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.

Saturday, November 14, 2009

From Active Resistance to Civil Disobedience to Play-Time Protest

Emma Goldman is famous for, among other things, saying, “if I can’t dance, I don’t want to be in your revolution”. And that seems such an endearing slogan, beseeching us to retain our humanity on the battlefield. But sometimes it looks like there is an awful lot of dancing, and not very much revolution. There is a lot of crap going on in the world that could use attending to. Ever rising rates of carbon emission. Military “adventuring” for material gain. The economic gutting of working people. Governments moving ever further away from the public good toward corporate interest. Environmental regulations being dismantled. Food production slowly evolving into a kind of biological warfare. In 2009, we might be better served by a slogan more along the lines of “If you won’t get down to work then you have no place at the dance”.

I read in the news recently, that a protest group was declaring a hunger strike because the Copenhagen climate talks are taking on the character of a vaudeville routine (Who’s on first. What’s on second). Hunger strikes may be of dubious value, but they do tend to garner attention and they offer a pretty strong statement of commitment on the part of the protester. Being willing to starve, risk kidney damage, and possibly death does effectively shout “guys, this is really really important to me, I need you to listen”. It’s often overlooked that one of the handiest things about this form of resistance is it is simple and requires little in the way of effort or knowledge. As long as you are somewhere that people will notice, all you do is stop eating. Watching someone waste away, consumed from the inside out does make people uncomfortable in today’s world of delicate sensibilities.

I read a little further. It turns out that this group decided to fix something that wasn’t broke. They devised a rotating system of shifts: You starve today, I take my turn tomorrow and we’re letting Jack Sprat sit this one out, because he’s already a little on the thin side. More of a peckish strike than a hunger strike. The advantage of this strategy is you can keep up a hunger strike indefinitely instead of the previous hard limits of 30 to 50 days. Unfortunately, since it takes about three days for your body to even get past burning this morning's gummy bears, your previously visceral statement is turned into a lame metaphor and the cameras will move on to the topless protesters down the block.

What prompted this post was waking up to an email from Adbusters, with a bold 18 point font headline: “Buy Nothing Day Morphs into a Wildcat General Strike”. Wow, what’s this? Things have grown dire and we have to step up our efforts to bring down the “capitalist consuming machine”(otherwise known as ‘us’). While recognizing my noble efforts in the past, valiantly completing my immediate shopping needs by the 26th or else focusing my will to put them off until the 28th, the think tank in the Adbuster War Room calculates that we now need a hard push if we are to turn the tables on. . .on. . . well, I am still a little unclear on who the recipient of this message is, but I digress. This year, on November 27th, I need to go even further beyond the call of duty and “turn off all non-essential appliances”. Whoah, the kid gloves are off. I'm not sure how to differentiate between essential and non-essential though. Hospital life-support machines, ok, they’re probably essential. It gets a little grey when I think about the blender which provides my organic-whey-protein-with-açaí power shake in the morning(hey, I'm not in the hunger strike battalion). If Joan of Arc had had this hammer in her toolbox, just think how things could have turned out. More tools is good, isn’t it?

One of the benefits of the broad application of post-secondary education to the young adult consumer market is that there is just a hothouse of fertile creativity in the protest movement. Back around the time that unions started to gain strength, protesters were uneducated and had to resort to carrying two-by-fours and bricks and engaging in a kind of urban warfare to gain the attention of their oppressors. Remember those Wildcat Strikes! Today though, in a more enlightened age, we have Puppet Theatre. This is arguably a more complex form of protest, but education filled that ingenuity gap. Basically, the night before the protest, you pull on your best Che Guevera(TM)t-shirt, then you gather your cell members, pick up some markers, glue, scissors, fabric and a couple of six packs of local micro brew and then you just let your creativity run wild in an explosively anarchic synergistic collaboration. Then, at the protest, you stage a drama, rich in symbolism and mythic allusion and really let the enemy know you mean business.

Author Derrick Jensen cuts right to the heart of the matter. He poses the question, What if, in the Star Wars Saga, the rebel Alliance had used the tools of the environmental movement? Some highlights are the promoting of eco-tourism on Endor among the storm troopers, setting up fair-trade coffee stands on the death star, and letter writing campaigns imploring Vader to give up his destructive ways. Jensen’s telling of the story underscores the absurdity of it all. As amusing as it is, your laughter gets hollow and an uncomfortable feeling creeps into your gut when he gets to the more radical protesters. The hardcore of the movement go down to planets slated for destruction, link hands, sing give peace a chance and project "waves and waves of loving kindness" at Vader.

I do understand the value of protest. Sometimes it raises awareness on an issue. It gives people a chance to declare their non-support. Occasionally, with enough of a groundswell, it gets politicians itchy under the collar as they wonder where the voter heart lies. And it is an opportunity to build community ties, human bonds and to learn you are not alone in your discontent. But the flip-side is the mistaken sense of what it can accomplish, and its vulnerability due to media filtering (when the news reports a protest, it usually doesn’t identify the cause, but instead focuses on how “they” thwarted “you” by disrupting traffic). There are other liabilities too. It can cause complacency in the casual witness who may feel sympathetic but is comforted that “something is being done”. Worst of all, it becomes a substitution for the real work involved in change. A good portion of this cohort don’t vote and don’t “believe in” politics or institutions (wake up call: they are real, powerful, organized and effective and they don’t require our belief). For the most educated generation ever, there is a flabbergasting naivety concerning how things work, how things get done. If the limits of your political discourse are “hey hey, ho ho, blank-blank has to go”, and the limits of your resistance activities are token protest gestures and you are blind to how supportive to “the enemy” your complete civic absenteeism is, then you will always have a growing number of protests to attend. Because the world will keep merrily on in its terrible way, guided by the people who are actually doing things.

Years ago, I was sitting with some friends. Decent, intelligent, kind, educated middle class adults. All very concerned with the state of the world. My disgruntled peer group was highly identifiable by their fashionable blend of post-punk and nerd-chic. They considered the “anti-conformism” of their store bought clothes to be part of their “political” statement(yes, with enough education, you can simultaneously disbelieve in politics, yet believe denim is a political statement). A very ordinary looking guy in white shirt and tie walked up to us. Turns out he was a former classmate of the group. Nobody had seem him hanging around in a long time, and they asked what he had been up to. As it was, he had gone off to law school and was well on his way to becoming an environmental lawyer. After he left, they jeered about how he had sold out, and wondered what he hoped to accomplish. There was even a lament, that he “had been so cool, what happened to him"? If the whole group had all become environmental lawyers, would Canada have gotten away with re-designating a bunch of lakes, “tailings ponds”, as a clever cost-effective solution to toxic pollution by resource industries?

Incidentally, Emma Goldman wrote, spoke and did an awful lot of pretty impressive revolutionary stuff, but most likely never said that quote in the opening. She did however try to assassinate a corporate industrialist CEO that she had identified as one of the enemy.

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Better Off

One of the more vivid stories from mythology we have carefully carried through time, is the flight of Icarus. It is a cautionary tale, and the villain is sometimes thought of as Hubris and sometimes as Recklessness. Daedalus, Icarus’ father, builds 2 sets of wings out of wood, feathers and wax, to use to escape from Crete. Icarus’ father had warned him not to fly too low or his wings would get wet and not too high or they would melt. Icarus, of course, flew higher and higher, in ecstasy at the glory and sense of freedom, until he flew too close to the sun and melted away his wings. It is a valuable story with many possible nuances in the telling.

I found myself thinking about that ancient tale while watching the latest incarnation in the Stargate franchise. Television, with its truncated story arcs, tendency to melodrama and its use of unlikely situations to illuminate the human condition has always struck me as being akin to a modern mythology. In Stargate Universe, our heroes are trapped on a hyper-advanced alien space ship that has run out of fuel and is on a collision course with a star. They soon realise that they should have burned up, but instead, their shields are holding. Depicted in breathtaking visuals, we watch the ship swoop down right into the star to harvest energy. The ship refuels and our awestruck heroes continue their quest into the unknown. Watching, the hair on my arms stood on end, I felt misty and moved and having followed the narrative through the crisis-climax-relief, I had a swirl of endorphins churning inside that gave me wonder at the possibilities in the universe. Great story-telling.

And you know part of why it was so satisfying? It was a myth of wish-fulfillment. It was the opposite of the kind of wisdom that has been honed to its essence in a myth. The Icarus myth warns us of our shortcomings, our short-sightedness and what we stand to lose when we neglect what is important in a bid to have it all. The Stargate myth is the myth of our time. It is the technology myth and it is the myth of no limits and it is the myth of more is better.

Only it isn’t a true myth. It is a child’s fantasy of being loose in the candy store. Fantasy and myth are not the same thing at all. Fantasies provide escape and temporary relief from stress and are a valuable contribution from our imaginations. Myth, like its cousins fable, parable and allegory, is meant to harness the power of story in order to guide, instruct, and provoke reflection. Myth is meant to give you pause.

I came across a book recently by Eric Brende, entitled, “Better Off: Flipping the Switch on Technology”. In the course of completing a PhD at MIT on the social effects of machines on human life, Brende spent 18 months living in a small Mennonite-styled farming community that had closed the door on electricity and fossil fuels. He did this to gain some sense of what life is like without automatic machines, to discover other forms of technology and to reflect on what technology brings as well as takes away. Brende is instinctually wary of technology, yet not wanting to be reactionary. He asks how much technology is enough. How much is too much? Like Daedelus, he is looking for a successful flight path.

In a sumptuous narrative that twines strands of history, science, religion, economics as well as community, friendship, and family, Brende weaves an engaging story of his own voyage, his own reflections on the myth of technology. The very structure of the book is designed to be an example of what it discusses. It moves at a lazy pace, and winds in and out of spaces and times and ideas. It encourages the reader to step out of linear efficiency and slow his own pace down. It invites the reader to have his own reflections interact with the text. That the book turned out the way it did, is a demonstration of things learned along the way.

It isn’t an anti-technology polemic, far from it. The first thing Brende does is distinguish between tools and automatic machines. Tools bring a person into contact with his aim. Tools engage. Tools are useful without being in the way. Machines tend to rob a person of skills, physical health and human connections. Machines, designed to free up time tend to rob a person of many human pursuits and take activities that once integrated many functions—social, physical, mental, emotional, and fractures them. Aside from the energy drain of working for the money to buy and maintain machines, life becomes cluttered and stressful trying to manage jobs and friends and family and personal life that each have their own little compartments of time. He makes the point over and over again that instead of shaping machines to our human ends, we end up shaping ourselves around the machines.

Brende soon learns that life among the Mennonites isn’t drudgery, but a rich complexity of skilled tasks set in a densely interdependent community and carried out with gentle rhythms and cycles. While he is at it, he discovers a multitude of simpler, sometimes older, technologies, each with a specific purpose, each requiring human skills. Some technologies are recent innovations, applications of human ingenuity that fine tune an application without displacing the human input.

When it comes to questions about technology, members of the community meet in council to discuss what purposes their might be in adopting a new technology and what risks it entails. Society at large tends to simply adopt most technology on the principle that more is better. At best, we ask what can this technology give us. We don’t spend much time at all worrying about what it will cost, what will be lost, and if it would be reversible. To this day we use the term luddite to ridicule anyone who questions technology. The luddites balked at the introduction of automatic looms which destroyed an entire skilled trade, severed a history of skills and craftsmanship, put an entire sector out of work, concentrated the wealth of the community into fewer hands, and probably caused all manner of tragic circumstances in the families of those affected. And those are only the immediate consequences. One might ponder higher order consequences linked to standardization, homogenization, the consumerism that follows mass production.

The Mennonites ask will this technology rob us of skills? Will it cut us off from cherished activities? Perhaps, most importantly, they ask will this technology interfere with the cooperative nature of our community. They are concerned with their social fabric. They don’t see independence and idleness at rewards. They’re all for technologies that help get the job done well, technologies that serve their efforts and technologies that genuinely benefit the community.

By way of example, forgoing cars is seen as essential to maintaining a human pace. Just as the “new urbanism” movement discusses building communities that are human scaled, human pace is to be considered also. Travelling by foot, bicycle or horse drawn wagon limits speed and the sphere of travel. It is a precondition for neighbourly stability, mutual aid, and everyday face to face interaction. Brende makes the point also, that human paced transportation lets you remain interactive with your environment. You can see more, hear more, you can smell things, touch things, talk to people. He described the wagon as a “kind of moving front porch” that let you become a “transitory neighbour”.

After functional communities, maybe the best benefit discussed is silence and stillness. Human paced life is full with quiet times, slow times. It leaves time to reflect and be mindful. It is difficult to lead a directed and centred life if you are always rushing about, your whole life is compartmentalized and your day is an assembly line of moments. The sensory overload that comes from our electronic commercialized world can be both blinding and numbing.

One of the first criticisms that comes to mind is the question of whether any of this folksy charm is applicable in the greater world of near seven billion rapidly urbanizing souls. As well, technologies are linked in an intricate web and it is hard to just pick and choose. I might feel many of the technologies in a hospital are quite desirable, but they do not manifest without a whole host of other technologies I find undesirable.

Between fossil fuel shortages and the need to constrain carbon emissions, we may just find out the wide scale applicability of the ideas in Brende’s book. But the obvious first question is: what is more likely, that technology will solve our problems, or that runaway technology helped us arrive at this problematic place in the first place. Frankly, I'm often terrified by our desperation to hang onto what seems to me to be a fairly ugly way of life. I carry an image in my head befitting a Steven King story, of the slaves working in the fields to grow corn for the cars, and then the cars drive the slaves back home and plug them into their televisions to maintain stability. I carry another one similar to the “grey goo” theory of nanobots, except we are the nanobots and we eat every last thing on the planet.

I also have daydreams of a country having thousands of small towns rather than a few megacities. I imagine endless variations between towns in their look, culture and flavour. I imagine people working at many different tasks rather than being specialized. I imagine knowing and needing your neighbours. I imagine people listening to live music together that they produce instead of having massive CD collections that they listen to isolated in their headphones. I imagine communities where the various talents of everyone is useful because we haven’t sought out economy of scale, mass production or the most efficient path to profit.

I'm not naive. If we are in for challenging times ahead, I understand perfectly well the problems engendered by greed, paranoia, and desperation. I understand collective action problems and the problem of previous investment. And then there are the hardwired problems of evolution around competition for resources. The list doesn’t end there. I have a hard time hanging onto my little daydreams of a more wholesome slow paced world and an even harder time not being overwhelmed with frustration and fear at the bad places I can imagine ourselves heading to.

Icarus plummeted after attaining great heights. That the sun educated Hubris and Recklessness is a sublime serendipity when viewed today. The sun gives all life and is the source of every energy we have from oil to the flexing of our own muscles. It is a symbol of power and ambition and a destructive force. Apollo, a sun god, is a god of harmony, yet a god of conquest. He is associated with healing and with bringing plagues. The issues we face today are all about our relationship to the sun, and which side of Apollo we have been promoting. In our own playing out of the Icarus tale, we have been trying to change our relationship with the sun from harmony to conquest. We keep cranking out the technology trying to heal our ills and we bring more plagues. The ancient sunlight in coal and oil that we burn have given us flight, but with the onset of climate change, we are melting the wings we have been so proud of.

As much as that Stargate storyscape is wondrous and fascinating, I don’t need or want that in my future. I don’t need more technology. I need very simple things, the same as everyone else does: food, community and meaningful things to do. Brende’s book may contribute some idea and inspiration for how we respond to the things that are coming our way. It may also offer a sense that what is coming could be viewed as a renewal, not a collapse.