Thursday, December 17, 2009

into the magic shadows

I often think of writing movie articles; not necessarily reviews of recent movies, but reflections on movies past. But then it seems weird one week to write "egad, the sky is falling" and the next week to write, "don't you just love the "Secret of Nimh?"

I think too, that in my darker moments, when depression grips me, and my inner world is more terrible than anything going on in the real world, that i often cling to film, the comfort of past favorites, or looking forward to upcoming flics--and it keeps me going.

It gets me thinking that this is really weird, and maybe symptomatic of the same ostrich behaviour i piss and moan about in others. On the one hand, i feel desperately anxious about things in the world, and deeply troubled over what i ought be doing. On the other hand, i take deepest delight in film. My soul is overtaken by whimsy and I launch into retro film fests by myself, and I get giddy with excitement about new magicks coming down the pipeline.

Like, for example, i am so very excited that there is a new Sylvain Chomet film just about ready(The Illusionist, no relation to the other recent film of same title). it titillates me so much that it momentarily relieves me of overarching anxieties about goings on in the world.

The weird guilt feeling that arose moments before writing this, came from thinking about the juxtaposition of feelings, and realizing that even if the world, civilization, or maybe my and the human race's future might all be swirling in a black vortex, at least I get to take joy in the land of magic shadows.

I was reading a 'top 50' animated films of all time list, and just basking in the memories, luxuriating in the strange worlds they created for me, and thinking about what magical creations we come up with. These films made me forget some unpleasant feelings from earlier this evening when I was studying for my exam and thinking about issues relating to population, and how irresolvable emissions issues are simply because of how many of us there are, and even if we stopped burning oil, we would keep burning something to cook food and heat homes.

Many of my favorite animated films have held deeply political, social and ecological messages. Thinking about the popularity of these films, and their messages, I question the value of narrative at all. Its like we have so much narrative that it doesn't shape us at all, only offers us momentary distraction, But I do feel so very moved by film, and especially by the "cartoons" I have watched. I feel they have helped shape this primate in such distinct ways over the years.

So, I will be posting a few relevant words about my favorite animated films in the near future. And I will forgo trying to relavitize them to our present circumstances, even though that would be easy enough. Instead, I look to how they struck in the first place.

Monday, December 14, 2009



If you are old enough that your deepest memories are of wooded places and child quests in the wild, than this reverie is for you.

I bring the age up because it is a well known phenomenon that parents routinely shield their children from the kind of wildness that you and I experienced. Yes, today’s kids get a foundation in Motzartian fiddling, and are relatively safe from broken bones and pedophiles. And they are taught early to cope with the scheduling complicities that we cope with as adults in this world. . .

But I feel like some wild ranging orang-utan who appreciates his scars—and has to speak out against the domestication of children.

Parents have two primary fears. In no preferential order, the first is the fear of physical compromise. This fear is about bee stings and broken bones and the ever present horror that our children will actually break each others heads. It’s not unfounded. Left to their own, Golding style, children will devise systems to test each other and many will die, their eggs broken open in a non-poetic display of evolution. If you are watching the Darwinian drama, everything looks kosher, if you are a parent, everything is psychological terror. Supposedly, I tread the distance in between. I am a parent, with a wee little tot, venturing forth in the world, and I am a scholar who follows anthropology.

I have a cautious child who would rather bathe in mothers beauty than explore and so my Darwinian sense is not tested too often. My sister’s two boys, are both rambunctious, more the sort who you might fear will succumb to their own ambition. I need gravol just to watch them play. I am sure our parenting is informed as much by our heritage as our offspring. I haven’t had to learn how to keep my child from launching into flight off of a banister.

But I wish I had to. (Here we come sounding all old and stuff) When I was little, we were wild. We were crazy and stupid and spontaneous. Our favorite playground was a sewer tunnel that one had to traverse in the dark to prove worthiness of inclusion in the pack. Some of the games we played were really for keeps, and I am sure our parents would have turned grey to know what we were up to. But the point is, we were often left to our own devices to make our worlds.

It does seem to me that the shrinks agree that this is an important stage of life, learning limits, making social rules and what not. Testing, exploring, recuperating. The vast jungle of my childhood was a testing ground for survival, and I can understand parents not relishing their children wandering unattended in it, but I keep thinking it was not only fun, it may have been very necessary for our development.

Some day, our little children are unleashed from parents and school and they have to face sabre toothed workplaces, life-and-death civic choices, and a whole big bizarre world that the adults have created. And they need to be creative in it, and spontaneous. And they have to survive stupid things. They have to survive us. I really wonder that our planned play times and structured hobbies do not prepare them to live life to the fullest and certainly do not prepare them to understand being a living creature in an interdependent universe.

Do we need more adults who are very indoctrinated to quitting time and videogames? Or could we use a few wild children who make up reality as they go?

Thursday, December 10, 2009

A Riot Of Life

Part One: Change is Bad
Yesterday, winter arrived out of nowhere, burying a breezy autumn that I was only just getting used to. Jack frost sends us to his icy bowels around the same time each year, yet always takes us by surprise because like all things stressful we exile it to the furthest limits of our minds. That first heavy snowfall always shocks me to my core. My initial response is universally one of crisis, panic and flight. It’s perfectly normal because of the mantra that repeats itself 24 hours a day in the swampy lizard part of my brain. It’s the mantra playing in every life form, in every life that ever lived: change is bad.

We’re each of us still slinking around the savannah, still lurking in the trees, eyes and ears wide for danger. We’re each trying to stay fed and avoid being picked off by a predator. Part of how we do that is learning the lay of the land and embracing a healthy fear of change. Change means unknown, and throughout most of history the unknown often meant death. So we like things to remain predictably the same. The more predictable things are, the better. The orange berries are yummy, the red berries make us shit wasabi sauce. Hard lesson, but just avoid the red berries and everything is hunky dory. Until the orange berries are gone. Or it turns out that colour isn’t a universal predictor of food safety. No one is ever immune to change, nor would that be a good thing, but it has served as a useful enough rule of thumb to imbed itself in our deepest understanding of the world.

The odd thing that comes to mind when I think how far people will go to avoid change is that for several hundreds of years the very mythos of our species been progress, which means change.

Part Two: Change is Good?
The seed of progress may have formed in science and its seeming limitless ability to learn and discover and in some ways change our destiny on this planet, but science has generally been concerned with predicting and controlling. I think science mostly believes change is bad, and the kind of change we don't see coming is the worst. Economics, on the other hand has had grand designs on the concept of progress for at least the entire industrial age. Progress means change is good. Out with the old, in with the new. Produce, consume, toss, repeat. Progress equals growth, growth equals profit.

But it’s all kind of a scam because its only an illusion of progress, kind of how Disney might portray it. Commercial activities offer us just enough options and improvements to keep up the illusion of progress, hence motivation to buy, while keeping any changes small and controllable(nothing says sexy like control!). This year’s new improved I-pod is pink instead of green, but still plays tunes just like the old one(just like your great gramma's phonograph, and her great gramma's harpsichord--in fact there’s nothing very new about it since the times we beat out rhythms on hollow logs, except now you just press a button). New, but the same. Progress, just the way we like it.

it’s a whole other topic that somewhere along the line there was a revolutionary change in that we went from making music and expressing ourselves, sharing in some social way, to quietly consuming music in a passive solitary way (preferably with noise canceling headphones that keep that pesky outside world at bay). For all our fear of change, we routinely lose thing by pursuing our perverse logic of progress

Part Three: Change is Confusing
For a while now, we have tended to define change, development and progress via technology. We talk about the radio era, the television era and the internet era. We described the technological application of fossil fuel inputs to farming as a green revolution that introduced an era of plenty. We view history through the same lens, calling ages by our tool making abilities—the stone age, the bronze age, the iron age and so on. we act like its reality instead of simply a filter for ordering things. Had we become a religious society we might have named ages differently: the polytheistic age, the monotheistic age, the mystical age, the transcendental age, the rational theology age. As social engineers we might observe the tribal age, the village age, the city-state age and the nation age, and we might more recently look at the suburban era, the urban renewal era, the city of villages era.

I could think of plenty of worldviews, that whatever shortcomings they might have, I would find more comforting than the technological worldview. The technological worldview is all about thoughtless change. The more the better, the faster the better. It got a slow start: wise men resisted the written word, fearful of what it would do to our reasoning abilities and memory. Scholars resisted the printing press, thinking too much decontextualized information was not necessarily a good thing. Pundits to this day scorn the television as a mind rotting cancer(sometimes they do it on television). Who’s to say any of them were wrong?

Either way, things picked up speed once we developed machines and the ability to use concentrated fuels. We made cars and planes and spaceships; Factories and assembly lines; An endless stream of entertainment gadgets. We made powered versions of everything: toothbrushes, lawnmowers, can openers, you name it, if there was a way to make something less skill and labour intensive through the application of fuel or electricity, we did it. Machines raise our chickens and milk our cows. Machines tell us when to wake up. If you believe the medium is the message, then computers define the content of our communications. We adopt new technologies so fast we don’t have time to think about what they bring us or what they take away. Is it good to drink milk from a pillow shaped plastic bag and never see or touch a cow? Does twittering strengthen my social bonds and psychic maturity?

If it were only a metaphysical question about the purpose and quality of life, then mouldery luddite academics could debate and polemicise about it over brandy for all of eternity.

But we did stop listening to our mantra. We felt we had out evolved it. We’ve kept changing things while shielding ourselves from any negative feedbacks that would have set off the alarm bells in the old lizards den. But they are coming.

Part 4: Change or Die
This brings us back to the winter of 2009. The leaders of the nations of the world are gathered in Copenhagen, supposedly to talk about change. Drastic and direly needed change. Only they don’t want to change and we don't really want them to change things either. It was one thing to get a little tipsy with lots of little incremental changes that made tasks easier and life more entertaining, but now that we need to make changes that involve hardship and sacrifice, fundamental changes to infrastructure, essential changes to our concepts of purpose and accomplishment, well-being and quality, well it’s not just a salamander in the back of our heads whispering change is bad. No, we have Godzilla pounding the backs of our eyeballs screaming CHANGE IS BAD!

My nation is an energy and resource giant. Our nearest neighbour is an economic and military giant. Together, the two arguably concentrate some of the greatest wealth and influence in the world. Together, the two are primary drivers of global direction. Where they stand on the fulcrum of following known patterns or risking change has a direct and consequential effect for everyone on the planet, and I'm not talking just people.

During the breezy fall that just went the way of the dinosaur, I heard far more about Prime Minister Harper and President Obama courting China than I did about their preparations for the Copenhagen Summit. I heard about increasing trade, promoting growth and generating economic prosperity.

The thing is, there is a direct incontrovertible link between economic growth and fossil fuel use. Economic growth is achieved by burning fuels to produce raw materials, burning fuels to manufacture tradeable goods and burning fuel to cart those goods around the planet. And if those goods are machines, fossil fuels are burned to operate the machines. Fossil fuels keep advertising, accounting and managerial divisions going too. And it is all that fossil fuel that is changing the climate

The scientists have been unequivocal. Our current way of life is on the cusp of making most of the planet incompatible with life: Planet Sahara. Some of the destruction has begun. A lot of it we have ordered and paid for and are just waiting on delivery. But we may still be at the point where we can choose between an altered climate that we can make do with and struggle in, and a climate where everyone and everything pretty much dies.

So, when my leader or yours says they are working hard to increase trade and grow the economy it is entirely, and with no hyperbole, interchangeable with saying I am trying to expedite the destruction of life on earth. When our leaders say they are going to grow the economy they are also saying they will ensure that no useful strategy comes out of Copenhagen

What is called for today far outstrips the imagination and courage of most people. It requires individual efforts and mass efforts. It requires law, and maybe martial law. It requires making sacrifices now to influence outcomes that are years down the road. Most of all it requires resisting the lizard brain telling us change is bad. We can’t afford to get panicky or light headed or fuzzy headed and simply hide in HBO and hope the danger moves on. It’s not going away.

It’s becoming more clear than ever that sitting patiently waiting for international consortia of leaders to pave the way is not going to bear fruit. I'm not sure what to do, especially since so many people don’t even see that something needs to be done, and many that do don’t want to give up cars and plasma TVs and so keep waiting for a technological fix. We’ve lived with so much complacent wealth and plenty, and in north America are so untouched by real events taking place around the globe, that I don’t have the foggiest idea what would wake us up and get us changing.

In Copenhagen this week, activist Naomi Klein said, “Let's not restrict ourselves to polite marches and formulaic panel discussions,” and “we need to be more disobedient”. I believe her, but then I also recall George Monbiot saying “nobody ever rioted for austerity”. But it is essentially what we need. A riot against our corporate governments. A riot against global economics. A riot of activity to wake us up and get us participating. A riot of life or a riot of death, the fruits of all our changes in the last few hundred years are leading inevitably to riots, and the time when we get to choose is quickly passing.

Saturday, November 28, 2009

Postcard From the Shortbus

Just dropping a line to say I am missing my home away from home.

When I first get up in the morning, somewhere between scratching my ears and my first cup of coffee I have approximately five idea that feel urgent to write down. Since coffee is manna from the tit of god, none of these ideas get written. Luckily the ideas are all uniformly stupid anyway.

Once I’ve mainlined some oily African goodness, my brain becomes a holding pen for several retarded ferrets (note to self; do not complain about the ferrets. Ferrets good. Gerbils bad. Keep it straight).

For the rest of the day, I wrestle between all the essential things I need to do, like scratching my ears some more, and the termite-like onslaught of ideas in my head, all jockeying and lobbying for position in my frontal lobe. Luckily they are pretty much uniformly stupid and I rarely manage to write any of them down.

The fact remains that I am an ape, and we apes revel in stupidity. When I don’t get to write down my little peach-pit gems of the mind, I start to get crusty, and then I don’t groom well with the other apes.

Anyway, I am in ape school, learning day-by-day to be a better ape, and it’s that busy time of the year when we are all jumping up and down on our desks, swinging chairs in the air, flinging feces at anyone who comes near and generally doing anything else we can think of to get good grades.

So, in a perfect world, I won’t have any time for stylin’ cave paintings over the next couple of weeks. If I unleash my inner gibbon, you know it means I am slacking off.

Never fear though, after the tempest comes the calm (and the feverish dreams harvested from over-feasting) and I will again regale with my most important thoughts about unimportant things and my most unimportant thoughts about important things.

‘til then, when in doubt, grin fiendishly.

Sunday, November 22, 2009

The Mind versus Hollywood

I saw 2012 on its opening weekend, and would like to talk about it as though it mattered.

I like most of the Big Dumb Films that pass through the theatres. Aside from being moved by the spectacle (the most prominent aspect determining box-office appeal), I am often quite taken by the streamlined mythic stories, the over-blown emotional hooks and primal response to danger. and i love that wondrous focus that comes during crisis.

Given revenue, it’s safe to say, most everyone feels the same. There are genres within this genre. Michael Bay likes heroes saving the day and confrontation. Roland Emmerich likes the ordinary guy being called upon and being driven by his love of family. Stuff being destroyed is not enough for me, I am a sucker for the Emmerich Brand of Boom-Boom.

But I am disturbed by the stories I am being fed in these emotional roller-coasters.

I want you to imagine a no-holds-barred cage match. The goal is the shaping of your perceptions, the prize is no less than your decision making capacities.

I propose the environment academic, Thomas Homer-Dixon versus Roland Emmerich. What? Ok. I accept your contention that this is not a fair match.

To preserve fairness, I recommend forming a team against Emmerich. Due to the celluloid power of Emmerich, we’ll create an opposing team of intellectuals and writers including Paul Ehrlich, Richard Heinberg, Andrew Weaver, James Howard Kunstler, Jeff Rubin, David Suzuki even Al Gore. . .and I am allowing as trainers, Rachel Carson, James Lovelock, Colin Campbell, M. King Hubbert, Bill McKibben, Matthew Simmons, Jacques Ellul and Neil Postman. In the continuing spirit of fairness, I allow you to add 3 persons (who work in the idea sector/written medium) to the team or the team trainers. Keep in mind, we are only choosing between popular thinkers, who might be said to be relatively well known. Obscure academics are not welcome at the audition, no matter their expertise, because they reach too few people.

Now we have an A-Team versus Emmerich. Given the enormous team pitted against singular Emmerich, where do you place your bets for the prize? Remember the prize is decision making influence in the individual.

Medium: A-Team: written word; Emmerich: film.
Environment: A-Team: better bookstores everywhere, academic databases. Emmerich: theatres, television sets, video stores, drugstores, corner stores, department stores, occasional gas stations. Depending on where you live, also alleyways and dumpling stands.
Audience: A-Team: discerning readers already concerned by world affairs. Emmerich: Everyone, including the opponents audience.
Audience size: A-Team: 10’s of thousands. Emmerich: 100’s of millions, perhaps billions.
Handicaps: A-Team: the illiterate, the apathetic, the uneducated, the poor, the busy. Emmerich: the blind.
Method of Engagement: A-Team: argument, logical thought, historical analysis. Emmerich: metaphor, allusion, sensory overstimulation, emotional engagement.
Emotional production: A-Team: anxiety, fear, futility. Emmerich: Hope. Relief.
Audience requirement: A-Team: Literacy, motivation, patience, logic, determination, bravery, background education. Emmerich: Eyes. Ears.

I won't trouble you with the massacre that occurred in the cage.

Popcorn aside, I brought us this blood bath to demonstrate the difference in power between the message heralders. Now assuming a victor in reach and influence, what is Emmerich communicating?

When you let that ten bucks slip from your sweaty hands, you expect the film to breach all the laws of physics and common sense. You expect it to be melodramatic. You expect nothing related to reality. But, what you bring into the darkened room is your most accessible, malleable self. Your vanguards are off behind the theatre, smoking. You are all alone in there being saturated in “truths” within the story. The most powerful truths are the ones you don’t even think about.

2012, like all good disaster movies channels our anxieties. We were anxious about atomic energy and got giant ants, spiders and rabbits. We were anxious about communism and we got Invasion of the Body Snatchers. We were anxious about population and we got Soylent Green, and Population Zero. We were anxious about computers and we got 2001, The Terminator and the Matrix. Now, we are anxious about environmental destruction, and catastrophic climate change and, among others, we have 2012.

Leaving aside the emotional safety valve granted--that the destruction defined in the film is not our fault--we are still left trying to cope. The film has a protagonist narrator and a hero and a villain. It is these latter two characters and the forces they represent that I am concerned about.

The hero, a scientist, suffers misgivings throughout the film about the cold nature of lifeboat ethics. The villain, a generic political person, is narrowly focused on the goal of averting the extinction of the human race.

The scientist, in a baldfaced contradiction of the cold lucidity of science, expresses all of our warm fuzz feelings about including everyone and pursuing what everyone wants. The politico sets aside his emotions looking instead to the pragmatic concerns of how much can be saved, what actually has a future.

So, we have a kind of reversal. Politicians normally spend a lot of time barking whatever they feel will keep the most voters happy, and scientists normally have the gloomy position of crunching the numbers and thinking about tomorrow.

These two mindsets go to battle against one another in the climax of the film. It’s a nonsensical mess. The hero-scientist keeps railing about what is fair and not fair, and pushing to do nice wishful things. The villain-politician, remains steadfast and sticks to what will work, what will achieve results, what will in fact offer them some hope. The cast and audience cheer when he is defeated by the scientist and his emotionally moved sympathizers. If we take the “facts” in the story at face value, the scientist has doomed them. And he has doomed them for a reason that would never occur in reality. Scientists don’t believe you should put 400 people on a boat that can sustain 100. THEY KEEP TELLING US THIS IN THE REAL WORLD.

And this is only the little illusion snuck into our subconscious.

Out in the real world, scientists keep telling us that we are courting disaster of a magnitude beyond our imagining(kind of like the neutrino fed destruction in the film). They warn us that there will be no technological solutions and that we, and perhaps everything else(like kittens and tulips and baby seals) may be overwhelmed. They keep telling us if we don't make radical changes, there is no way we will cope with what is to come. Sheesh, what a bummer. What can Emmerich ‘teach’ us in the face of this foul tasting message?

Again, taking conditions of the film matter-of-factly, the earth heats up, tectonic chaos ensues. Earthquakes, volcanic activity and crustal breakups encircle the planet. Well, that's scary; what will we do?

Well, we’ll build Arks and in just 27 days, we will emerge and find Eden in a raised up continent of Africa. Human ingenuity and technology swoop down in the nick of time and save us from that nagging anxiety we are all living with. There is no sulphur poisoned atmosphere, no boiled away oceans, no multi-year ash winter killing off all life. There is the human-exceptionalism triumph. We the audience are rewarded for enduring the distress of the destruction.

So, why does this bug me? Why my stupid cage match?

We are in a moment in history where decisions are being made about how to respond to things that effect everyone and everything in unimaginable ways. There is already endless confusion among people.

People will shy away from uncomfortable truths if they are offered shelters.

What I am saying, is it does not matter that even though the thickest numb-nut recognizes that blockbusters are ridiculous nonsense, the message in the story still sinks in. The mind rejects the silly notion of the sun flare neutrino mumbo jumbo clocking our pretty planet. But once we are inside the story, the human story just flows uninhibited into our psyches.

We are presented with the righteousness of wishful thinking, the condemnation of hard decisions and sacrifice, and complete salvation offered to human ingenuity no matter what.

There is an ocean of smart clear thinking people trying desperately to get our attention and convince us to think about complex things, behave like real citizens and give up comforts that we are badly addicted to. And there are a handful of story weavers, who massage our consciences and comfort our fears with fairy tale endings. Engaging with the thinkers requires bravery, intelligence, distress and action. Engaging with the story tellers is as easy as breathing and allows comfort and inaction.

I am a mythopoetic soul, and value the power of narrative to instruct us. But there are evil stories that intoxicate us so we can’t see clearly and my real heroes don’t seem to stand a chance against them.

Superheroes Aside, What's in a Secret Identity?

Ever since a friend asked me about why I chose anonymity with my blog, I have been thinking about the concept of identity inside the internet. Because users have multiple email accounts, and whatever idiosyncratic or impulsive pseudonyms, their public personae on websites are fractured. Consciously and unconsciously. With and without purpose. It is something I normally take for granted and participate in.

I added my name to my blog, basically on the faith that my friend sees more clearly than me. My well rationalized argument for anonymity, was in fact, easily defeated via the question why?

I would enjoy being read. And I sure wouldn’t mind growing the part of me that exists outside my fairly pointless job(which is not anonymous in face-to-face land). How ‘me’ is it, when I purposely set up buffers and walls? Why would I keep more important parts of me secret?

There is a feature in many websites, where when you comment, you are asked for your website. If you offer it, it ends up highlighted as a link attached to your pseudonym. So, now that my blog is explicitly attached to my name, linking my anonymous participation on another website to the blog, I am no longer anonymous. At first this presented me a conundrum. Thinking about the dilemma allowed me to see for the first time how absurd it was, and how pointless. How self-destructive. Destructive of the self.

[The only place I might wish anonymity(other than some lurid porn site), might be if I was communicating about something violent or revolutionary, somewhere that might get flagged. In that case, it’s not the casual reader following links that I am avoiding. I would need to mask my bandwidth trail—something I know nothing about. I have thought about it casually. Derrick Jensen(who I read thoughtfully) has a forum and people on it discuss ways to take down civilization. Mostly wanking, but do I want to be linked to it? ]

Otherwise, how am I served by voluntarily divorcing myself from my own discourse? In an alienated world, how am I served by deliberate isolation during the pseudosocial interactions of internet chatter?

Normally, when I express myself on the net, I am not saying anything I am afraid will be associated with me. Of course there is the question of someone building a profile based on all my activity. Were that I was so important to anyone. And again, if anyone cared to examine, those links are all under the shiny carpet regardless of my email or clever nom de plume.

So, this bold step of saying, ‘my name is Robert, this is what I think’, has brought back my senses about identity. Personal identity, not fractured technological meta-identity. And not really so bold a move. Our civilization excelled in fracturing our identities even before the internet came along. Do I really want to add to that psychosis?

Saturday, November 21, 2009

“We believe the images and patterns of Birch Bark spiritually connect the Universe and the human soul”.

You know that moment, when you are watching a heart-warming, uplifting film, when the director sneaks past your defenses and awakens wonder or tenderness or just some strong feeling that is so alien to you that it is uncomfortable or impossible to identify and you tear up? Or when you are reading a book, and the author reconnects you with a wholesome innocence that requires no shields? Or maybe your life is less vicariously natured than mine, and you have these moments on a hike or with your children or Sunday morning at a church sermon.

I was at an art show this weekend and met Stalina Roubinova. She, and her collective turn to the trees for inspiration and rather than needing to reconstruct, re-imagine or form an analogy for the beauty they see, they select and frame what is right before their eyes. Following a Russian tradition which conjures images out of birch bark, they let the bark itself form the narrative. The images are framed by the eye, and the bark preserved, nothing else is added. This is found art risen to the sublime.

I spent some time lost in her work. It made my chest clench and my throat choke. I almost needed to get away as it brought up such vulnerability, moved me so deeply, that I felt self-conscious out in public. It reached inside me and touched the part of me that makes me alive.

Miss Roubinova guided me, demonstrated to me that with different eyes, different perspectives, there were endless images, feelings and ideas in the work. I was so overtaken, I tried to gush over her work, and she remained humble, as though not an artist, just someone who walked out into the woods with me, a lowly spokesperson for the marvels of nature.

There was a tiny little piece, with a fungus growing in the corner, looking much like a small bouquet of flowers. I watched it for a long time, thinking of it as a gift for my daughter, imagining her always magic-alert eyes pouring over it. As I was just reaching the “sold” moment, my eyes were plucked away to another piece. Another tiny marvel with a glorious blossom of fungus. The glimpse that reached out to me was a faerie, and knowing my eight year olds fascination, this had to be the one. I only ever saw the faerie for a moment. That seems to be an elusive nature of magic.

Carrying it around throughout the afternoon at the show, I saw many other things in the child sized artwork and wished I had better eyes to see the faerie again, hovering just over the bark. My daughter will see the faerie, and no doubt much other magics that are beyond my too trained eyes.

You can view their website, which has a portfolio, but there is no digital substitution for the numinous experience of standing before one of these pieces.

If you happen to be in Ottawa, you can go look for yourself. The group is having a show at Lansdowne Park from December 10th to the 20th

Inquiries can be made at

Tuesday, November 17, 2009


Last night, I did something completely counter-intuitive to my normal routines. It served no real purpose and robbed me of sleep in a way I have been acutely aware of all day. But it also jogged me from my usual track.

Three a.m. found me out in the dark, in the cold, craning my neck, waiting intently to see brief sparks of light in the sky. I can’t tell you why. I am not an astronomy enthusiast. A meteor shouldn’t really even be much of an awe inspiring sight for a hyper-stimulated jaded 21st century soul.

I live in the city, and so most of my vista is a calm bluish black sea only occasionally marked by a tiny dot of light. Before I ever saw a densely packed night sky from somewhere truly dark I was already on my way out of the borderless visionary world a child inhabits. Looking up at the sky in the city, it was difficult to keep my mind on the task at hand with nothing to focus on. Focusing on nothing is the same as being adrift. After a brief struggle against the current, I gave in; and since there wasn’t much to see, I settled into just being where I was at. Being aware of the chill wind on my cheeks. Aware of my body swaying because I was a little dizzy. Aware of how many things there are in my surroundings that obstruct a view of the sky. Aware that I felt a peculiar thrill at standing around doing nothing in the middle of the night.

I began to feel really satisfied with my purposelessness.

We have always looked up into the night time sky. Our ancestor’s ancestors stared up at the same points of light. We peered at the stars before we had fire of our own. We were staring off into the abyss when we were still covered in fur. We don’t even know most of the stories we’ve told about the preternatural sky.

In my mind, all roads always lead to Rome. Lately, Rome is the chasm inside us separating what we know and what we do. All my thoughts and reflections poured out into the sky. I started to have a very tangible sense of stepping off an island, into history.

Everything I struggle with in my day to day life, everything I try to understand and everything I do is so very wrapped up in one brief ahistorical moment for humanity. Space shuttles and skyscrapers. I-pods and websites. Customer service over the telephone all the way from India concerning services that isolate us. Anthropogenic climate change. Microwave ovens and nuclear reactors. The absolute perfection of divorcing meaning from words in the political and economic sphere. One’s tribe scattered all over the globe. The mind numbing disconnect between how most time is spent and what feels meaningful. Mandatory schooling to ensure a clock and regular routine is followed. Business administration understood as a far more important activity than poetry, gardening, philosophy, carpentry or lovemaking. Religion as a virtual stamp of ignorance. Prayer as a mark of naivety. Fighting a perpetual war to maintain supplies of poisonous goop to run machines that drive us insane.

Looking into the sky, thinking of everyone before me who has looked into that same sky, I am reminded that the moment in time I live is the tail end of a brief and perverse experiment. An experiment that includes a savage battle to deny history, to unrelate ourselves from any narrative of our species or surrounding. An experiment that requires voluntary insanity, a psychotic break that allows us to view ourselves as separate from everything else and allows us to imagine machines and then dream of refashioning ourselves in their image.

And it is an entirely ahistorical moment. A few hundred years ago, a few thousand years ago, a few tens of thousands of years ago, a few hundreds of thousands of years ago, all of those souls looking up at the stars and wondering and dreaming have more in common with each other than with us today. We stand alone in our radical departure bubble.

The machine age depresses me, and I mean that with a capital D. The machine age tries to take away the sky. The sky is not a field of gods or lovers. It is not a Zen meditation on our humble nature. For the machine age, stars are nuclear reactors, comets are exploitable resources, and planets are somewhere to develop the next commuter suburb. Space is a growth opportunity. Space is like everything else to the machine age, quantifiable units of production.

But when I step out into the cold, and guilelessly wait to see a “shooting star”, I step out of all that for a moment, step back into history. And I know that around the world, millions of other people step out into the night to stare off into the distance. I think of us all looking up and being human, being narrative creatures, being delighted. I think of families with their sleepy children looking up. I think of young couples holding hands. I think of everyone staying up late to forget the driven day and releasing themselves back into a paradox of primordial and eternal.

It doesn’t make what we are doing in the world go away. It certainly doesn’t bring any salvation. But for a few moments the night infuses me with the knowledge that the machine age isn’t as powerful or complete as it seems.

Monday, November 16, 2009

There Is No Such Thing As Society, Only Individuals

So many problems facing human communities can be attributed to a lack of collective political will. Optimists will sit back and praise the ability of technology to bring salvation, but we are not short of technology. The largest portion of money that goes to technology is associated with warfare. Number two on the list is diversions. Both of these expenditures of human, economic, and resource capital greatly contribute to the growth of isolationism, individualism and selfish obsession. Put another way, technology exacerbates the problems of collective action. So if technology isn’t riding in to save the day, then what?

Sometimes collective action problems are due to self-interest, competition, an inability to empathize at a distance or about things that have been abstracted. Sometimes, though, collective action problems are the result of a deliberate fracturing of communities.

John Ralston Saul described problems associated with a depoliticized population in his book, “The Unconscious Civilization”. It collects a series of Massey lectures. Much of the book can be summed up in the following quote:

You know a society is in trouble when the virtual totality of the elite, now a good third of the population, adopts public silence and private passivity on the professional level, then walks away from society to blow off accumulated steam on private pleasures.
Our civilization is locked in the grip of an ideology - corporatism. An ideology that denies and undermines the legitimacy of individuals as the citizen in a democracy. The particular imbalance of this ideology leads to a worship of self-interest and a denial of the public good. The practical effects on the individual are passivity and conformism in the areas that matter, and non-conformism in the areas that don't.

There are norms and ideologies that reinforce the kind of isolation and passivity that lead to collective action problems. Think of the saying, about how religion and politics are to be avoided in polite conversation. The number of places where it is appropriate to discuss matters of importance, let alone organise some kind of response seem to dwindle daily. Saul maintains that corporate interests encourage the belief that political discourse and political institutions are not to be trusted, ineffective, and out of reach to the individual because it is very beneficial to clearing the way for those corporate interests.

My concern of the moment is the limited number of social spheres where people even have the possibility of communicating with one another(yes, in the communication age). It is the workplace I am thinking about. Bringing your concerns about the public good into the workplace(even if your workplace is supposedly dedicated to the public good, or maybe especially if it is) can cause friction, can black mark you and can get you fired. Now, in the modern world, the largest block of waking time is generally spent in the workplace and the workplace is often one of the only group social venues a person has. The place where people might have the greatest ability to gravitate together on some issue of importance is the very last place where it would ever happen.

Borrowing again from Saul’s Massey lectures, here is a quote from Socrates:

If I say I cannot "mind my own business" you will not believe that I am serious. If on the other hand I tell you that to let no day pass without discussing goodness and all the other subjects about which you hear me talking and that examining both myself or others is really the very best thing a man can do and that life without this sort of examination is not worth living, you will be even less inclined to believe me. Nevertheless, gentlemen, that is how it is.

There are two important things here.

The first, is that Socrates’ famous quote, “the unexamined life is not worth living” did not concern the psychiatrist’s couch, navel gazing or personal fulfillment. It was about the public good. The quote takes on its self-absorbed reading when filtered through a society that has bought into the Thatcher quote that forms the title of this essay; a society that has become a cult of diversion and ego.

The second important thing is the notion that to pursue the public good, ideas about the good need to be out in the public. If people can’t talk together about the things that are important, or work on consensus and strategy, they become removed from the very basic idea that they are citizens, that they have a role to play, that they have responsibilities and that they have power. Any particular ill, whether political, economic or environmental, is not the governments problem, it’s your problem, my problem. The government is a distillation of you, me and everyone else. Of our aims. Of our priorities. If it isn’t, it loses its legitimacy, and that is still our problem.

Government isn’t “they”, it is “us”. It is how and who we choose to coordinate our efforts. Society isn’t something out there, something abstract, it is us, and the sum total of the things we think, say and do. The Thatcher quote can be turned around. If there is no society “up” there, or “out” there, if there is just you, your spouse, your children, your neighbours, your classmates, your coworkers, if there is just people everywhere, all over the globe, can anyone afford silence and passivity? Can we afford to simply ignore collective action?

I don’t have an answer as to how exactly to bring back public discourse into the public. I don’t know how to make it safe, desirable or protected. I simply bring up the fact reducing citizens to units of production, and threatening ostracization and/or expulsion when they attempt to present a whole integrated civically aware self in the workplace constitutes a grave and insidious dilemma. It’s an incapacitating viral dilemma. In or out of the workplace, bring up some pressing concern of the public good and watch how fast the room turns icy, or worse watch the almost fearful discomfort rise up. The code of silence and passivity originates from a variety of spheres, but it is self-reinforcing. And that is a collective action.

Sunday, November 15, 2009

Why Not?

As much as I love the sound of my own voice, I do occasionally tire of it, so today, in the spirit of community,friendship, and sharing, I've invited a colleague up onto my little digital soapbox. My guest has asked to remain anonymous and has assured me this has nothing to do with a fear that my company will reflect poorly on him. He offered up the nom de plume, "Economic Unit #4,108,684,411". Mr. Congenial that i am, I accepted. I'm not one to stand on formalities, though, so, in the future should he return, I will abbreviate to "Eco".

Humour aside, this essay was actually written by a friend, not me.


Okay, global warming. If I were a daily newspaper columnist, I would feel compelled to tie this post into the upcoming Copenhagen climate change conference. That's the thing about conventional news media; a discussion of a serious and ongoing crisis is only fit to print if it can be related to a specific newsworthy event occurring this news cycle. Our ability to discuss the macro is constrained by what's happening at the micro level.

Luckily this is a blog and I can be as untimely, un-newsworthy and therefore as relevant as I want.

When you're talking to someone about global climate change and the importance of doing something to combat it, there are a number of responses that aren't really what they appear to be at face value.

The one I hear a lot of is this: If we have to cut global emissions and stop burning coal, that means countries such as China and India have to deny themselves the benefits of industrialization that we in the West have enjoyed. How, morally, can we justify that? How can we just burn a bunch of fuel, get stinking rich, and then turn around and tell them they can't?

That's the argument. Now, I've almost never heard that argument made in good faith. That is, it's never been posed to me as a legitimate question about equity. Rather, it has always been posed as a rhetorical question supporting one, and only one, conclusion.

Analagous to mathematics, where you can reduce and simplify a complex equation to its essence by applying a series of operations, you can get at the root of this kind of rhetorical question--the second, third.... nth BS derivative, as it were--by repeatedly asking, "What's your point?"

"What's your point?"
"Well, it's not fair to tell China they can't industrialize."
"Again, what's your point?"
"Well, it's not reasonable to expect China not to industrialize, therefore the industrializing has to happen.
"I'm presuming you have a point. What is that point?"
"Well, if China keeps industrializing, we also have to keep burning fossil fuels to compete."
"And your point is..?"
"Well, I guess my point is that we cannot and should not take the required steps to stop global warming because to do so has consequences we cannot accept."

Of course, the noble face-value statement--"It's not fair to ask them to not industrialize"--actually conceals several layers of assumptions, and ultimately conceals a very selfish argument. Namely, that we cannot take steps to stop global warming because it will require sacrifices we'd rather not make.

Now, there are all kinds of practical issues involved in that logic. For instance, even if you conclude that it's right and necessary to stop China from industrializing, you are left with the practical difficulty of how to do it. But when the argument is concealed in a false, passive-aggressive framework of "It's not even fair to ask," we don't even get to those practical questions.

Don't get me wrong. I recognize that the West has enjoyed great benefits from industrialization. It's not fair that China doesn't get to enjoy those benefits. But at the end of the day, this isn't about fairness. Fairness is probably the third most important thing in my value system. But number one is is survival, and this is about the survival of human civilization and the continuing functioning of the planetary ecosystem.

Lots of things in life are unfair because someone got there first and then when someone else came along later, there wasn't any left for them. If I had my druthers we would have some mechanism for ensuring that good stuff gets conserved so that people in the future can enjoy some of it too. Actually, that's not my idea; it's the essence of sustainability. Sustainability is ultimately about survival and fairness.

And so, if you were dealing with someone worth arguing with, you could turn the question around and say, "Well, since we've enjoyed the benefits of a stable global climate, who are we to turn around and tell people thirty years in the future that they can't have that too?"

(If that sounds overly cute to you, too much of a slick rhetorical jab, allow me to appeal to your less noble instincts. You'll probably never meet the Chinese peasant heading to the factory. But you might very well be around in thirty years when that future generation is in charge and you are old and feeble. And that future generation might have some very strong feelings about the decision we've taken and might be inclined to vent their frustrations on the people responsible. Since at this rate they probably won't have any ice floes left to stick us on, I hesitate to imagine what form that venting might take.)

But that's assuming you're dealing with someone who may be arguing in good faith--that is, that they are really concerned about the fairness issue, and not just cloaking a selfish argument ("I don't wanna change") in a selfless one ("It's not fair to ask them to change.")

But I have yet to run into that situation. Usually, it's just the latest in a series of boneheaded, ill-informed or willfully obtuse tactics, dating back to the first warnings of global warming, each deployed and then abandoned in turn as the facts make them untenable.

It started with denying the possibility of global warming; acknowledging the possibility but denying the reality; accepting the reality but denying a human hand in it; accepting human agency but questioning whether it's on balance a good thing or a bad thing; and then, grudgingly, recognizing that it's a bad thing but that it's too late to do anything about it. You'll note that the rationale for not dealing with climate change has changed again and again, but that the implied policy response is always the same: don't do anything that will interfere with fossil-fuel industry profits.

Now we're at the final, pathetic endgame: the human shield. "Yes, we have to do something but, oh no, doing so will hurt this poor Chinese peasant who's gone to Shanghai to work in the factory and send money to his aging parents. How can you do that?"

Frankly, at this point, arguing the reality of global warming and the need to do something about it just lends legitimacy to an intellectually- and morally-bankrupt position. The facts and the imperative are now as well established as evolution, the Holocaust and the Moon landing, with precisely the same implications for those who deny them. Everyone who can be reasoned with has been persuaded, and those who can't will continue to bray their skepticism until Buzz Aldrin punches them in the mouth.

But I can't resist a good argument, especially when it gives me a chance to smack down someone who is stupid, ignorant or dishonest. So, if I were cornered and asked in seeming good faith why it's okay to ask China not to burn all their coal, I would say two things:

1) First, we have to. The alternative is misery and death for most of the human race, including your kids. If the Chinese standard of living is so important to you that you're willing to sacrifice your kids' lives, then here's the deal: Go home put a plastic bag over your daughter's head and hold it there for ten minutes until she's good and dead. Once you've done that, I promise I'll send a big-screen TV and a Nintendo Wii to some family in China. If that's where your priorities really are, then put your money where your mouth is. Otherwise, stop pretending that the standard of living of strangers on the other side of the planet is Job One in your value system.

2) If industrializing is so important to China, why did they wait so long? We're talking about a civilization that's been more or less stable for three thousand years. They were writing books and developing philosophy and massive public works projects while Europeans were picking lice out of their breeches. As it is, they waited until the last minute.

As it is, Europeans got there first and invented it. Sorry. (Observe that I am not saying Europeans are better, or smarter, or inherently more deserving. I say this to pre-emptively refute anyone who tries to take this as some kind of racialist justification for white supremacy, or who tries to impute that position to me. As I said, I have no use for stupid, ignorant or dishonest people and bigots are all three.) I'm just saying that if there's a limited amount of industrialization that the world can take (and there seems to be) then whoever got to it first gets to use it, and if past a certain point it has to be constrained, that is too bad for the latecomers.

Now, that's not an argument that I think is especially fair. In a fair world, Europeans would have limited how much they industrialized, knowing that someday the rest of the world would want to do it too. But it is one that is consistent with the rules of the game as laid out by capitalism, which last time I looked were deemed non-negotiable by the people in charge--particularly the corporations who have been most vociferous in undermining action on global warming. The same logic, for instance, is why we have patent laws. The person who invents something gets privileged use of that invention; she doesn't have to surrender it to everyone who comes asking.

Industrial capitalism has been around for about two hundred years; China could have picked up on it anytime but instead they decided to monkey around with Communism.

I'm not naive; I know the world isn't fair and I don't expect people to behave fairly. But I do expect them to not be hypocrites, and to behave in a manner that is more or less consistent with their own professed values. (Internal consistency - that's my second most important value.) If you're going to question global warming around me, you'd better have an internally consistent logic behind it or I will be inclined to treat you in a most uncivil manner.