August 18, 2016 § 9 Comments
She bends low in the dark. Her index finger and thumb clumsy as they meet, she pulls from the waist and the stalk she holds rises out of the hummus eagerly, offering no resistance. Her hand is dwarfed by the firm yet undulating orange blossom. The sun’s remaining light barely penetrates the gauntlet of trees that stand sentry across the rise and fall of the ridge line. Tangerine daubs speckle through the here and there breaks in the thick ceiling of maple and oak leaves.
“Say, ‘thank you, Chanterelle.’ ”
“Thank you, Chanterelle.”
Her small voice is sincere because I am sincere. She watches her feet as she steps high over sticks and briars heading back towards the trail where her mother stands smiling.
“Remember to shake it.”
She passes the mushroom side to side, moving it from her shoulder instead of her wrist. I follow behind her with long slow steps, my hat in my hand, it is full of chanterelles. Holding the bill like the handle of a small skillet, I gently bounce the mushrooms to release their spores. The rains have finally passed and the trail is soft beneath our feet.
Summer is an incredibly busy time on the homestead, which usually means I put away the effort of writing in favor of merely ruminating as I attend to the constancy of the tasks before me. This has been our most productive year yet insofar as providing our food is concerned, which is encouraging as we have accomplished this yield while living off site until our septic system installation is completed. The abundance of foods like tomatoes and green beans has been overwhelming, and the high heat has made the effort of canning very unappealing. Fortunately, we have friends willing to can for us if we are willing to share the end product, and there are even local restaurants eager to buy our produce.
Squash bugs infested my yellow crook necks and zucchini, and they killed off my Crenshaw and cucumber vines. I collected a satisfying quantity of fruit from all of these plants over the past couple of months so it is with even temper that I yank them by the root, shake them, and place them in a compost pile. When the space is clear I walk over to a wooden gate and lift the chain that holds it closed. As I pull it open a single file line of Rouen ducks comes marching out, quaking proudly as they all make their way to the now bare space before lowering their beaks and feasting on the slow moving squash bugs. I lift my feet high to avoid stepping on the kudzu like sprawl of sweet potato vines and make my way to the garden gate where I pause to wipe the sweat from my forehead. It’s hot. Humid and hot at four in the afternoon. I think on what else I can get accomplished today. We will be moving back into our home soon and there are still jobs to finish up before doing so, mainly rigging the cistern to the gutters, and installing a hand pump in the kitchen to draw from the cistern. That and cutting another few ricks of firewood. And slapping walls on the barn. And laying the flooring in my daughter’s bedroom. And planting the winter garden.
I could “and” for days. Instead I take a breath and look back at my little girl as she giggles watching the ducks. Its hard to not feel rushed and I make a conscious effort to be present, to be content with the work already done instead of always existing in the stress of that yet to do. The moist air is stagnant, and as I take a moment to scan the spaces around me, noting the tasks big and small that require attention, my mind wanders a bit, and I feel like we are on the edge of something.
This July was globally the warmest month in human memory. Such headlines are almost blase these days as warming trends continually break records. Thousands of people in Louisiana have lost their homes in what FEMA has dubbed the worst natural disaster in the United States since hurricane Sandy. Fires rage in the drought stricken American west from southern California to Glacier National Park in Montana. Social tensions continue to flare too, as the National Guard was called in to subdue rioters in Milwaukee, and random acts of violence seem to break loose from the percolating underworld of racist authoritarians emboldened by Donald Trump’s presidential campaign. Venezuela’s economic collapse continues apace, various African nations are succumbing to famine, the war in Syria is drawing larger battle lines between major powers, and despite the best efforts of central banks across the globe, major financial institutions just cannot turn a profit in a world of net energy decline.
For years I have watched the world through a particular lens, and that is the lens of peak oil. Despite the failures of particular peak oil advocates to predict the future, and despite the inability of even larger numbers of critics to actually understand the peak oil concept before engaging in attacking it and its proponents, I still feel that this is a particularly useful lens for viewing the macro picture of human industrial civilization. Of late, I have admittedly felt that I am without a map, and I have found myself in my quiet moments attempting to piece one together. Of course, drawing a map begins with placing a center pin where you currently stand. So where am I? Or if I may be so bold, where are we?
I first became aware of the peak oil concept in 2004 when I was twenty-three years old. After reading the various assessments of the issue that were available on the internet at the time, and of course, being young and impressionable, I took to some of the worst case scenarios presented by outlying bloggers. By and large, these were not the better experts to trust, and I was convinced that ten years out we would be living in a very different world. The economic crash of 2008 felt validating in a sense, but the divergence from prediction that followed forced me to begin rethinking how the decline of industrial civilization would play out. Eight years of very, let us say, creative economics have prevented the full on breakdown of the growth based financial paradigm. I do not believe I am alone in wondering exactly how long such creative policies can sustain the physical world of the production and distribution of material goods.
To be perfectly clear, I am no fan of the civilized model of human organization, and I have repeatedly stated this in my writing. But I do my best to be aware of its functionality so I can properly place myself and my family to best buffer ourselves from the swings of forces beyond our control. The internet is rife with commenters who are eager to bargain with Moloch, hoping to right what they perceive to be the ills of state and capital so that some form of industrial civilization can carry them into the future. These commenters have altars to different demigods. Some light a candle to technology while others burn incense for invisible hands and supposedly free markets. I look out and see dying ash trees and the onslaught of invasive stilt grass and I know in the core of my being that there is no bargaining with civilization. No vertical farm, no vegan diet, no gold-backed currency, no handing over of the means of production to the proletariat will stop what’s coming.
But it is equally true that it is next to impossible to know exactly what is coming, or when it will get here. That is why we try to draw maps. And if we want our maps to be of any use, they should probably start with what we know about the past and the present, so maybe, the best of our efforts can draw lines between the two that give some clue as to the trajectory and direction of the future.
Over the years as I have written on these topics I have been careful to avoid prediction, simply because most people who in engage in it are so often wrong. What’s worse, is that so many people who make names for themselves as so called “trends analysts” and such, not only are often wrong, but they refuse to acknowledge when they are so, and they just continue with the business of making predictions. I would rather make a map, a sketch of the terrain we have covered and of that which I can see through the fog in front of me. As this is a map of the industrial civilization in which we live, there are two compass points which are of extreme importance.
First, is net energy. All work done requires energy to make it happen. The primary energy source for this civilization is oil. This is what makes an understanding of peak oil concepts so valuable. Oil is the foundation of the lion’s share of the work done in this civilization, even being the foundational energy source behind the manufacture of items like solar panels. The diesel trucks that mine for metals or that grow the crops that feed workers are all run with oil. The economic and social architecture of this society requires a growth in the net energy available with which to do work. This is not necessarily a growth in the amount of barrels of oil available at any given time. If those specific barrels of oil utilized more energy in their acquisition than usual, we may be in a situation where we have more quantity of oil available yet less total energy. This will hamper growth, which while good for the ecology of the planet, is a death sentence to financial paradigms where debt is the basis of currency and investment.
The second compass point of importance is the ecological material available to support society. Drinkable water, healthy soil, viable biomes thrush with life, a stable climate; all are necessary to maintain human life and activity. Unfortunately, this point is lost on the so-called educated class who think only in terms of capital. I stress this point because even in the event that a miracle occurs and our energy woes vanish, there is still the issue of our destabilizing climate and over burdened ecosystems. We need bees and butterflies and ants to pollinate crops. We need amphibians to keep insect populations in balance. We need birds to spread seeds. We need fungus and soil life to make plants viable at all. Human activity threatens all of these beings and their habitats.
So as I sketch my map I note the peak of conventional oil production that occurred in the 2005-2008 timeframe. I note the bankruptcies that are tearing through the US unconventional oil industry. I note the banks across Europe that are on the verge of insolvency. I definitely note the trillions of dollars worth of debt monetization across the global financial sector which have been an attempt to cover the spread of missing growth that is required to make good on previous loans and outstanding interest. I also note the shortfalls in needed rain in the American west, the predicted water shortage in Lake Mead, the rising seas and the unprecedented storms. When I step back at my scrawled lines, I see images reminiscent of times past. Politically there are movements that seem to rhyme with what came out of the depression era, and economically there are movements that very much remind me of the warnings that began flashing in 2007 as the mortgage industry began to implode. The page, too, is dotted with the unpredictable lines of natural disaster and ecological calamity.
Simply stated, this is what I see: A period of economic depression is on the wind. My gut says we see an undeniable beginning of this period before winter. Where it all leads is too far out to say. I think it is simplistic when people draw a timeline of the future that consists merely of one trend-line pointing downward. There are hundreds if not thousands of trend-lines that together combine to graph the arch of a particular civilization, and some will yet be on the rise. It is when a majority of the significant trend-lines slump downward that we can say with certainty a society is in decline. It is my humble position that what we have on the horizon is a period of greater unemployment and struggle on a family by family level here in the “first world west.” There will be a shake out of never-to-be-solvent again institutions, and a generalized acknowledgement of a paradigm of “hard times” being upon us. Natural disasters will be harder and harder to recover from as they will strike more often in regions where status quo thinking believes them too unlikely or impossible and this will combine with a financial inability to afford repair. Politically, people will seek easy and incorrect answers, so on that front we will have nothing new in thinking modality, but we will see new lows in practical application.
Of course, this is a map I am trying to draw for myself so that I can better prepare for the terrain before me and mine. And I’m just some guy who likes homegrown beets and wild mushrooms, so take anything I have to say with that in mind. But at least I’m not trying to sell you a pamphlet about gold coins, and you’ll notice there are no ads for gas masks or survival seeds on my web page (unless word press puts them there.)
My personal activity includes shoring up on the basics. Preventative car maintenance on both of our four wheel drive Jeeps, which each contain tools and flashlights, so that floods and storms are more navigable. Selling off unneeded items to pay for home improvements as well as a bit more archery gear as I want to take a deer by bow this fall and to make as much jerky as possible. Buying all of my spring seeds now, and making sure we have plenty of simple things like candles and lighters, lard and honey. This is all stuff that gets regular use, so there are no regrettable wastes of money.
My index finger presses into the soft soil with ease. A dried pea falls silently into the hole and I sweep lose earth with the blade of my hand to cover it. Four inches to the left, I repeat the process, and then again, and then again, all the way down the fence line. The red cabbage have only just broken through the surface of the dirt in their seed trays, so it’ll be a week or so yet before I move them into the field where right now potatoes are living their final days before harvest. Parsnip greens are tall, and I mentally make note of which ones I want to leave to winter over before checking on the newly planted kale. Everbearing strawberries are still putting on fruit, and my daughter is occupied now lifting their leaves and excitedly yanking the plump red berries.
Cicada chatter rises and falls in the nearby tree canopy and again I stand to survey the land. Tent worms are killing an apple tree. Sunflowers stand tall in the afternoon heat. I see dead trees that need felling, weeds that need mowing, fence posts that need straightening, and job after job after job that lay before me. I have a plenty of time to ruminate, observe, and ruminate again, and will revisit writing again when cold winds blow. Maybe I will think back to this piece and feel foolish, but I will not be afraid to say I was wrong. My immediate terrain is so more much knowable, even if it is pocked with struggle and strain. To my left our gravel drive stretches off into the woods, and as I look off to the cool forest there is a flash in my mind of a hunter walking with his bow, and in this moment, I envy him.
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.