September - October, 2005

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September 1. About the media coverage of the New Orleans disaster, a reader asks:

Do you think we've been conditioned, via our mass media, to respond with panic now? Movies like Oil Storm, all this focus on "looters" and "lawlessness," almost like we're being told this is how to behave?

The system wants to dominate. It doesn't want us running wild in the streets, because that's unpredictable. It's showing looters not to make us steal, but to make us afraid of looters, so we happily give more power to authorities. The worst thing that could happen from the Empire's perspective, and the best thing from our perspective, is for the media to show people getting along, being helpful, working effectively, without any police or soldiers or bureaucrats around. Conversely, the best thing for the rulers is for us to see horrific violence in the absence of central control.

September 1. The first bus to arrive at the Astrodome was a young guy who just found a bus and loaded up people and drove there. This is the kind of adjustment we're all going to have to make, to be adaptable and take care of each other instead of putting our trust in the authorities. The dying people of New Orleans are being told they're "on their own." If only they'd been told that years ago, they would have had a chance to get ready. The rest of us still have that chance.

September 1. Thanks Betsy for this timely quote from Martin Luther King:

This blood-lust interpretation ignores one of the most striking features of the city riots. Violent they certainly were. But the violence, to a startling degree, was focused against property rather than against people. There were very few cases of injury to persons, and the vast majority of the rioters were not involved at all in attacking people... From the facts, an unmistakable pattern emerges: a handful of Negroes used gunfire substantially to intimidate, not to kill; and all of the other participants had a different target -- property.

I am aware that there are many who wince at a distinction between property and persons -- who hold both sacrosanct. My views are not so rigid. A life is sacred. Property is intended to serve life, and no matter how much we surround it with rights and respect, it has no personal being.

September 1. Bloggers have been calling this an "American Fallujah," and they might have been more accurate than they thought. Here's more from Patricia:

I can't believe what I am reading, what is being sent to me. The lesson of New Orleans is being taught even on CNN and, yes, FOX News! Here is The Lesson:

There is no federal level agency that will help you in the event of natural disaster, attack, whatever. In fact, they will actually try to stop local and state officials, and private citizens, and other nations, from coming to your aid. When they arrive, it will not be to save you -- it will be to arrest you, or kill you. Our "government" now feels entirely free to trap hundreds of thousands of citizens inside major disaster zones, with no clean water, no food, no help of any kind, until they either give up and die, or become so desperate with thirst or hunger or anger or madness that they turn on one another. No one enters, no one leaves, until that state is reached. Then, killing you will be called "justice." And they expect to pretend this is not the case, and they expect to get away with it.

We really really are on our own.

September 2. The History Channel has an upcoming special on Roman engineering, and in the ads they're calling the Colosseum "the world's first Superdome." You all get the message, right? On top of that, we have the much circulated photo of Bush (Nero) playing a guitar (fiddling) while Rome (New Orleans) burns (drowns). Think back: have you seen Bush, at any other time, playing a musical instrument? It really looks like there's a world behind this one, playing the same records over and over, and every age has its own stereo system on which they sound a little different.

September 4. From Jeff Wells's Because they can post: "In the end, there is no understanding evil. There is only opposing it."

I disagree. Understanding evil is the only way to stop it. Even "opposing" it, in the usual sense, is worthless. That's why liberals have lost again and again through all of history -- because they simply oppose evil without understanding it.

And understanding it is not that hard. Have you ever felt good about pulling a weed in your yard, or taking a shovel to one coming up through a crack in your driveway, or trimming the edge of the grass to have a clean line where it meets the sidewalk? That's evil: valuing deadness over life, valuing your control over another being's freedom, valuing uniformity over any complexity that did not originate in your ego. You felt good about snuffing something to maintain the sanctity of dead geometry. The Bush gang is just taking that feeling and not holding back. And I sort of agree with them... because if we just felt that way about selected species, one "weed" at a time, and proceeded in a rational and prudent manner, we would eventually exterminate all life on Earth except the few species we could absolutely control, while seeing ourselves and the whole process as benevolent and natural. But when that feeling goes wild, it's like a boiler explosion in the factory of evil. There's a lot more dying, and then a brief calm before they can get it going again, and in the meantime two or three people get smarter.

I dare you to play with that feeling -- let it extend to other humans, and before you pull it back, hold it there a moment and find out how it tastes. Now pull it back and next time push it farther, and in recoil, try to pull it all the way back. And out again. Keep at it, and you'll understand it, and the next time you see it in action, you won't waste any time being surprised or angry or baffled. As Thaddeus Golas said, "What can we do about evil? A great deal, if our heads are clear."

September 5. Great news! The entire federal response to this disaster -- holding back food and water, preventing anyone from going in or out except official evacuation buses, sending in troops with "shoot to kill" orders, cutting off communication -- was designed to prevent something like this, and to prevent the story getting out. We won! 'Tribes' Survive in French Quarter:

While mold and contagion grew in the muck that engulfed most of the city, something else sprouted in this most decadent of American neighborhoods -- humanity.

'Some people became animals,' Vasilioas Tryphonas said Sunday morning as he sipped a hot beer in Johnny White's Sports Bar on Bourbon Street. 'We became more civilized.'

September 6. Just saw a personal account that included a great observation: The people we have been calling "refugees" and "evacuees" are more properly called detainees. They are already being concentrated in "camps" from which they can't freely come and go, they are being given work but still no money, and they will form the nucleus and the precedent for these "facilities," which will expand to take in more and more people in trouble, and it will all look perfectly natural. I'm not being paranoid, because I don't think they're after me. I'm just putting myself in the position of the rulers, and looking at history.

September 7. Here's an exceptional account of Katrina by two paramedics.

There was also an account by a French tourist in the Superdome, Three Days In Hell, but that link is dead, and I can no longer find a full English translation anywhere. The original French is here: Trois jours de cauchemar.

One time, to amuse themselves, the soldiers threw bottles as hard as they could into the crowd, like in baseball. A woman was hit in the head. The Navy arrived and it was even worse: the soldiers did not stop yelling at us.

From the bus that took us on Friday morning towards Dallas, we saw a cotton field outside the windows. The blacks joked: "Nothing has changed," they told us.

The orders given by President George Washington to General John Sullivan, 1779:

The Expedition you are appointed to command is to be directed against the hostile tribes of the Six Nations of Indians, with their associates and adherents. The immediate objects are the total destruction and devastation of their settlements, and the capture of as many prisoners of every age and sex as possible. It will be essential to ruin their crops now in the ground and prevent their planting more.

I would recommend, that some post in the center of the Indian Country, should be occupied with all expedition, with a sufficient quantity of provisions whence parties should be detached to lay waste all the settlements around, with instructions to do it in the most effectual manner, that the country may not be merely overrun, but destroyed.

But you will not by any means listen to any overture of peace before the total ruinment of their settlements is effected. Our future security will be in their inability to injure us and in the terror with which the severity of the chastisement they receive will inspire them.

September 9. A message I'm getting from readers is, "Oh shit! The system is falling fast and I'm nowhere near ready -- I need to do hundreds of things and I only have time for a few. Should I try to get out of debt? Learn wilderness survival? AAAAAA!"

Here's my recommendation, but it's not the best idea for everyone. Get a bike. Get a used road bike for $100 -- it's almost as good as a new hybrid and a lot more theft-resistant. Spend a few weekends learning to service it. If you know anyone who can service bikes, ask them to teach you the basics. Get your own tools. Take it apart, lube the bearings, put it back together. Put on a front rack and a back rack and panniers. Get a good long-burning front headlight. I use a Serfas SL-1000, which is also easy to detach and use as a hand flashlight. Put on some really tough tires. I recommend Specialized Armadillo Turbo or Nimbus, smooth for efficiency on pavement. The total cost should be under $400. Then go on a practice survival bike trip. Learn how to get out of your city, learn what you need and don't need, and get some practice camping -- or if necessary, stealth camping. Patricia comments:

This is more a mental practice, than anything else. If you know just how little you really need to get by, it takes a lot of the worry away. Then, if somehow you do find yourself having to adjust to a very sudden lifestyle change, you won't panic, you won't waste time and energy being scared or confused or depressed. You can just get on with it. If you've already been adjusting, you may even be excited by something changing like that -- it will be like a game for which you have already been training.

September 16. (December 2012) I've removed "What We Learned From Katrina" from the essay page and put most of it here in the blog archives, where I think it fits better.

1. The authorities are not your friends -- especially not the federal authorities. Expecting them to help you is like expecting a hammer to drive you to the airport. A hammer drives nails. Authorities dominate. If they help you with one hand, it's only so they can control you with the other. In any crisis, the totality of what they do is likely to be worse than if they had completely left you alone. Do not put yourself in a position where you depend on them.

2. Ordinary people are competent and decent when you strip away the system and the roles it requires us to play. A catastrophe is a huge opportunity for us to learn to help each other as equals, for people suddenly free of jobs and cars and television to rediscover their aliveness, to come together and build something beautiful. This will not be permitted. It's the Federal Emergency Management Agency. People with their survival needs met and free time are a huge threat to management.

3. "Roving gangs" happen but they're overrated. They do not attack hard targets and fight to the last man like in the movies. If you're defending a private home or business with a grim look and a big gun, you almost certainly won't have to use it. Of course, gangs with badges and uniforms do attack hard targets, and are trained to go forward when challenged. The nice thing is, they usually give you plenty of warning to get out. Therefore...

4. The key to survival is mobility. Supposedly people got stuck in the city because they didn't have cars, but I was told by someone who evacuated New Orleans by car that traffic moved only 3-5 miles per hour. You could go that fast on foot, and two or three times that fast on a bike. Bicycles can carry more people per hour over a bridge of a given size than any other technology, with much more energy efficiency, and without any gasoline or electricity. Of course a bicycle can't carry nearly as much stuff as a car, so you need another place to go that already has shelter and food, outside the area of the expected crisis but close enough that you can get there in a few days. It helps to have friends in a lot of places.

5. The system is not fragile. Many doomers would have predicted that a hurricane that destroyed New Orleans and crippled the oil drilling in the Gulf, plus some refineries, would have sparked economic Armageddon, or totally collapsed America. So far the only effect in my area is that gasoline is a little more expensive. Even though the system is overstressed and breaking down in almost every way, it has great inertia, a huge mass of habit that can absorb hard blows and channel them into many slow changes.

September 22. Deadly plague hits Warcraft world. Nigel comments:

Almost anyone who has run across this has loved this bug, mostly because they are tired of the "grind" (kill monster, get gold, buy more equipment, kill monster, etc rinse repeat).

Reminds me of another, less deeply nested virtual world... And it's interesting that even in a game that's designed to be fun, players still get bored and crave catastrophe.

September 25. On the subject of bicycling out of a city in a disaster, Robert reports that the only way out of Phoenix is by freeway. This is probably true of other cities, and it's probably illegal to ride your bike on those freeways, even in an emergency. This is getting scary. Some foilhead has a website where he takes photos of empty yards with barbed wire and towers and says they're concentration camps ready to receive inmates. They might be, but why bother? Our cities are already concentration camps -- they are places where most of us are concentrated, and in a crisis, when the rulers need to keep us concentrated, they just block a few dozen lanes of freeways and smaller roads, and we can't get out! The food and water systems are already in place, the airports are there to take the elite in and out, and if we get to be too much trouble, they just "incompetently" cut off our life support. I can't think of a scenario where they would do it to all the cities, but how about a few coastal cities that get unruly and un-useful as the economy fails?

September 26. Tim brings up a common objection to forecasts of concentration camps:

Why put people in concentration camps (providing them free housing, food, and healthcare) when you could simply sell them an endless stream of products and make money off them?

Because someone has to make the products, and operate the whole infrastructure that makes this economy possible, and those are crappy jobs that no one would do if they weren't over a barrel. So when someone tries to liberate people from that system, they get killed or put in prison. Real concentration camps are not places of "free housing, food and healthcare." They are generally work camps. Nazi camps worked people to death, and people unfit for work were killed straight off. That's the logical result of a system that places technical values over human values.

And why make money anyway? The people who run these businesses that are so interested in making money already have nice housing and food and toys. The reason they want more money is that money is ultimately about power. If you want more money than you need, it's because you crave more and more power, and the end of that road is the death camp.

September 30 / October 1. I've been thinking about the whole human drama of societies getting incrementally more complex, and then collapsing hard, and wondering why it has to be that way. Sure, it's easier to add complexity a little bit at a time than all at once, but is it really easier to go through a crash than to remove unwanted complexity a little bit at a time? Why can't we do that?

I'm thinking of nations that keep adding laws until the whole thing is so clunky and inefficient that they have a revolution and start over. I'm thinking of musicians who start out with just voice and guitar, and then add backup instruments, and by the fifth album there's a damn orchestra... and then at some point, all at once, they strip it back down. Why doesn't anyone ever strip it down gradually? In an email, Dmitry Orlov suggests that this is just "the way of all life":

Take any relatively dry patch of sand in a mangrove swamp: it might really take off for a while, with lots of lush vegetation, but that evaporates a lot of water, making the sand in the area too salty. Then all the vegetation dies, turning the patch into a stinky black desert. Then a storm sweeps through, washes it all away, and leaves a sandy hole. And then the process begins all over again. Trees don't know how to un-grow themselves when the water starts turning briny; they just die.

For me, that just drives the question into metaphysics: If nature works that way too, then why? Are there other worlds that work differently? I think there are, because I don't live my own life that way. As an individual, I can and do incrementally reduce complexity. I stripped my ten speed bike down to a singlespeed. I stripped my waffle batter down to raw sourdough starter. I stripped my expenses down to food and tools. Because of my personal experience, I view the cycle of complexity-and-collapse as a symptom of lack of discipline -- even when nature does it. And I have a vision, maybe only possible on some other level of reality, of ecosystems and societies with smooth equilibrium. I don't mean stasis, but cycles that move gently like a slow pendulum, where as soon as things go a little out of balance, they turn and go back, instead of going more and more out of balance and crashing.

One of my ambitions is to actually create such worlds on "lower" levels of reality: I want to design role-playing games and computer games where the more stuff you have (levels, powers, resources, territory, etc.) the easier it is to lose it, and the less you have the easier it is to gain it, so the game goes on forever...

October 2. Terrible news about a new hybrid corn, PuraMaize, that "rejects pollen from all other strains of corn except its own -- meaning that any biotech pollen that happened to drift by could not contaminate it."

If you think this is good, think harder. The real threat of genetically manipulated food is not that it's weird or new or dangerous, but that it enables domination, by giving corporations control and "ownership" over what we grow and eat. Right now, the biggest thing holding back the biotech companies from replacing all food crops with varieties that they own, and thereby making eating and survival corporately owned, is consumer fear of genetic "contamination."

Now, at least for corn, that obstacle is gone. They can grow the GM corn side by side with the "pure" corn and easily sell to both markets with no inspections or lawsuits holding them back. Also it will create a feedback loop, where more GM corn will force more farmers to use PuraMaize, enabling more farmers to grow GM corn, and so on, until all corn is owned by giant entities legally constructed to have zero empathy and maximize their own power. PuraMaize, of course, is patented.

October 7. David Holmgren interview, Peak Oil and Permaculture, with a good bit in the middle about the survival of the suburbs, and this great bit at the end:

...fossil fuels represent hundreds of millions of years of stored energy -- effectively the surplus of the abundance of Gaia as a self organizing organism, the living earth. You could say that now we've dug it all out again, in a way we've done nature's task -- humanity's task is now over. We've put it all back into the atmosphere, recycled all the biological elements, and nature will now use that to develop to a higher level of energy... We just have to worry about what it means to be human and to continue to attempt to live out that story.

Reminds me of my own Return of the Dinosaurs post.

October 10. New Jersey considers selling turnpike. I had never thought about this, but now it takes only a minute to think it through: a network of expensive, well-maintained toll roads for the rich, and everyone else forced to drive (walk, ride) the deteriorating old highways, which, if we're very lucky, will be free of both police and bandits.

October 11/12. Good summary of Jared Diamond's Collapse by Malcolm Gladwell. The most interesting thing here is that humans will favor cultural survival over biological survival -- they will maintain their taboos even if it kills them. This explains why starving people rarely take up cannibalism.

Now that I've read how Vikings in Greenland killed themselves by preserving their culture, how they refused to eat fish and spent all their capital on decorative crap, I'm seeing it everywhere. For example, a guy in Phoenix turned his yard into an organic garden (dead link unrecoverable) and the neighbors are trying to get rid of it. Again, humans will starve to death to preserve their culture, in this case their neighborhoods of tidy lawns.

October 12. Adam M. writes:

The post-apocalyptic future I see is a kind of Burroughsian self-organising anarchy. Rather than nations, there will be races and clans, weird and unique, constantly morphing. New belief systems will proliferate massively. Corporations will build their own 1984 style city-states, which are preyed on by gangs of vampires. There will be bird people who fly and merpeople who live and converse with dolphins. Reality will become a tradable commodity. In short I suspect we may be (re-)entering Mythical Times.

Reality a commodity? Thanks for ruining my vision of future Mythical Times.

October 17. Good post about the USDA's mandatory property and animal surveillance program. I'm not going to take the usual angle, "Outrage! Do something!" Ever since the invention of agriculture enabled food surpluses, which created permanent elites, those elites have done whatever they had to to maintain power, including massacring whole continents of people who knew how to provide their own necessities. It's been going on for thousands of years and we should really all be past the anger stage by now.

So what do we do? After the activists fail to stop it, we need to figure out how well it's going to be enforced, and ignore the law if we can, and if we can't, we'll shift to other food sources that are not yet regulated, like garden vegetables. And when they regulate those, we'll shift to eating weeds and bugs. But it won't get that far, because the control systems long ago crossed a line beyond which humans become insane and uncaring and destructive, until they elect insane and uncaring and destructive leaders to run the control systems off the rails -- which is why I've always viewed the Bush presidency with relief.

Also, notice how inefficient this whole system is. Every RFID chip and file and report consumes resources. The cost is staggering and there's zero benefit, except in terms of the psychology of control. The fatal hubris of all domination systems, from a strict-father nuclear family to the New World Order, is to reach for more and more micromanagement, which makes the whole thing less effective and more expensive.

October 18. An article about Stirling Solar-Thermal Generators, super-efficient solar energy systems that, "due to their size and cost, are intended for industrial use only."

Notice that every article about energy systems contains the word "needs." How much energy do we need? Our ancestors did fine for two million years, or two hundred million if you count our pre-human ancestors, with energy gathered by plants through photosynthesis, taken into our bodies through eating, and channeled through our muscles. Do industrial energy systems make us happy? Do they give our lives meaning?

The only thing we need, beyond basic survival, is participation in a system that builds itself bottom-up from autonomous action. "Energy" makes us miserable and stupid when and only when it is gathered and parceled out by control systems. The nice thing about oil and coal is that they run out, and that they pollute the air to cause eco-catastrophes, which are far preferable to having our lives managed by the institutions that own the energy. Sustainable, clean energy that you can't cheaply gather in your back yard is the worst technology possible, because it could enable the systems that enslave us to continue forever.

October 23. The other night a reader got a call from a friend in New Orleans. She writes:

It was unnerving to hear him so upset because he's really blase and funny, and physically extremely strong. This isn't a normally hysterical person, this is a person who lives by his wits. He was saying he found all his white friends but none of his black friends. Saying the government is lying about how many died, and that in fact his neighborhood is still filled with bodies that will never be counted. Urging me to get my passport in order "because World War III started and no one noticed." And he said, "You have to get out of North America. That's the one thing I need you to take away from all this. Please please, get out of North America."

October 24. Every time I suggest the ruling powers want to kill us, people say they just want to profit from us. But what is profit? It's the accumulation of money, which is the entitlement to someone else's labor. Profit equals increasing control. But the mechanism, money, is only symbolic. As the money economy breaks down, the ability to control us through money will break down, and the rulers (who I imagine to be cells in the demonic group mind of Control itself) will look for other ways. To the extent that they fail, to the extent that we are able to live uncontrolled, they will want to kill us, for exactly the same reason an abusive husband wants to kill his wife if she leaves him. Without money, the will to profit becomes the will to exterminate.

October 26. There's an urban myth that I see all the time in discussions about energy scarcity: that Jimmy Carter wore a sweater to tell Americans to turn their thermostats down. In fact, he wore a sweater every time he addressed the nation, to cultivate a laid-back common-man image. It had nothing to do with energy and he never said it did. (research credit Tom Moody)

October 29-30. Congress Rams Through Sneak Attack on Organic Standards. Actually, even the organic standards we have now are significantly weaker than the old state standards. Back in the 90's, when they made the fatal mistake of asking for a single federal standard, I researched the issue and wrote up a pamphlet summarizing the worst of the dozens of weakenings and corruptions of the state standards. Everyone was focusing on genetic engineering and toxic sludge, but those were just thrown in as bargaining chips -- a distraction for lefty activists too busy at their jobs to look deeper. The big obvious corruptions got taken out and the little ones slipped through, making the "organic" label fully compatible with corporate rule. These latest changes are just running up the score for fun.

What small organic growers need to do now is what they should have done years ago: Abandon "organic" and get a new word. This is a great opportunity to build a new standard from the ground up. We could incorporate aspects of biodynamic agriculture, have really good animal treatment standards, prohibit importation of materials from outside the bioregion, or even prohibit tilling the soil! If we can't agree on one standard, we can have dozens of different ones -- and no, they would not be hard to keep track of, if we actually gave our attention to food instead of sports and famous people and political spectacles.

Risa recommends the Certified Naturally Grown program, with the same (could be better) standards as USDA Organic, but with more transparency, and less paperwork to burden small farmers. Or here's another idea from Joshua:

Describe everything you do and use in your farming, and call it Full Disclosure. If you can get an inspector to certify that you have Disclosed Fully, you can even call it Certified Full Disclosure.

Then we wouldn't even have to agree on a standard! Every farmer could use a different standard appropriate to their situation. We would only have to agree on the definition of "full disclosure."

Still, all these schemes seem unlikely. Probably, as "organic" gets more and more industrialized, we will just shift to growing our own food and buying from small farmers who we know personally.

October 30. Scientists aim to beat flu with genetically modified chickens. Ahh, that's what the bird flu scare is about, to frighten us into accepting the replacement of all chickens with genetically engineered chickens, which of course will be patented and owned. Next, they'll invent a human gene that gives immunity to some scary disease, and "responsible" parents will buy that gene for their kids, and then we'll all be the property of Monsanto, which by then will have changed its name to EarthTech.

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