January - February, 2009

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January 1-4, 2009. I'm not making any specific predictions for the new year, just a couple general themes. First, no safety net. To see what this means, consider a literal safety net: you're a trapeze artist, and you've always practiced with a net, and now it's gone. Now, if you make one little mistake, you fall to your death. On the one hand, this will lead you to learn great mental focus. But on the other hand, it will slow or stop other kinds of learning. You're not going try any new moves or take any risks. Moving back to metaphorical nets and real situations, we're already seeing investors and lenders becoming ultra-cautious.

But also, in reality, most of us are not yet in danger of dying. And people who lose their jobs or their money, but not their lives, will have less to lose and be more willing to take risks. Also, the safety net that's disappearing is the one provided by institutions and strangers. If you still have friends and family to catch you, this could be a good year.

The other theme is get your ass in gear, and this is not just something I'm advising but something I'm observing. Half the people I've stayed with are already in the middle of big changes, aggressively paying debts off, standing up for themselves at work, increasing the number of bodies under one roof to save housing costs, choosing a long-term landbase, planting fruit trees, making local connections, improving their diets, and so on. As William Gibson said, "The future is already here -- it's just not widely distributed yet." Ray reports from the near future:

Our little group seems to be acting more and more "tribal" lately. We tend to share meals on a regular basis. We contribute what we can when we can. Last night we took soup to some friends. We left there with a few pumpkins they grew in their garden. Last week my truck hauled a second hand transmission so a friend could fix his truck. Yesterday, the same guy helped me move a woodstove. This is not barter. If he could not have helped, that would have been fine. Someone else would have helped. Favors enrich the whole group.

Our group doesn't look too different than the people around us. We have our own households. However, all of us tend to have extended households. Extra people live under our roofs -- friends or grown children and grandchildren. I've noticed that fewer and fewer of us have regular full time jobs. One guy was relieved when he got laid off from his last job. Now at last he can finish the cabin.

January 7. Fascinating page, Selected Sounds of Space, and also a six minute video, The Sounds Of Space. We've all heard "spacy" sound effects in sci-fi movies, "spacy" keyboards in space rock, and so on. Of course all that stuff was recorded before we knew what space sounds like. Now it turns out... that's exactly what space sounds like! More precisely, that's what electromagnetic waves from planets and moons sound like when shifted into the audible sound spectrum. I like to think there are beings out there that can just hear them. [Update: the expensive CD set is no longer being sold, but Amazon is offering a download of all five hours for only six bucks: Nasa Voyager Space Sounds.]

January 9. David sends this very impressive 26 page pdf essay by Kevin Carson, Industrial Policy: New Wine in Old Bottles.

Here's a post summarizing it, The Economic Benefits of Localization. If I were to make the same argument, I would start with the Luddites. The word has come to mean knee-jerk opposition to technology, but the original Luddites had a position so sophisticated that modern industrialized people would have trouble understanding it. They opposed a specific technology that replaced skilled artisans, working autonomously at home and making good money, with unskilled workers making poverty wages in oppressive factories. This is the kind of change that the industrial revolution brought everywhere: the people who did the work lost skill, money, participation in power, and quality of life, while the owners of the machines gained wealth and power in obscene and corrupting quantities.

Now, the evil capitalist will say: all that repression and suffering was necessary for progress, because factories were more efficient than autonomous home industry, and they always will be. Here's where Carson comes in, arguing that factories and giant centralized industry were only more efficient for a few decades. With the spread of electricity, small electric motors, and small engines, it became more efficient to manufacture stuff in a decentralized network of home industries. Monolithic corporate production has kept itself going for more than a century through deceit and violence, and now it's finally breaking down.

It's breaking down on the demand end because it's running out of humans to forcibly convert to consumerism, and it's breaking down on the supply end because it's running out of resources. Energy decline will force a switch to more efficient local, networked, and peer-to-peer structures. The end of economic growth will force a switch to businesses that don't need to grow, that can stay the same size for many years on small incomes. In hard economic times, businesses that have to pass most of their profits to wealthy speculators will be out-competed by businesses whose few owners have modest needs. With decreased supplies of everything, producers that must create demand for ever-growing supply will fail, and producers that can scale down to match real needs will survive.

There's much more in Carson's essay. I'm not going to excerpt any of it because every paragraph is worth reading. (But it ends so abruptly that I wonder if some of it is missing.)

February 1. The globalisation of addiction, a book review about Bruce Alexander's work showing that drug addiction is caused by environmental stresses:

A colony of rats were allowed to roam together in a large vivarium enriched with wheels, balls and other playthings, on a deep bed of aromatic cedar shavings and with plenty of space for breeding and private interactions. In this situation, the rats no longer showed interest in pressing levers for rewards of morphine: even if forcibly addicted, they would suffer withdrawals rather than maintaining their dependence. It seemed that the standard experiments were measuring not the addictiveness of opiates but the cruelty of the stresses inflicted on lab rats...

February 8. Ohio representative Marcy Kaptur advises foreclosure victims to squat their own houses, and makes a smart investment in an issue that's going to become huge. As the depression deepens, Americans who can't afford rent or mortgage will become a political tsunami, and the owning interests will have to make unthinkable compromises or be swept away.

February 9. Today I want to write about metaphysics. When I was staying with Rosemoon near Asheville, she mentioned how well homeopathy works on her chickens, which would seem to disprove the objection that homeopathy is all placebo effect. My position is different from the standard pro-homeopathy position, that it works independently of the beliefs of observers, through a kind of objective mechanistic science that we don't quite understand yet. And my position is different from the standard anti-homeopathy position, that it works purely through the ability of the mind to heal the body, which we can't explain but never mind, it's not important.

I think that "mind" or "awareness" is the fundamental stuff that reality is made of, that the whole universe works like a dream. I'm not sure if there's one dreamer or many dreamers, or if there's anything outside the dream; but in any case, if mind, not matter, is fundamental, then everything is the placebo effect. Even splinting a broken bone is faith healing -- it works through the faith artifact of physical matter, which is extremely powerful because everyone believes in it.

Imagine if medical tests embraced the placebo effect instead of trying to filter it out. Tell everyone exactly what they're getting, and just see how well it works. If you want to heal people, why should you care if some of the healing is through their own belief and not just your medicine? You only care if you have an ego investment, or an economic interest, in having a monopoly on healing power. Also, it might turn out that some treatments have a stronger placebo effect than others, that some physical tools, for some reason, are better at channeling mental healing.

It's important to remember that reality creation is not solipsistic, but collective. I don't know how much of the negotiation is by consensus and how much is by domination of will, but in either case, it's useful to talk about "belief fields" or a transferable placebo effect. Getting back to chickens, they could easily be carried along by a much stronger human belief field. This could also explain why some of the most successful alternative healers, like Wilhelm Reich, had very strong personalities.

Of course, suggestibility works both ways. If you're easy to heal, you're easy to harm, or to exploit. I've found that I'm highly resistant to suggestion, so both TV propaganda and alternative medicine don't work well on me. Lena comments:

One of the interesting things I have found with working with animals is that in the more independent ones you need to ask permission to "will them to heal". In cats especially, who are super independent, if you try to heal them they get insulted that you are trying to do something to them and will not heal. If you explain your intention and ask their permission they heal much better. They need to be in charge of what you are doing to accept it into their bodies. Some dogs are like this also but many dogs are ok with us healing them because they are used to being told what to do.

February 10. Yesterday I wrote that "mind, not matter, is fundamental". Later it occurred to me that I was still stuck in the western industrial-age separation between mind and matter. Suppose that reality is both mind and matter, the same way that light is both a particle and a wave. Depending on the context, sometimes reality behaves like objective physical matter and sometimes it behaves like a dream, but those are both just models we use to make sense of a single unified thing.

February 12. Last night I saw a free screening of "The International", the new film by Tom Tykwer, best known for "Run Lola Run". Clive Owen plays an Interpol officer trying to nail a giant evil bank, which has connections at the highest levels of government, law enforcement, and crime. The film is compelling, very smart, and has some great action sequences, but it's going to flop because the subject makes it impossible to have a good happy ending. What this kind of film needs is an overwhelming tragic ending, like "Brazil", or a sad ambiguous ending, like "The Conversation" (both of which I would put among the top ten films of all time). Instead it goes for the same unsatisfying compromise as last year's dumb film "Shooter": the good people can't beat the bad systems, but hey, at least they can beat the bad individuals.

Also there's a great bit of dialogue. Q: "What do you do when there's no way out?" A: "Go deeper in." It occurred to me that that's exactly what the banks and governments are doing right now with the financial crisis!

February 14. Valentine's Day is the worst of all holidays, because if you're single you feel left out, and if you're with someone you feel stressed out by the expectations. I hesitate to even bring up the word "love" because it's a semantic minefield, with countless meanings, some of them opposite of each other, and yet we tend to think everyone else is using the word the same way we are. Even "romantic love" points to several completely different things, ranging from pathological obsession to healthy but short-sighted lust to the deep attachment that develops between long-term couples.

Of course, the best foundation for a couple relationship is not any kind of romantic love, but compatibility. But even "compatibility" is complex and hard to define. If you look at personal ads, people seem to think it doesn't go any deeper than liking the same popular culture. I would say part of compatibility is comfort. Barbara Sher once wrote that a good partner (or maybe it was a good activity) should not feel exciting, but should feel like a comfortable old shoe. Another huge part is synergy. The test is to look at all the other parts of your life, your relationships with friends and family, your source of money, your creative work, or attempts to improve the world or get enlightened, or whatever good paths you're on. Your partner should help you on those paths, or at the very least should not hold you back.

I was open to the possibility of meeting a new girlfriend on this trip, but that wasn't how the plot developed. My first Boston host asked me if I'm happy being single. After some thought, I'd say that I'm happy but not satisfied. Most of the couple relationships in this world are not as good as being single -- but the best ones are much better.

February 20. Yesterday I mentioned meeting young anarchists, and a reader asks:

Do you actually support anarchy? Like, you think it will be good? I'm not saying I know one way or the other, but do you think anarchy would make the trains run on time?

This is a challenging question. First it contains a hidden level, which I call the utopian dictator fallacy. An extreme example of the utopian dictator fallacy would be if you say, "the biosphere cannot continue to feed the present human population," and someone says, "so which do you want to do, kill billions of people or impose forced birth control?" Or you say, "civilization has always gone hand in hand with centralized repression and ecological destruction," and someone says, "so do you want us all to go back to living in caves?"

You can't even answer these questions without first countering the framing, by saying something like, "Hold on. I don't have the ability or the desire to tell other people what to do. I'm just contributing, as an equal, to our understanding of the issue, and with whatever understanding we can gather, we'll face it together and work our way through."

Now, to answer the questions on the surface level: I don't advertise it, but I do identify as an anarchist. Anarchy is popularly believed to be about lack of order, when really it's about lack of domination. My test for the presence of domination is whether anyone is punished, or led to believe they will be punished, for saying no. Our whole society is packed with domination, and I seek to move steadily away from it by replacing more and more coerced actions with actions that are freely chosen.

This raises the philosophical and tactical questions at the heart of anarchism: How much order and complexity can we hold onto while giving up domination, and how do we do it? Can we even have trains without people being forced by threat of homelessness and starvation to do jobs they hate? Can we have cities? Computers? Ice cream? Bicycles? Libraries? If not, why not, and if so, how?

These are book-length issues. I'll just say that if it is possible to have trains without domination, there's no reason the trains couldn't run on time. I think they would even be more likely to run on time, because the train workers would all be doing their work because they enjoyed it and cared about it, so they would be motivated to do work of higher quality.

February 21. Abandon hope: Live sustainably just because it's the right thing to do. This is the flip side of Sharon Astyk's Theory of Anyway: there "anyway" meant we should do the right thing even if energy decline and climate change are not serious threats, and here "anyway" means we should do the right thing even if the world as we know it is already doomed.

Also, here's my post on the different meanings of "hope".

February 23. I've been thinking more about New Age health advice. I've been sick all winter, and nobody went so far as to say that I must have chosen it, but in the right context, that wouldn't bother me -- I'm open to the possibility that on some level we all choose everything that happens to us. What bothers me is the unspoken implication that only a fool would choose pain when you could just choose pleasure all the time.

It occurs to me that one of the core "New" Age ideas was present more than 400 years ago in Calvinism: that healthier, happier, richer, more conventionally successful people are showing evidence of their more exalted souls. More likely it's the other way around: the more courageous and skilled players choose a higher difficulty level.

February 24. Yesterday I had a conversation with my Minneapolis host's father-in-law, who was puzzled trying to figure out what I "do". Why do people let me stay with them for free? How do I make money? Is my website a business? People actually donate money unconditionally?

It occurred to me that our difference in perspective fits the monetization/growth topic that Charles Eisenstein covers in Money and the Crisis of Civilization. In America from 1940 to 1970 we had a brief age of extreme "economic growth", where the meaning of life and the definition of success was to pull more and more stuff into the money economy. If you own land, you should sell biomass off it to make money; any kind of work you do, you should turn it into a business where you sell your time for money. And the more money you make, the more you can spend on materials and services pulled by other people into the money economy.

I'm moving in the other direction. I suppose I started after college, when I had bad experiences selling my time for money, and figured out that minimizing expenses was much more enjoyable and less stressful than maximizing income. At first I removed stuff from the money economy without knowing that was what I was doing, and only when it benefited me personally. Now I'm doing it consciously and to help others too. My land is not just a place where I can get free food and housing, but a place to restore nature, and if I get surplus apples, I'll try first to channel them into the gift and barter economies. When I stay with people, I try to make my stay an overall benefit to them. And I'm resisting the temptation to require payment for my writing.

The ongoing collapse will force more and more of us to follow the same path, to shift from monetization to de-monetization, living with friends and family (or squatting) instead of paying rent/mortgage, contributing useful activity directly to a household instead of bringing home money, watching each other's kids instead of paying day care, learning from books and each other instead of paying tuition, and growing/scavenging/foraging/hunting food instead of buying it.

February 25-26. I'm back in Seattle, and my tour is officially over. I was aiming for three months and almost made it despite getting sick. Thanks Bil, Chuck, Carolyn, David, Pam, Sarah, A.J., Dwight and Jessica, Dan, Jack, Aja and Sky, Simba and Deb, Joel and Charity, Allen and James, Andrew and Miranda, Carey and Don, Rob and Jenny, Rosemoon and family, Talia and Wildroots, Aaron, Keith, Stephen and Rebekah, Jill, Emily, Rob, Lindsay, Andy, Ben, Brian and Lindsay, Tiffany, Todd and Christine, and Crystal. Thanks also to the household members I didn't name, the people who came to dinners, and everyone who invited me and who I was not able to visit.

I highly recommend a "blog tour" to other bloggers. It was not easy, and not exactly fun, but it was an immensely valuable experience, and relatively cheap. Transportation costs, including bus and train fare, sharing gas for rides, and local public transit, came to $823. I think I spent more than usual on food, even though so many hosts fed me for free, because I was also eating out a lot and leaving behind food too difficult to travel with. So I'm going to estimate my total tour costs at $900-1000.

February 27. I read this bit from the Huck Finn on Estradiol blog on my tour, and now I think of it every time I encounter an escalator:

You can't take a wheelchair on an escalator, or even a walker. You have to be somewhat agile to get on and off, too, which makes depending on a cane, or even a recent prosthesis somewhat dicey. You can't carry any more luggage on an escalator than you can on the stairs. Basically, escalators are for people who can walk but choose not to.

February 28. Human evolution is accelerating, and even in the age of race-mixing and global travel, we seem to be diverging. Scientists have offered several explanations, and I like this one: "If you're a human, what is your environment but culture? The faster our ingenuity alters our habitat, the quicker we have to adapt in response."

Adaptations mentioned in the article include pale skin to get more vitamin D at high latitudes, the ability of adults to digest milk, resistance to diseases that are spread by dense populations, a "migratory gene" linked to ADHD, and apparently an increase in quantitative thinking skills among Chinese and Ashkenazi Jews, who had cultures that rewarded that kind of intelligence.

The big question is: which of these changes in human culture will remain stable, which ones will spark new changes we have to adapt to, and which ones are dead ends, from which we will have to adapt back to our old biology? Any ideology that denies any of these categories is not helpful.

I also want to point out an error in the article: "As agriculture became established and started creating a reliable food supply, Hawks says, more men and women would have begun living into their forties and beyond." This is completely backwards. Grain agriculture reduced human health (link) (link), and according to this article, increased longevity came before agriculture and civilization, and might have caused them by increasing cultural complexity.

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