November 9, 2017 § 12 Comments
My wife and daughter are asleep, so I move quietly through our small house. Stepping into my shin-high mud boots, I pull my heavy coat over my arms, flipping the hood forward over my head. Gravel crunches under my feet as I take the few steps across my driveway to the ring of bucked maple logs stood on end that encircle my fire pit. Sitting down onto one of these pieces of damp wood I exhale into the cold night. Fog from my mouth drifts upwards and I follow it with my eyes. The moon is two days shy of full but its glow remains mostly diffused by a curtain of thick clouds, which are streaming across the navy sky. Breaks and gaps in this near solid gray mass offer glimpses of the shining white lunar face before shrouding it once again.
Earlier in the day I imagined having a fire in this moment, but the notion seems silly now. It is approaching midnight, and the charcoal and bits of scrap wood on the ground before me are wet from the recent rains. Clicking a lighter, I hold its fire to the wick of a little candle that I drew from my pocket, and when the flame is passed I set the candle down on the ground before me. I breathe out again, and again I watch the fog from my mouth arc and pull as it dances upwards, the vapor now a milky white saturated by the candle’s glow.
Samhain is when the veil between the world of the living and the world of the dead is at its thinnest. The tall trees bending overhead are mostly bare. Life is retreating into the soil, sequestering itself to the root ball and the burrow, mulching itself deeply under a quilt of leaves and dry grass. The frogs are silent, the humming insects gone. By day, murmurations of starlings ripple and contort across the sky as they pass through to warmer meridians, and by night the barred owls call into the lonely dark. I am outside in the cold this Halloween night to speak through the veil.
My words are mostly those of gratitude. But I also speak of sorrow and longing. Sitting in that deep blue night with pale moonlight drifting through fast moving clouds, I could feel myself aching for another world. A world smelling of moss on stone. A world marked by black earth running the lines on our palms like ink. A world of hair perfumed with wood smoke. A world of antler and hide, iron and feather. A world where predawn divination heralded by heaven’s movement is silently considered and a sunset punctuated by a raven’s call is taken in the day’s considerations.
We all seek signs and signals, but now gather them from within the gyre of our madness rather than from without.
The knife I carry is a fixed blade. It has a mahogany brown wooden handle and a leather sheath that fixes to my belt. I had it sharpened the other day, as years of use have dulled its edge. Yes, I paid a man a couple dollars to do it for me, as knife sharpening is actually quite the learned skill, and despite owning a whetstone, my talent for honing knives is not that great. The man who sharpened it owns a small knife store in town, and he carries some very fine pieces. As I perused his shelves I came to thinking about knives and the fetishization of knives that exists within certain communities. There are preppers, backpackers, and people who obsess over gear for their every-day-carry, or EDC, which is sort of a combination of gear obsession and prepping. For people in these niche subcultures, the knife holds a special place as the penultimate survival tool. When I think about middle aged men driving to work on an expressway or taking a city bus with an expensive knife in their briefcase or laptop bag, I wonder if somewhere inside of them they aren’t longing for a different world too. I wonder if perhaps they do not also long for a world of greater utility. I imagine men in suits awaiting catastrophe so they can have a chance to be useful, and to use simple tools to accomplish necessary goals. How many carry a knife through a prefabricated world of plastic and fiberglass so that maybe one day on the way home, they can skin a rabbit?
It is not just knives either. It’s trail running shoes, paracord bracelets, flashlights, and anything else that can be myopically focused on across forums and Amazon reviews so that when the big day comes, when an active shooter or an earthquake or Kim Jong Un himself comes to devastate their town, these people can haul ass across the rubble and then lash together a makeshift raft in the dark.
That job they worked so hard to get is boring them to death, so they imagine the day when it all disappears in a cloud of ash, and until then, they carry their high priced survival tools like totems, fingering the fire steel in their pocket like a rosary.
Another day, another festival of homicide. In a small church within a small town in Texas, twenty-six people were shot dead with another twenty wounded. Casualties like this are the numbers one would see in tribal warfare. Why within a supposedly homogenous culture are individuals declaring war on the people around them? The fact that it is even possible for a person to look at a group of people in their town and then to execute them all makes it evident that there is decay in place of meaningful bonds between people in what are communities now in name only. Interactions having been shorn of the elements that would in times past have bound people into networks of mutual aid and survival, now are reduced to momentary transactions. I need you only for the briefest time and only to run my credit card. Soon a machine will even do that. Where once we sat in a circle to laugh, to sing, to plan, and to belong, now we quickly shuffle through crowded streets frustrated by the human obstacles in our path, at best politely tolerating one and other, at worst loathing the multitudes, feeling revulsion at their presence the way one does when viewing an abscess or a tumor.
As people scramble to comprehend the “why” behind this mass murder, there are those who quickly assign responsibility to political factions they detest, a tune which we have all now heard before. Far right conspiracy theorists and militia members have done just this by going so far as to manufacture content that generates the appearance that the murderer is a leftist. If we cannot come to grips with why this culture that so thoroughly hates life churns out a steady drip of maniacs, then by gum we will at least make certain to tarnish whole swaths of people who we do not like, even if it means deceiving those we claim affinity with.
Daily, hourly, hell, every few minutes people are turning to the little oracles in their pockets for signs and signals. Trying to tease out meaning and perhaps a glimpse of the future by reading the tea leaves of click bait headlines that algorithmic compilers have assembled for their various social media feeds. Like a crystal ball psychic gauging your responses, the more you click, the more the algorithm fine tunes your respective results so you get just the reading that you want. You shape reality with your preferences, advertisers all too happy to oblige, priming your rage for the moment you see a behavior or hear an idea that falls outside the constantly narrowing boundaries of your worldview.
Civilization is a collective psychosis. Each human mind perceives its own version of reality. In slow times and small groups this is a far more manageable conundrum. Foundations of understanding can be built from simple observations – rock, tree, fish – and a shared worldview can then take shape. No two identical, but similar enough to agree upon the environment in which they exist and how to go about surviving. Civilization instead defines existence from the top down, and has drawn and quartered any and every faint inkling of the sacred or the mystical. Feelings of interaction with the living world around us have been demoted to the status of juvenile ravings. In the hyper complex modern world, entropy now is fracturing language. Symbols are bled of their meaning only to be recuperated by charlatans leaving the denizens of the national plantation unable to come to terms over how to define their present context, let alone their future. So they check their devices for an update.
Spinning in the fray the algorithms draw battle lines, and the anima mundi just whispers, speaking through the old ones who yet remain for any who might still care to hear.
Through the veil I speak my gratitude, and my sorrow. She breathes, “patience.”
October 9, 2017 § 26 Comments
I wake to rain. Hard rain falling on the steel roof of our cabin, a torrent surrounding us, not pitter-pattering but rushing through the tree canopy and over our heads with a roar. Dawn is not yet broken, and in the dull gray I hear the rain and am satisfied. I fall back into sleep.
In the late morning I walk with my daughter to the front of our land. Rain still, and we in our slickers carry the day’s compost load and a small cloth bag which I use to collect eggs. My daughter trails several feet behind me, slowed as the umbrella she insisted on carrying blocks her view.
Through the gate into the chicken paddock, a maybe six thousand square foot piece of land at the forest’s edge. Behind the chicken house a blue open topped barrel catches rainwater, and as I approach it, I hope it has at least filled to the halfway point. The days and weeks have been dry of late, rains sparse, just enough to keep the well-mulched garden alive. Across the county creeks are empty, lake waterlines low. I see that the barrel is in fact totally filled, water running down its bulk. I am grateful. In the back corner of my garden is the duck house, with its own blue barrel and small pond to boot. Both are full. Likewise, the rain collection tank at the barn is topped off.
We made it through another summer. In a few months this water freezing will be my concern, but not today. Today I give thanks.
Autumn finds me a bit morose this year. The season for me is a time of culmination and reflection, and while a bit of melancholy coloring the edges of my mind this time of year is not unexpected, it has come heavier this particular season. I am feeling the wounds of the world. My gut cries for the wild, and I am tugged by yearning, wanting to run and to howl and to pant for breath in a deep and fecund wood in some other time, in a place long before or long after humanity’s grand attempt to subdue and control the beating heart of the Earth.
A man shot and killed a lot of strangers in Las Vegas the other day. The immediate reaction of many people was to presume this man belonged to an opposing political faction than their own, and in a macabre game of hot potato they tried to excoriate their enemies by tossing him like a live grenade into the other’s camp. Some howled for gun control laws. Others crafted bizarre conspiracy theories. We have seen this play out time and again in cases of random mass murders. Such events are almost a seasonal holiday in the US at this point. With such frequency it is a shame that so rarely is it uttered with any volume that these happenings are the result of the particulars of the culture.
Life in the modern, capitalist west is tedium. It is an exhausting bore. Without any substantial sense of belonging or meaning, stripped of spirit and tasked with an endless quest for money that buys less and less, people are miserable. Life has been shorn of all of the ceremonies and customs that once bonded a people and gave them a sense of purpose, and they are left with mere commerce. If a person out in public is not engaged in some act of buying or selling, they are loitering, they are a nuisance to be moved along. Most of the public has come to understand this unspoken premise, and they enforce it with vitriol at the sight of the homeless, the panhandler, the protestor. “Get a job!” they yell, but what they mean is “participate,” by which they mean “succumb, as I have, and call it virtue, as I do.”
The malaise of existence in this world where the wild is all but extinguished is felt far and wide, whether it is understood as such or not. Absent community and a deep sense of both autonomy and personal value, people become damaged. This damage expresses itself in myriad ways, as each individual filters the abuse of the dominant culture through their specific experience and biology. For many, self-medication is the obvious solution. People drink away the boredom and the sorrow. They smoke away the frustration and rage. Some turn to harder drugs, those with money buy them from a doctor and stay on the safe side of the legal apparatus. Those with less acquire their narcotics from a street dealer. Both buy their way out of feeling the depression, the pointlessness, the pain. The former boost pharmaceutical stock prices, the latter boost the share values of private prison enterprises.
For others, it is all too much to bear, and they kill themselves. In rare cases, the desire to kill turns outward.
It’s actually strange that this outcome is seen as strange. We are a people who isolate themselves in personal domiciles, personal cars, individual cubicles. From others we hide under headphones and behind screens communicating without voices or faces, just curt text and childish pictographs. By and large our hands never touch soil, our noses never smell wood smoke, our muscles don’t pump with lactic acid, our brows do not know sweat, our eyes do not know starlight. We have hammered the circle of time into a straight line, and bent the circles people used to sit in while they sang and laughed into single file queues in which we are silent, eyes cast down lest they meet another’s.
We do not live. Living is active. We are only active in the pursuit of making someone else rich while we earn just enough to make it until the next paycheck, and then we are passive. We sit and stare, trading entertainment for experience, hoping that watching others pretend to live will suffice by proxy.
Of course, there are outliers. There are some who recognize the ugliness of this existence, who with blood pumping in their veins take to the streets against the police and politicians who hem us all in with laws, with the confiscation of the commons, and with the baton and gun that back it all up. These people are too few, and the great proportion of the public spits at them. Any mention of the great crimes and shortcomings of civilization indicts all who refuse to act, and most prefer not to act, knowing that to act against power is dangerous. Further, most know that acquiescence of conscience and soul is far easier when one’s fellow downtrodden don’t ever talk about it. If we all agree to call the cage freedom, then it is freedom. If we call the plantation the country, or the economy, then we cease to be exploited and can through the power of linguistic device instead be the citizen.
Of course, the heart and the head can only be fooled so much. So the cracks in the veneer are filled with alcohol, drugs, shopping, watching, and occasionally a foray into homicide.
I was reading about the buffalo the other day. In the nineteenth century the US military set out to intentionally destroy the buffalo, even if by turning a blind eye to white hunters who illegally killed buffalo on Indian lands. It was remarked by Col. Dodge that “every buffalo dead is an Indian gone.”
After the plains Indians had finally succumbed to the genocidal pressure of white settlement, and their remnant bands were forced into reservations, white ranchers brought cattle to their lands. There were some Indians who asked if they could hunt the cattle, primarily as an attempt to maintain their culture. They wanted to sing their hunting songs and perform their ceremonial dances. After allowing it briefly, the whites decided it was best to just package the meat and give it to the Indians.
What becomes of people when you strip them of everything that makes them human? What becomes of people who no longer sing? What becomes of people when they have been taught to insist that the world is silent, and dead? This is all of our heritage. Somewhere far enough back, your progenitors were brought into the fold through death and indignity. Their songs are silent. Their ceremonies are forgotten. And so we stumble blindly forth, in dark corridors seeking. In the black, some remain broken, others take up with history’s killers, and angle to fill the role of the abuser.
In my region there are those who want to cut the forests. They think that they have observed the forest long enough to know how to control it. They think they have the wisdom to manage a forest better than it can manage itself. How does one argue? The only words they will accept are in their own language, the language of domination, the language that insists on seeing only disparate pieces in a grand machine, the language that has exorcized the sacred.
I cannot convince you to leave the forest be in that language. I cannot convince you to seek the wild with those lifeless words. I cannot convince you to abandon this culture in the language that it birthed.
You have to feel it. Perhaps you do already. Perhaps you aren’t sure what you feel, other than a general sense that something is not right. Do not snuff it out. Nurture it. Breathe life into it. Let it guide you to others. Give yourself permission to feel even if it is only the pain. Move boldly through the darkness, and listen for the howl.
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.
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.
February 25, 2014 § 4 Comments
There is so much noise that it becomes difficult to stay focused. The constancy of information, of news, of propaganda, of gossip. Our minds are drowning in a sea of chatter. We choke on it as it updates every second on a TV screen or an RSS feed. Everywhere you go, people staring at their smart phone, scrolling, scrolling. Next. Next. Next. Ironically, no one doing, no one reacting. No one digesting the information and then using it as a starting point for action. Information reduced to just another product for consumption, it is dumbed down, simplified, stripped of meaning and value and made into to the mental equivalent of a cheese poof. Every human tragedy reduced to a status update. Every reported environmental catastrophe reduced to a one hundred character tweet. Follow the end of the world at hash-tag “digitalwhimper.” Like it. Reblog it. Scroll down.
Afloat in an ocean of noise, we filter, and our filters are born of our biases and our priorities. Terrence McKenna said that culture is our operating system. The dominant culture is a lot of things in its complexity, but I think it is fair to say that one of it’s primary components is that it is anthropocentric. The dominant culture puts humans at the center of existence. Of course, there are layers of nuance involved in which the lifestyles and comforts of some humans are prioritized over the well being of others. To be sure, the dominant culture has a tiered hierarchy of valuation of flesh, with white flesh prioritized over nonwhite. Human flesh, however, always trumps nonhuman, with the anthropocentrism of the dominant culture casting non-human life as non-sentient, non-feeling, non-autonomous. To the dominant culture, there is no web of life, no complex interplay between co-dependent species all with value unto themselves, all existing within their own right to be respected and treated as one living family. As far as the dominant culture is concerned, there is humanity and everything else is either the feedstock of industry, or it is in the way.
We’re trained to filter anything that suggest otherwise.
There is this conception in the US, and likely in other western nations, that commerce, civic life, and “business as usual” have a right to exist unimpeded. Protests and strikes that flare up, no matter how minor, that slow traffic, block public transit, or – gasp! – prevent people from going to work or shopping are lambasted by the worker bee populace. How dare some protester block a bus full of Google or Amazon employees! An orchestra of miniature violins wail like mothers clutching dead babies for the innocent victims of such tepid social disruption. I find myself repulsed at first by the complete and utter lack of anti-authoritarian fervor found in the average worker who is just so eager to be on time to grind away making some other person rich, and second I am reviled by the entitlement of these self proclaimed “productive members of society” who seem to believe with religious intensity that by clocking their eight hours, that they are doing God’s work.
These potentates of the church of capital trot out the same old tired harassments calling on protesters and activists to “get a job,” which is of course, demanding that they stop impeding the big game of capitalist society and instead play along and lend a hand generating higher quarterly returns for some shareholder somewhere. Almost always this “get a job” mantra is absolutely non-sequitir to the demands of activists, but of course, a valid rebuttal would require an examination of the issues at hand, and that would require a moderate amount of effort. Shouting a meaningless slogan feels like arguing, but is much easier and leaves all of ones biases in tact, so it is the tactic of choice for those who want to defend the status quo while leveling an attack on people who ironically will usually have the general public’s best interests at heart.
To be sure, it’s easy to get bogged down in the sludge of insults, ignorance, and outright obfuscation that passes for discourse in this society. Sometimes I catch myself engaged in a pointless conversation over some political viewpoint, and I have to return myself to my primary premises. Years ago I came to accept that without a healthy living ecosystem, nothing else matters. I’m embarrassed to admit that I was in my late twenties when I had finally come to such an obvious conclusion. It should have been self evident, and likely was, until years of noise and propaganda promoting the dominant culture and it’s primary objective of production and growth with humans at the center of existence clouded my thinking. It took many elders wiser than I as well as many writers more clear thinking to assist me in regaining my sanity. A sentence helped it all fall into place:
“The needs of the natural world outweigh the needs of the economic system.”
This premise from Derrick Jensen’s “Endgame” should have been a no-brainer. Without a foundation on which to survive, why hash out the intricacies of social interaction?
The overwhelming majority of political discourse completely disregards this fundamental truth. In fact, this fundamental truth is treated with outright scorn, and according to the dominant culture, the natural world exists solely for the exploitation of humans. Anyone who gets in the way of this exploitation is impeding the primary directive of the dominant culture to engage in production and growth, and must be removed by any means necessary. For indigenous cultures, this has generally meant genocide. For a white activist blocking a city bus or a bulldozer, it generally means a cascade of effects starting with public ridicule and leading to and through violent arrest and imprisonment while gleeful wage slaves look on. Containment of anti-capitalist energy is completed by the media which reinforces the mindless “critique” of the “get-a-job” crowd by proclaiming from their position of power and privilege the valid method of demanding redress of grievances: Petition leaders and vote. While waving the banner of democracy, the public is consistently corralled into ineffectual and morale sapping activity by the media who are but highly paid P.R. staff of the powerful. As this cycle repeats and the livestock populace becomes more and more complacent in their powerlessness, the object of protest and picket and strike becomes more diluted.
Protest is not about awareness. Protest is not a commercial in flash-mob format. The goal isn’t to advertise to the consumer culture and hope that they are convinced to buy a particular point of view. Protest is about disruption. Protests and pickets and strikes and riots are weapons of the masses. We may not have any sway in boardrooms and government halls, but we can shut down ports and plants and if it comes down to it, we sure as shit can burn their precious banks and factories to the ground. We can pretend it matters to lock ourselves to the White House gate, or we can shred pipelines with angle grinders and blow torches before they are ever in the dirt. Refusing participation in the mechanisms of commerce, and further, preventing others from participating is the only real leverage that any of us have against the weight of the machine of industrial civilization. Make no mistake, productive members of society are the problem. The only reason this thought is remotely uncomfortable is because we know that we are all trapped in the belly of the beast we are trying to slay. We understand that everyone is trapped in a deadly paradigm, and that we must reconcile deconstruction of that which destroys us with survival in the present. But there is no alternative. Inaction is acquiescence to the horrors which totalitarian capitalists will inflict upon us. Business as usual must grind to a halt. So long as the sum total of the machinations of capital and state are violence and repression, we must bind and hinder as many working arms and legs of this machine as we can.
In the deluge of static the meme of human supremacy is constant. The premise that humans are at the center of existence, while not always articulated so plainly, underlies almost all current politics and philosophy. In discussions that range in focus from ecology to economics to technology, the foundational premise is essentially that human beings are masters of their destiny and that what we ultimately choose to create as our collective destiny will necessarily manifest as so. The logic to such thinking is that humans possess the only consciousness and will in our sphere of existence, so any course of action deriving from human will is necessarily just, because the consent of any other consciousness is impossible. This logic also presumes that the planet is a non-sentient mechanism of complex yet conquerable systems. According to the dominant culture, anyone who considers the planet alive is crazy, and to be dismissed. Further, anyone who considers the sentience and inherent value of non-human beings is crazy, and to be dismissed. Further still, anyone who doubts the intellect and ingenuity of technological humans is crazy and to be dismissed.
Even many radicals and activists fall for these premises. Examining the taxonomy of even many anarchist labels, the presumption inherent in their descriptors is that our primary grounding will be in how we interact with each other. Anarcho-syndaclism and anarcho-communism, for example, have within their monikers a genus and a species that proclaim a philosophy of egalitarian human organizing and some form of cooperative work and exchange. Anarcho-transhumanism implies a human centric philosophy focused on the necessity of transcending our biological status. This is the essence of the dominant culture’s drive merely stripped of the baggage of hierarchy. Of course there is reason to contemplate how exactly we should best organize with one and other, and I think anarchism contains within it the most value and potential, but devoid of an analysis of where and upon what foundations we will be doing this organizing, the philosophy becomes moot. Any political philosophy that forgets or intentionally avoids the naked reality that without a healthy ecosystem we die, is useless. Any political philosophy that cannot face the reality that humans need habitat and that humans are increasingly destroying habitat, is just more useless chatter.
Anthropocentrism is a sickness of ego that holds the uninfected hostage to watch while the living world is plundered and killed. Those infected with this malady of ego are held fast and tight within a narrative about who we are and what our collective destiny holds. Daily this narrative is fleshed out by Hollywood as images of constant technological progress are manifested by graphical wizardry, while simultaneously, the rot of civilization grows. The media plays its part, singing the songs of where we are going with new hits about mining asteroids and golden oldies about free energy just around the corner. It matters not that green revolution technologies are rapidly destroying topsoil while every year relying more heavily on stronger poisons. It matters not that billions of humans are sustained by trading dwindling hydrocarbons for food calories. It matters not that overuse of antibiotics has spawned new treatment resistant bacteria at such a rate as to prompt an Assistant Director at the CDC to declare that, “We are at the end of anti-biotics, period.” None of this matters to the devotees of civilization and human greatness because, because, well, look at our slick new smart phones! The ability to download an app which will alert you to how many people in the room are interested in screwing a stranger is supposed to be proof that we can invent our way out of the toxicity that hundreds of years of industry and thousands of years of agriculture have meted upon the planet.
Without a a cataclysmic shift in the industrial-civilization paradigm, we’re going to kill ourselves and a lot of other living beings all because so many people are in love with the story they are being told about themselves. For the few who attempt to bring about such a shift, there is the condemnation of the worker bees whose willful participation in the system is indicted by those who dare give a damn. Even if sent to prison for their actions, radicals have it better than the indigenous and the non-human who are extinguished with varying degrees of complexity. For everyone else, there are the texts, the selfies, the pop-culture news feeds, the addiction to regularly proclaiming your mediocre self to the world via social networking. While the oceans die and the atmosphere gasps, we ride the wave of noise lost in our greatest technological accomplishment; a database of the mundane, a digital mirror into which we can continually stare at ourselves.