots who prevent even a public forum that might hint at discussing a redistribution of wealth.
After the Vietnam War, the propaganda ministers in the state realized that showing dead bodies on TV and in magazines had a demoralizing effect on the general public. Apparently the American population had some level of functioning empathy for other human beings, so broadcasting the corpses of dead US servicemen and even half burnt Vietnamese children soured their taste for carnage. Since realizing this, the US has locked out media that isn’t “embedded” from war zones, and despite the over a million dead in Iraq and Afghanistan, ten years of war haven’t found themselves plastered on the nightly news in any unbecoming fashion, despite the plentiful material. The children born deformed due to depleted uranium poisoning caused by US munitions should have been enough to wrench even the blood thirstiest of hawk bellies in the US, but their visages were never given a chance.
Forbidding an image and forbidding an idea are both attempted for the same reason; control. If you control what people think, you can control how they act. Even the most ardent critics of US policy will proclaim up and down their patriotism, lest they be banished from serious forums. Sit and think for a few moments and I imagine you could come up with your own short list of forbidden ideas, never to be discussed, not by serious people. Civilization and its dominant culture have been practicing this tactic of control since inception, and there is an idea that has been so terrifying to the rulers of the civilized world that stamping it out has been an ongoing and bloody task for over ten thousand years. The most forbidden of ideas, is that the Earth is alive.
Serious people are concerned with objectivity. They perceive the universe to be a clockwork machine governed by laws and made of various inert bric-a-brac that can be manipulated to serve their purposes. Whether this manifests as a logging company cutting down a forest for timber, a meat packing concern quickening the rate at which they slaughter cows, or bulldozers scraping away layers of Earth in order to access the bitumen deposits beneath, the source of the thinking is the same. The land is dead. It is raw material waiting to be put to purpose by human hands. Further, knowledge and understanding of the universe and its lifeless bodies is to be achieved only through the application of western scientific principles. Anything that cannot be observed and quantified with the five human senses does not exist.
Even things that are alive, like trees and animals can be reduced with a trick of thinking into nothing but their component pieces. Trees don’t have brains, so they cannot think or feel or experience, so they are worthless except as corpses. Animals may have brains, but those brains lack significant cortex or numbers of neurons, and so they cannot think or feel or experience, so they are worthless except as corpses. Throughout the history of civilization this rationale has been applied to humans as well. Whenever anyone is in the way of some expectation of power or wealth, they are reduced to nothingness, just a fleshy sum of their cells with a measly few watts of current surging through them. Not sophisticated, not refined; much like animals really, and animals are worthless except as corpses, so let the homicide begin. This mental twisting is the death rite of civilization. It is the lullaby people in business suits sing so they can stay focused on the cash while they order another chimpanzee vivisected, purchase a new gas lease, or sign off on limited airstrikes over a civilian population.
In my life I have walked through forests clear cut for oil pipelines. I have driven through the shale plays of West Texas. I have seen copper mines, and coal mines, and all sorts of other massive holes blasted and scraped into the face of the planet. Many people have seen these things. Of course, many people work in these places and on these projects. The difference is that upon the witnessing I feel something very somber that nags at me from the inside. It is the feeling that gripped you as a child when you saw someone joyfully inflict pain upon someone helpless or weak while you were powerless to interfere. Because of this feeling I could never participate in ecologically destructive activities. It would feel wrong, like treachery, like stabbing my mother in the gut for a paycheck.
And I think this feeling matters. This feeling is part of the foundation of my personal ethos from which my principles blossom. In short, my feelings of connectivity with the living world create in me a sense of responsibility to protect her, and a refusal to accept harming her for personal gain. Often I wonder why so few people feel this particular empathy, but then I know the answer. People have been trained by the dominant culture to think of all of these environmentally degrading activities as harmless. They have been raised since childhood by people themselves raised since childhood to believe that the Earth is dead. They have been told by respectable people to believe that forests are not alive and that plants do not feel and that at the end of the day, everything is arbitrary and meaningless. There is an undercoat of nihilism which makes progress possible.
For generations people have been bullied into believing that the nagging in their conscience is an illusion caused by the brain. When a forest makes you feel good, it is you fooling yourself. When you feel deep love for a place or for other living beings, it is an illusion, merely a sudden influx of serotonin in some receptor in your gray matter. And who are you anyway? Just some cells, some neurons, some electricity. What is your love? Your desire? Your fear? They are nothing. Reflexes. Chemicals. The aimless, endless spinning of molecules through space and time. Reduce it all down, break it into pieces. Scatter them until you feel nothing at all. Now go make some money. Be productive. For Christ’s sake, be serious.
My friend is indigenous to the land now called Canada. I ask him what it means to be a warrior, to have as a component of one’s culture a warrior society. He points me to talks given by other first nations people which elucidate that in various indigenous languages the word “warrior” is understood differently than it is in English. It isn’t aggressive, on the offense, macho, seeking to conquer. To be a warrior is to be a shield bearer, a person who takes very seriously their sacred obligation to maintain the health of the land so that it can be passed on for many generations to come. The ethos of such people forms their worldview, and this worldview informs their actions. The end result is a relationship with one’s home that is not about domination and taking, but acting with reciprocity. Such a mindset is a barrier against excess and greed and wanton destruction of the land.
Under the dominant culture, there are no sacred obligations. We are told from birth that work, production, and the pursuit of material wealth is the path taken by serious people. Those who rebuff their instruction to accumulate for the sake of accumulation are losers and bums. If one wants to defend their home, such intuitions are bent to the cause of imperial full spectrum dominance. Home is converted to country, and the battlefield is determined by a board of directors. This is not an ethos with a future. It is a toxic set of ideas and myths that will guide human minds to the edge of the world and then over. This idea is a parasite, and its hosts are pushing the ecosystems of the Earth to the brink.
My friend tells me about the deal the wolf made with mother Earth:
“The wolf signed a contract with Mother Earth. The contract is this. The wolf may compete with all other life for survival. The wolf may not force other life into extinction for the purpose of eliminating competition. The wolf may not damage habitat to eliminate competition. The wolf may not wage war to prevent other life from feeding on the wolf. If the wolf abides by these laws and is able to compete, the wolf will survive in brotherhood with all other life. All life signs this contract, except for a group of humans. Until those people sign on the dotted line they will be doomed. They may already be doomed.”
What strikes me about this is that to make a contract with another is to stand as equals. Speaking of other beings or of the living planet herself as even able to enter into a contract is to grant to them the deference that they exist as you do; alive, dignified, valuable.
The dominant culture never seeks to stand equal with anything. It seeks only to dominate. It never presents obligations to its acolytes to defend other beings or the land. It makes demands of the land. The stark differences between these two perspectives is striking. One asks you to be a warrior and to take up a shield in defense of your mother. The other commands you to take up a sword – or a plow, or an axe, or a bulldozer – and to plunge it into her breast.
I am not in any way suggesting that non-native people need to appropriate native culture. What I am suggesting is that if the ethos of civilization goes unchallenged, then no matter how much awareness is raised and no matter how much people try to convert modern industrial society into a sustainable twin of itself, they will find only failure. After all, as Terrence McKenna said and I have oft quoted, culture is our operating system, and the dominant culture has a starting point where the land is already dead, so how then can it take us anywhere but to a future where this founding principle is materialized? Garbage in, garbage out.
How we go about changing the ethics, myths, and founding truths of people trapped in the cage of industrial civilization is not something I have a prescription for. In “The Road” Cormac McCarthy wrote:
“Where you’ve nothing else construct ceremonies out of the air and breathe upon them.”
So I walk my land and I talk to the trees. Maybe they can hear me and maybe they can’t. All of the serious people will laugh at my wasted breath. Smart people will try to convince me that I am only talking to myself. And maybe they are right. Maybe I am a madman babbling over hill and holler. But I can tell you this much for certain; I will never cut these trees down, and neither will my daughter. So in the end, who gives a damn?
December 22, 2014 § 26 Comments
One of the great dangers of the life indoors, is the anesthetizing effect it has on a person. When we aren’t out in the world, we aren’t present to watch the dying. Attempting to talk about this via an electronic medium, even via the written word at all, is near futile because it requires the symbolic recreation of the tragedy unfolding around us, and the recreation will never carry the weight or the pain of the real thing.
So it comes down to data points. In essays past and in daily editorials available across the electronic press, we are fed the data points. Topsoil loss, species die off, the toxicity of the oceans, the acceleration of climate change; I can rattle off the data, but who cares? We are inside. Climate controlled. Masters of hundreds of energy slaves all whipped up to provide us with on demand entertainment, comfort, and snack food. We think we are safe inside our house, but the house is an illusion. There is no indoor, outdoor dichotomy. There is a temporary delusion blinding us to the reality of the storm bearing down.
In my previous essay I wrote that we must burn down the collective house that is civilization. We must demolish it thoroughly before the floors buckle and the roof caves in, despite the very real dependence we have developed upon this edifice. A conundrum indeed, but this conundrum is itself the question of our time, and it calls to all of us whether we are ready to square off with its implications or not.
Industrial civilization is destroying the living skin of the planet. Industrial civilization is rendering life on Earth impossible. This is inarguable. The only question then, is what to do. Where do our responsibilities lie, and how can we meet them with dignity, grace, and courage?
What do you value? What do you value the most in this world as you experience it? I think it is imperative that we start with this question because the answer will determine how we perceive our responsibilities as living beings. I refer to this as finding one’s polestar; their true north. Finding our pole star is essential because it is very easy to get entangled in the complexity of our culture, our socialization, our class status, and all of the other baggage we carry from lifetime after lifetime of trauma inflicted by the dominant culture. When we need reorientation, we come about to our true north, and keep from running wayward into the noise and distraction intentionally laid to ensnare the passionate.
My pole star is the healthy, fecund forest. I live in a wooded region, and when I look out my front door I see tree covered ravines. Beech, hickory, oak, maple, all stand stoically about me, their leaves blanketing and feeding the soil. I never feel so honest, so at home, so centered as when I stand in the deep blue dark of night, jacketed in the electric stillness of winter, staring up to the stars that peek through the tangled black fingers of the naked tree boughs. In those moments I feel whole, because I feel like part of a whole. My ancestors call to me from the past as they most certainly stood in the same pose of supplication, lost in wonder, and gratitude, and mystery.
This is where I go when I seek an ethical thread to follow through the spiritual and psychological quagmire of modern industrial civilization. When I look at the activities of humans, I ask what they mean for the forests. Not just my forest home, but for the forest homes of people and beings across the Earth. I ask if new technologies, or policies, or commercial activities will benefit these havens of life and solitude, or if they threaten them. I imagine the creeks and rivers that run through this region like blood in my veins, and usually the answer comes back to me that, no, the grand schemes of civilized man offer nothing good. They seek only to take, never to give back. They promise to dominate and ruin, and that is what they do.
When concrete is laid over what was once a field so that suburbanites can park their vehicles at a new strip of retail stores, the deep roots of plants do not surrender. Look to any patch of asphalt and you will find the rebellion under way. Grass, dock, wild onion, dandelion; they slowly crack and push through the rubble and road surface above them until they find their place in the sunlight once again. When under attack, these plants merely do what they must do to go about the business of living.
What fascinates me is that when hundreds or thousands of enraged people burn down the corporate chain stores that encircle them like army wagons on the frontier, these rioters are condemned. Spokespeople for the status quo feign innocent stupidity and ask, “Why are they burning down their own communities?” as if the concrete that is laid over the poor and working class is somehow their kin. Setting police cruisers and corporate chain stores alight is merely what these people must do to go about the business of living, whether this is consciously perceived or not.
The hierarchy of power that exists in this social paradigm attempts to mystify the public with language of togetherness when it suits them. They speak down to the lower orders as if we are one unit, one family, one tribe, each of us working together for the equal betterment of all. The actions of the powerful betray the truth, that those lower on the social hierarchy will labor, toil, suffer, and die for the comfort, power, and privilege of those at the top.
This is the framework by which responsibility is discussed within our society. If a man robs a store and is sent to prison for it, it is said that he is there to “pay his debt to society.” There are several implications in this statement surrounding the notion that this man was ever part of society to begin with, or that he desires to remain so. Of course, if he was robbing a store to pay his rent, keep the heat on, or feed his family, there will never be statements from the powerful to the effect that society failed this man, this valuable member of our collective, and forced him through circumstance to his act. Society will never pay its debt to this man, or to any man of his social rank. The idea that we are all daily electing to be in one cooperative social structure together is a pure fabrication.
As so often happens, officers of the state apparatus commit egregious violence, whether as police or soldiers, and their personal responsibility is almost never called into question. The only time an individual police officer or soldier is made to fall on their sword, is when their crime is so blatant, so heinous, and so public, that to not punish them would crack the façade of the entire control apparatus. By and large, these officers of the state do violence as a mode of day to day operations, all for the acquisition and maintenance of wealth and power as it exists and is distributed.
However, any actions deemed antagonistic to the structure of power and wealth will be vociferously condemned, and the perpetrators will be held liable for all knock on effects of these actions. For instance, if in an attempt to preserve the health and sanctity of one’s home, a person destroys the power sub station that operates the pumps for a tar sand pipeline that runs under their land, and this outage causes a cascade black out to follow suit, the state will likely hold responsible this person for any deaths or injuries that occur due to the lack of electricity that has resulted. If an old woman on a hospital respirator dies, the person who knocked out the sub station will likely be charged with manslaughter, if not murder. They will be called a terrorist. Anyone whose ideologies are even remotely similar to this person’s will also be labeled a terrorist, worthy of suspicion.
In short, this is the Law. People speak of the Law in moralistic terms, as if the volumes of clumsy codes and commands cobbled together by and for the wealthy were gifted to us by a choir of angels designed on building for us a just and balanced world. Of course, the Law is nothing of the sort. The Law has nothing to do with morals or ethics, as the bulk of the weight of the laws as they exist purpose to extort and exploit the poor for the powerful. Leaning on the law as an ethical or moral litmus is such a high form of laziness and ignorance as to be shameful.
This is the wall that encircles those of us who wish to see an end to the current order of power. We will be held to the highest account for the slightest ill that comes from any of our deeds, and the Law will be invoked in punishing even the most tepid of social activists. Meanwhile, an Airforce technician in a bunker will kill families thousands of miles away with hellfire missiles, and we will never know this person’s name. They will never be condemned for the deaths they directly and intentionally cause. In fact, they will be heralded and rewarded. Their efforts furthered the efforts of the machine of industrial civilization. They are on the team. Doctors designed torture programs for the CIA. Scientists design weaponized viruses. Capitalists pour heavy metals into rivers and continue cutting boreal forest to extract tar sand despite the globally acknowledged threat of climate catastrophe.
These people are all protected. Even attempting to slow them down in their work is a crime. The truth laid bare is that they have a sanctioned right to bring death, and you have no right to try to prevent them, whether violently or not.
It’s not about who you kill, it’s about who you kill for.
The police are on standby in any event, ready to gleefully dole out violence to even the most passive demonstrator. Any flinch, parry, or brush of a hand that can be deemed an attack on the police, of course, will result in charges, possibly felonies. The guardians of power too, are a protected class, so much so that in some places even passively ignoring police is classed as a felony.
The message is clear. This world doesn’t belong to us, but to them. We are a society in name only. Language about unity and country are pap for the masses. Those who don’t swallow it down get the club, or the bullet. But don’t worry, the comments section is still open. Feel free to air your frustrations beneath the article. Hashtag, give-up-already.
In the cold night air my breath is visible. Darkness comes early as we approach the solstice. When I scan over the ridge, I feel a peace in the center of my being. There are those who think this is all that is left. They say that we have already lost the big fights, and now all that remains is to hold close to those you love as the dying picks up speed, and the maniacs in power continue throttling forward.
I cannot help but feel that such placid thoughts, wherever they may be rooted, are an appeasement to the powerful. My blog wouldn’t be named “Pray for Calamity” if I didn’t believe that things would get worse before they got better. But I also know that without question I would die for my family and for our home, and thinking this opens me to the idea that there are so many great places and causes to die for on this planet at this time. Perhaps its time to stop seeing this as an age of impending calamity, but instead to see it as an age of opportunity to banish our fears, cage our egos, and to remember that death comes for us all, and that the greatest shame would be to waste our flesh when there are so many perfect targets for our rage. Perhaps we should begin to recognize this as an age of awakening; a time to reignite an internal fire that an oppressive and abusive culture has devoted so much energy to snuffing out.
So I ask, what is your pole star? What is your true north? What do you know in the center of your being to be good, and right, and true? The dominant culture attempts to bend the mind and break the heart, until all that is left is the fetishization of power. Domesticated, isolated, institutionalized, traumatized people begin to believe that their responsibilities are to the dominant system of buying, selling, killing, producing, and ever increasing efficiency at all of them.
I submit that these are not my responsibilities, and they are not yours. I submit that none of the language they weaponize and fire so readily at dissenting voices is applicable. We are not malcontents, radicals, insurgents, or terrorists. We are dandelions who do not wish to bend to the will of the concrete poured over us.
And when we are ready to remember all of this, we are warriors.