March - April, 2009

previous archive

March 8. After lengthy discussion of the tax-the-rich subject, and at least one forum thread about it, I can distill my argument to a few key points:

1. Although I identify as an anarchist, I'm also an opportunist and not a purist, and my support for socialism is opportunistic. As long as we have a big government, I'd like influence it to do more wealth redistribution. And no, that's not going to undermine my dedication to building systems with no central control. Do you think I have no mental discipline at all?

2. If you really like what you do for money, you won't care if other people are being paid money to do nothing. You might even feel sorry for them. If it bothers you that other people get to slack off while you work, then you hate your work, and your hostility should be directed at the system that pressures you to do that work, and if other people manage to escape it, you might want to learn from them.

3. It's true that some of us, if we were rich, could use our money for the greater good much more effectively than the government uses it through taxing and spending. But most rich people either hoard their money or spend it selfishly. Until rich people as a whole learn to do all the good stuff the government does and less of the bad stuff, or until there's a way to tax only rich idiots, the best system is to tax them all.

4. One frequently hears the argument, "This is my money. I earned this money. The government has no right to take it away." But the government's right to take it away rests on exactly the same foundation as your right to have it in the first place: that's what the rules say. Our very concepts of "money" and "property" are social constructions -- and not very good ones. Money is power, and a well-functioning society will award power to those who prove their ability to use power wisely. Our rules award money for all kinds of things: greed, foresight, lack of empathy, frugality, corruption, self-discipline, luck, manic work habits... but not for the ability to spend that money effectively for the greater good. That's why taxation is necessary, but even taxation is only a patch for a system that's fundamentally unsound.

Because we have rules that give power to people who use it badly, and rules that create positive feedback in both wealth and poverty, and rules that reward short-sightedness and ecological destruction, our system is collapsing. To simple-minded people who benefited from the rules, this will cause great suffering and confusion.

5. Finally, in our detached and money-worshipping society, there's a common assumption that the best way to do good in life is to make a ton of money and then donate it to charities. But it's much more efficient to use your attention and energy directly for helping.

March 9. Everybody chill out about H.R. 875. That link goes to a full paranoid analysis on Cryptogon. In theory, this law could have federal agents stomping through your vegetable garden and fining you a million dollars for failing to get a permit. In practice, this is a move by occult trickster entities to grow and harvest emotions of fear and victimization from the fertile soil of the foilhead crowd.

I swear, anti-government people worship the government. Nobody else has such unwavering belief in the government's omniscience and omnipotence. Anything the government writes on paper is assumed to be magically done. This analysis on Campaign for Liberty says the law "will literally put all independent farmers and food producers out of business due to the huge amounts of money it will take to conform to factory farming methods." You know, you don't have to do everything you're told. Why not say instead that this will put the government out of business due to the huge amounts of money it will take to enforce the law against millions of small food producers?

We're in the position of strength here. Look at all the ways the file sharers have dodged the copyright cartel, and they're sharing fragile high-tech artifacts that require sophisticated computer equipment and electricity. We're sharing life, seeds that can remain viable for hundreds of years, plants that need only dirt and water and sunlight, animals that can live on table scraps in the garage, species that have duplicated themselves, in many cases without human help, for thousands or millions of years. Look at what happened when they tried to eradicate cannabis, and imagine them trying to fight the same war on a thousand fronts, never mind the tens of thousands of species they don't even know are edible. Seriously, I hope the agriculture giants really do try to stop all independent food production, because we will stuff them in the compost bin of history.

March 10. From last month, prominent techie Kevin Kelly covers the Unabomber and primitivism. Kelly raises some great issues and asks good questions, but then halfway through he blows it with a weak easy answer: Kaczynski said civilization robs us of freedom, when really it gives us freedom, where "freedom" is defined as abundance of choices. This is a semantic trick, and by using it, Kelly fails to grasp what really makes civilized people want to go primitive, and why this civilization is dying.

A few days later he again stumbled close to understanding when he posted a video of comedian Louis C.K. talking about how "everything is amazing right now and nobody's happy." People complain about waiting on an airport runway for 40 minutes and then totally fail to appreciate that they get to sit in a chair miles above the earth flying across the continent in a few hours. But both Kelly and C.K. are missing the point. It's not that we are idiots for failing to appreciate the miracle of flight. It's that amazement does not make us happy. Amazement is shallow and short-lived, and if that's all that flight offers us, then flight is an empty novelty, like a song that only sounds good on the first listen.

What makes us continue to appreciate a technology, a behavior, an experience, is integration into a world that serves our deep human needs. Two of those needs are autonomy and meaning. American-style "freedom" means you can zip around the world and buy toys and choose from 200 varieties of soda. Autonomy means that as you go through your daily activities, nobody is riding you -- you're not micromanaged, coerced, or denied participation in power. And meaning means you're part of a larger story that you feel good about.

In a good primitive tribe, or in nature, every tool and action is integrated into a world full of autonomy and meaning. But in civilization as we know it, most people are denied both, and that's why we fantasize about the end of the world. Techno-utopians don't understand this because their lives do have meaning, and often autonomy: they're authors or inventors or independent consultants, leaders in a story about "progress" and space colonies and immortal intelligent machines. They don't see all the lives being ground up in the gears of their shiny engines. When you raise the issue, their easy answer is that soon all the bad jobs will be mechanized, but again they fail to notice that humans are going to have to manufacture and repair those machines. And manufacturing and repairing a burger-flipping machine is more resource-intensive and vulnerable to disruption than simply flipping a burger, and might create jobs that are worse.

The techno-elite, lacking experience in bad jobs, don't understand what makes a job bad. The reason we hate low-status jobs like burger-flipping and toilet cleaning is not that they're physical or dirty. We love to do physical and dirty things like work on our own cars and tend our own gardens and play sports and go on hikes. The jobs are bad because they're crushed under a hierarchy, because the story they're part of is "you do what I say" or "our company that treats us like shit is great", and because the focus is always on quantity or speed, and never on quality.

Our quantity-worshipping culture thinks "sustainability" means not running out of kilowatt-hours, but it's even more critical for a system to not run out of human will, to be psychologically sustainable. Civilization as we know it is not, but other highly complex societies are possible, and we may eventually build one that we all enjoy enough to keep it going.

March 15. When I first mentioned buying an old Toyota truck, several readers told me I could get a Ford Ranger cheaper, and I said I'd gladly spend an extra $1000 for the legendary Toyota reliability. And I still would... but that's not the right number, unless the trucks in question are selling for $1000 and $2000. Comparing trucks in this area with the same age and features and condition, Toyotas are running about double, not because they're worth double, but because of supply and demand: Friday on Seattle/Tacoma Craigslist, there were 98 new postings of Ford Rangers for sale. So I decided to look for a Ranger, and after more thought, one with an extended cab. Even though they're heavier and less nimble, they have valuable extra storage space for fragile cargo, including people.

My brother-in-law Sean has been helping me look, and yesterday morning we drove up to check out a 1993 with only 76,000 miles that a dealer was offering for $2500. But unevenly worn front tires suggested misalignment from a crash, and the pedal wear suggested the odometer had been rolled back a couple times around the planet. So we came back and then he spotted another good one only minutes after it was posted, a 1997 with 120,000 miles, for $2800 from a nearby private owner. We were there within an hour, the owner was very nice and apparently honest, and I was happy to pay her $2600 for it. Here I am with my truck! It's a 1997 Ford Ranger XLT, 2wd, 4 cylinder, 5 speed manual, and more green than it looks in the photo. That's a soft tonneau cover on the back, and it also came with an Adventure Truck Tent, so between those I won't need a canopy.

Of course I'm still anti-car. And in American liberal culture, anyone against cars is assumed to be thinking something like this: "Driving is an amazing privilege, giving drivers great pleasure and freedom, but they are selfishly contributing to ecological destruction and climate change, so the morally pure action is to personally avoid driving." That is nowhere near my position. Social change comes through through large-scale organized action, not disconnected individual puritanism. And my critique of cars follows Ivan Illich's critique of cars: that driving burdens and disempowers the drivers and passengers themselves. I'm not looking forward to the burdens of registration and insurance and repairs, but I still see the truck as a net benefit to me and the land. To paraphrase William Kotke: not only is it OK to use the tools of this system to build the better system that will follow it -- ideally all the tools of this system would be used that way.

March 16. I finally read Octavia Butler's 1993 collapse novel, Parable of the Sower. It's a fun read, especially the second half, where the narrator leaves her besieged suburb and has adventures uncannily similar to a D&D game (travel, set up watch, orcs attack, kill orcs, loot bodies). But I was disappointed to see such a respected novel embrace the same myth as common right wing doomer porn: that when central control breaks down, the great danger comes from "chaos", mobs of crazed fast-moving zombies destroying and killing for kicks.

Sometimes real collapses do lead to a brutal dog-eat-dog social landscape, but more often the victims either suffer quietly or come together and innovate. And the vast majority of the murders in history have been done not by individuals with too much freedom, but by organizations with too much power. The most famous genocides of the 20th century were all done by radical ideologues using the machinery of a centralized state. After Katrina, it turned out there were no murders in the Superdome, no gunfire on aid helicopters, and powerless people in the French Quarter formed tribes, while white vigilante gangs hunted and killed black men in the name of keeping order. So the real danger is not "hordes" but organized violent gangs of all sizes.

Last week the War Nerd made exactly this point in a piece called Apocalypse Never, and Jeff Vail made it in this impressive analysis of the Mexican Collapse. As one system begins breaking down, long before it finishes, the void is filled, not by chaos, but by other systems. In Mexico it's the drug gangs. Brecher thinks that in an American collapse it could be the churches. Vail thinks the era of the nation-state is ending and future systems will be organized more laterally and less vertically, and in a linked article, The New Map, he argues that discrete national boundaries are a weird artifact of the Cartesian age. So forget those maps with "Cascadia" and "Republic of Texas". I imagine a messy patchwork of overlapping spheres of influence, including neo-feudal warlords, corporations, remnants of national and state governments, invigorated local governments, informal "nations" based on race or religion or culture, and tribes based on mutual aid.

March 19. New from Charles Eisenstein, Money and the Turning of the Age. The first 80% of the essay is brilliant, the best critique of economic growth I've seen yet, with great stuff about money as magic/illusion, the limits to monetization, the manufacture of needs, and even a good critique of high tech.

Then he loses me at the end, beginning with this sentence: "We are in the midst of a transition parallel to an adolescent's transition into adulthood." That's a seductive idea, and certainly we are in the midst of a transition, but I don't see any evidence for the adolescence/adulthood metaphor. We don't seem any more mature than our ancestors, individually or collectively, and most people in the world are still striving for the western industrial lifestyle, or clinging to it. We didn't get wiser -- we just ran out of drugs.

It occurs to me that the extreme optimists and extreme pessimists are all making the same argument: in the lifespan of people alive today, history will end and we will settle into a permanent state. To the pessimists it's extinction, or an airtight repressive government, or bad primitive living with no way out. To the optimists it's good primitive living with no way out, or an airtight utopia, or spiritual transcendence. I took the extreme optimist position in some of my early essays, and more recently I've written that it will take us thousands of years to build an enduring non-repressive society. But now I think that's the wrong goal. There are no enduring societies.

My big scene in the "What A Way To Go" movie was telling the Parable of the Tribes, which comes from a book of that name by Andrew Bard Schmookler: there are a bunch of tribes living peacefully, and then one of them turns its energy to war, and whether the other tribes run away, or submit, or fight back, the violent paradigm expands into their territory, and this process continues until it consumes the whole world. But this story does the same thing looking backward in time that the utopians and dystopians do looking forward: it draws an imaginary line beyond which the turmoil of history stills, and there is no change.

I think there have always been warlike tribes, and there always will be. A society that turns its energy to war and conquest will always defeat a society that lives in peace, because it can fight better; but then, a peaceful and cooperative social order will always defeat a violent and repressive social order, because it's a better way to live. These two systems have existed in balance since the beginning of time, the violent systems sweeping through the peaceful systems and burning out like fires.

Only when grain agriculture released the energy of topsoil, and industry released the energy of oil, did the fire of the violent tribes rise to engulf the world. Now that the fuel is running out, we are entering a new age, neither an age of increase nor an age of low-level equilibrium, but an age of high-level equilibrium, more complex and chaotic than prehistory because so many technologies and energy sources will survive.

In a world like this, it will be impossible to build any kind of enduring large system. Our path, instead, will be to continually break down the repressive systems, dodge the conquering systems, and rebuild good systems through the cracks, forever. Actually I think that will be more fun than Utopia.

March 23. Solar storm could crash electric grid (here's an alternate link and a pdf link), taking down drinking water pumps, fuel pumps, pipelines, power plants, hospitals, food refrigeration, food distribution, and most manufacturing, for months or years. Hydroelectric power is highly resistant to most disasters, but not this one. On the solar storm blackout warning map, that giant red circle in the northwest has to be the transformer at Grand Coulee Dam.

John Michael Greer has pointed out that a complex system can recover more easily from a sudden crash than a slow decline, because after a sudden crash there are still people who remember how to run the old system. A solar storm crash could have a similar effect to the Black Death in Medieval Europe, causing deep changes in society without much decline in complexity.

March 31 - April 1. On the forums Coyote posted this wonderful page about making rubber from dandelion sap in the context of a discussion about the survival of bicycles. Personally, I don't think the end of growth is going to bring the end of manufacturing, high technology, big systems, or suffering. Maybe I'm wrong, and bicycles won't survive, but I have lost all interest in arguments that something can't be done. I've made those arguments myself, but now I'm going to quit, because when they're right they're a waste of time, and when they're wrong they are actively harmful. To argue for the impossibility of something you like is despair, and to argue for the impossibility of something you don't like is dangerous wishful thinking. Instead of talking about why things can't be done, we need to focus our attention and power on how things can be done.

This kind of positive thinking should not be confused with blind optimism. I've said this before: the weak kind of "hope" is about what's going to happen: that Obama will save the economy, that science will find a replacement for cheap oil, that economic growth can continue indefinitely, that nobody who now has food and electricity will lose it, that there will be no surprising disasters.

The strong kind of "hope" is about what we do: that we can find shelter without money, be comfortable without electricity, keep order without the police, grow food without chemical fertilizers, preserve wheeled transportation without factories, and generally adapt to great challenges, even if we cannot yet see the way.

April 7. Back in November I wondered where right wingers could go to flee Obama's victory, and I could think of only one place in the world both farther right and wealthier than America: Dubai. Well, now we see where that combination leads: The dark side of Dubai exposes Dubai's draconic laws, its army of slaves, the vapor-like nature of its wealth, and its impending collapse. It's going to make some impressive ruins, and I remember Chuck telling me that because Dubai is so dry, and so far from major fault lines, the Burj Dubai could easily stand for thousands of years.

April 9. About Obama, the lefties are correct in the details but simple-minded in the big picture. Biologically, we want to think of the President as the Chief of a tribe where everything is simple and transparent, when in reality he's like a figurehead/technician of a massive system with unimaginable complexity and inertia, almost all of it hidden from public view. It's funny how so many people will abandon their trust in an individual, believing that Obama is stupid or evil, before they'll abandon their trust in the government, that it's designed so well that an intelligent and benevolent president could change everything, or before they'll abandon their trust in the media, that they show us the whole picture.

Obama is playing a chess game in which we can't see most of the pieces. If he backs his queen off for no apparent reason, the fool says, "I could play better than that," while the wise person tries to infer the position of the hidden rook. From his policy decisions so far, I infer an army of strong pieces whose motive is to continue the American Cult Suicide. Every powerful interest is going to hold onto its power at the expense of the whole system, which will continue to decline and fall, as we continue to build new systems in its cracks. What Obama gives us, at the very least, is a few years of relative stability. He's going to keep the bus from flipping over or bursting into flames as it rolls down the slope.

Who I fear is the next president. This article argues that the current policy mix reflects those of Germany during the period between 1919 and 1923, the famous Weimar period that fueled Hitler. Americans are going to get angry and desperate, and the great danger is that someone will appear with Obama's charisma and appeal to the youth, but where Obama is an empiricist and a negotiator, this leader will be an ideologue and a fanatical crusader. It's the most normal thing in history for exciting revolutionaries to become the new dominators.

April 13. Mr. Soddy's Ecological Economy. I've posted before about ecological economics, but this is a guy who was born in 1877, who won a Nobel prize as a chemist and then switched to economics where he was dismissed as a crank for suggesting five politically impossible reforms. Now four of them have already been made. The fifth is to prohibit fractional reserve lending, where banks loan more money than they actually have.

I wouldn't be surprised to see this reform in my lifetime, since it already seems like common sense to non-bankers, and it would enable something like the present system to survive without perpetual growth. Here's the wikipedia page on full-reserve banking, which mentions some current systems that come close. We might see it first in small banks and small or radical nations, and eventually everyone will switch when they see how much better adapted it is to the new landscape.

It's important to remember that perpetual growth and positive feedback in wealth are different things. In one, the numbers get bigger for the system as a whole, and in the other, whoever has the most numbers gets to take numbers from whoever has the least. It's like there was a Great Fire that burned the whole world, and now that it's dying down, there will still be fire: wealth/power will still leverage itself into more wealth/power. The good news is, without universal increase, the rich will no longer be able to buy the political support of the middle class. There may not even be a middle class! But it won't be like the 20th century third world, because those societies were dominated by economic growth in the first world. We are entering completely new territory: an age with high technology, highly complex societies, cities, corporations, governments, socialists, anarchists, pirates, global commerce and communication, but without increasing numbers. How it will play out is anyone's guess.

April 17. Have you seen the film Gattaca? I didn't like it. The idea is, some people are genetically engineered to be smarter and stronger and healthier, but they're lazy, and the non-engineered hero beats them by fanatically pushing himself. Isn't it more likely that the ruling powers would genetically engineer people to fanatically push themselves? And the non-engineered people, by taking their time, would do higher quality work and have more foresight and be more connected to the whole. But that's exactly what has already happened -- not through genetic engineering but social engineering. And I expect the manic mode to burn itself out and collapse while the slow mode endures.

April 20-21. A year ago I posted a few links about the benefits of going barefoot. Here's a new long article, The painful truth about trainers, and a short one, What Ruins Running, both focusing on shoes. Until the 1970's, shoes had thin soles that made it painful for runners to come down on their heels, so they had to come down on the balls of their feet, and use the springiness of their feet and ankles to absorb the shock. Then someone had the idea to design shoes to let runners come down on their heels, which turns out to have been a terrible mistake, because even the newest and most expensive heel technology cannot prevent the shock from going up and damaging your ankles and hips.

You don't need to go barefoot to avoid injuries -- you just need soles thin enough that you can't land on your heels. Several readers have recommended Vibram Five Fingers as a shoe that gives you the benefits of going barefoot while protecting your feet from broken glass and stuff. [Update: after some research, I got the KSO model, and I'm very happy with it.]

April 24. Just finished a fun DIY project. My Freeplay radio wouldn't hold a charge, so I opened it up and discovered that the battery pack is just three AAA batteries in series. After doing a bunch of research and buying some soldering equipment, I managed to make a new battery pack out of three Sanyo Eneloops, which are much higher quality than the batteries the radio came with. I just held them together with clear mailing tape and soldered wires directly to the battery terminals. Most sources say it's really hard to do that without overheating and damaging them, but I found this great page, Making NiMH Battery Packs, illustrating a technique that hardly heats the batteries at all. Basically you use a lot of flux, and you first put a bead of solder on the battery, and also put some in the wire, and then join them.

April 24. I've written before that we could define the "owner" of a place as whoever lives there, and factor out the whole concept of "property". Last month I discovered that Pierre-Joseph Proudhon had the same idea in 1840, in his book What Is Property? Specifically, Proudhon noticed that our word "property" blurs together two opposite concepts: the rights of someone who actually works with a piece of land, a house, a sum of money, a tool; and the rights of someone who does not work with it, who might never see it, but who is said to "own" it because, well, the rules say so, and we don't question them.

Looking just at land, where do pieces of "bought" land originally come from? Usually they are violently stolen from indigenous people, or in the case of unoccupied wilderness, some central authority simply declares "ownership" out of thin air. Tribal people have the concept of territory, but they would think it's insane for one tribe to "own" the land that another tribe occupies. Even neolithic farmers, who have already carved fields out of the forest, would not understand how one family could work a field "owned" by another -- unless they were slaves.

The concept of non-occupying ownership is like a magic spell that makes violent conquest and near-slavery seem natural. It enables ecological destruction, because people actually living on land, seeing the effects of their actions, are less willing to cut down forests and deplete topsoil than remote commanders seeing only numbers. And it enables positive feedback in wealth distribution: the two big ways the rich get richer are rent and interest, one where you pay a fee to the "owner" of land you're occupying, and the other where you pay a fee to the "owner" of money you're using.

So, should we make possession the whole of the law? I see two problems with this. The first is that no set of laws can make a tolerable society if people are still hyperselfish. For example, you might leave your house for a day and come back to find out that someone else has claimed it. The other problem is that even occupiers of land can abuse it, like the mining companies that are cutting tops off mountains in West Virginia, or renters who trash a house because they know they're not staying long. In this case, it's the absentee landlord who has a healthy relationship with the property (though not with the renters).

So I suggest a more useful distinction, not between possessing and non-possessing ownership, but between sustaining and extractive ownership. More generally, we can distinguish between sustaining and extractive relationships. An extractive relationship is what you have with an apple: you get it, you eat it, it's gone. It's not good to have an extractive relationship with a person, or a piece of land. Civilization as we know it has an extractive relationship with the whole planet. But as the extractable resources get used up, more and more human systems will have to develop sustaining relationships with their land. The challenge is to have good relationships and high social complexity at the same time.

I'm also thinking about this in the context of money. In the Empire money system, rich people and banks have sustaining relationships with their piles of money -- they want their money to stay the same size or grow year after year. And they do this by having extractive relationships with people and land. In a system with depreciating currency, people are forced to have an extractive relationship with their money: If they hold onto it, it will decay, like an apple, so they have to use it up by spending it. And if they're smart, they will spend it to build sustaining relationships with people and land.

April 28. The missing sunspots could mean a cooling sun that would more than cancel out warming from greenhouse gases. If so, it would be an interesting coincidence that humans are warming the planet at exactly the same time that the sun is cooling it. It often seems to me that events in this world fit together much too well to be random. Here's a 1999 article that could explain why: Quantum Mechanics Implies That The Universe is a Computer Simulation.

next archive