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- Terence McKenna
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December 9. Continuing on last week's subject, Anne comments on the history of growing food:
Generally you have things that you produce for yourself, and then if you are a farmer, you make one thing in quantity to sell. You don't tend to see a lot of diversity in one region though -- you grow cabbages, probably your neighbor does too.
The real determination isn't "where can I produce enough food" but rather "where can I find consumers for whatever I produce." Weavers and musicians used to be nomadic for a reason -- the consumers of their production lived in dispersed manors. If the future is really about "selling overpriced handmade arts and crafts" or massages or herbalism or medical care or whatever, you need to be able to get to where the 1% are, which is exurbs, while still having the space to grow your thousand-square-feet of kale and carrots to keep from dying of an all-corn diet. Basically, the future is the inner ring suburbs.
And Aaron sends this article from 2008, Can We Stay in the Suburbs? The suburbs already contain the housing and the land distribution for people to grow their own fruits and vegetables. I would add that even most residential neighborhoods inside cities have enough land. My lot is 7000 square feet.
Still, I do not expect home gardens to replace industrial agriculture, at least not in America. One reason is cultural intertia. Remember the Vikings in Greenland who died of starvation rather than eat fish. Suburban Americans have their very identities bound up in their lawns. Most of them would rather keep the lawn and risk physical death, than experience certain ego death by destroying the lawn. The other reason is that industrial agriculture is not dying. Here's an important article, also from 2008, Why Peak Oil Actually Helps Industrial Agriculture. Basically, economies of scale give larger farms the advantage as resources become scarce, and they will outcompete almost all other commercial producers.
This explains my problem with farmer's markets. Now, over the last few years, I've bought half a pig, half a cow, 75 pounds of apples, 100 pounds of lentils, and more than 100 pounds of wheat from local farmers. The reason, in every case, was that they gave me a better deal than Costco or Grocery Outlet. But I barely even go to farmer's markets because they're so expensive. When I look at the prices and the class of people shopping there, it's clear that farmer's markets and CSA's are not a way to feed the masses; they're a way for small farmers and artisans to eke out a living by connecting to people with money.
As the ongoing collapse deepens, and more of us are financially constrained, we might see a decline in small farms and farmer's markets as more people eat at the extremes: cheap industrial food to not starve, and home-grown produce to stay healthy. So, going back to the original urban vs rural subject, you don't want to be in the inner city but you don't need to be in the sticks. You need access to a little bit of land and a little bit of money. And if you want to help others, the best angle is to make it easier for urban people to grow food: by turning vacant lots into community gardens, and by relaxing legal restrictions to chickens, goats, bees, composting, and so on.
December 5. I've been thinking more about my statement last Friday that urban people will do better than rural people in a collapse. A reader pointed out that rural people did better in Weimar Germany. Also they did well during the decline of Rome. So the answer depends on a lot of things. Here's a thought experiment: what changes would be necessary for rural people to do better than urban people in a 21st century American collapse?
First we need a collapse scenario. I'm going to say that liquid fuels continue to decline, renewable energy cannot replace them nearly fast enough, and everything that now depends on liquid fuels gets much more expensive. This contributes to decades of zero or negative economic growth. Another contributor is the de-monetization of labor: a lot of the economic growth of the 20th century came from taking labor that used be outside the money economy, like child care and food preparation, and bringing it into the money economy. This is going to reverse as people lose their jobs, do stuff at home for free instead of paying other people to do it, those people lose their jobs, and so on.
New money-making opportunities will be snatched by whoever is in the best position: mostly the already rich. We will shift to a serf economy, where only the very rich can afford to buy other people's time, and they buy a lot of it. Still, most of us won't starve. It's in the interests of the elite to redistribute just enough wealth that we don't violently revolt. Eventually this will take the form of an unconditional basic income, but Americans will resist this for decades, mostly because the second lowest class can't bear the emptiness of life without the lowest class to look down on. For the same reason, we will put off the inevitable mass-cancellation of personal debt.
So here's America of 2030: you have to jump through hoops (creating terrible bureaucratic jobs) to qualify for government assistance mostly in the form of junk food and antidepressants, you have massive unpayable debts (creating terrible jobs at collection agencies), you've been evicted a few times and been in some tactically useless political protests (creating terrible jobs for cops), you don't have a car but you occasionally rent a self-driving car, you make some cash on the side selling overpriced handmade arts and crafts, you spend your cash on alcohol and cannabis, and you spend most of your time looking for affordable sources of decent food and other necessities, and consuming high-tech entertainment.
Given this scenario, what would it take for rural life to be better than urban life?
It would seem that rural people have the advantage in access to food. But right now almost all farmland is used for industrial monocultures. You can't trade extra goat milk for extra cabbages from your neighbors if you're surrounded by fifty miles of cornfields controlled by Cargill. So you'd have to produce everything you want to eat on your own land, which is difficult even with unlimited resources. For rural life to be better, the giant farms would somehow have to be broken up and resettled with many small independent farmers, and they would all need housing. But an easier path to basically the same thing, would be for people already living in mid-density urban and suburban neighborhoods to convert their yards to food production. Realistically, nobody will have to grow all their own food, because we'll all have access to low-quality industrial food -- this summer I was already buying Grocery Outlet white flour. You'll only need to grow enough high-quality food to stay healthy, and a yard is big enough.
Next, rural people would need equal or better access to non-food items. This was easier in the olden days when we had fewer non-food needs and more skills in making them. Even as recently as Weimar Germany, there were a lot more people who could make brooms and axes, who didn't mind wiping their butts with leaves, who didn't need a cabinet full of meds, and who wouldn't get bored sitting under a tree for a few hours. To match that today we would need radical cultural changes, or extremely powerful 3D printers everywhere. Otherwise it's going to be easier to get stuff if you're closer to the supply lines, which will come first to cities with seaports and rail hubs, then by expensive trucking to other cities, and finally to small towns.
I'm going to give rural people the benefit of the doubt on human community. If information technology keeps getting more powerful, then we'll all be overwhelmed with social media friends, and starving for face-to-face friends, wherever we live. But if you expect a tech crash, then the country can only match the city with extremely unlikely massive resettlement and cultural change.
Finally, we need economic opportunities, ways to trade our time and skills for money and stuff. Here the advantage of being rural is that you might have enough land to grow a surplus of food and sell or trade it. But this only works if you can get the food to buyers, and remember that fuel will be more expensive and roads will certainly be in worse condition. Because rich people will have all the money, you'll want to sell stuff directly to rich people, who will live around the cities. Again, the best hope for rural life is if information technology increases the number of non-physical goods and services, and makes location irrelevant.
December 2. Two reddit comments from Erinaceous (who by the way is not a woman named Erin, but a guy referencing the latin name for the hedgehog family). This one lists thirty links about ecological economics. And this great comment is about capitalism as an evolutionary system using power as the foundation rather than fitness.
I think it was a mistake to use the word capitalism because it leads to semantic arguments about whether an imaginary better society is or is not "capitalist". But the idea is that under low energy flows, human systems are like trees, growing slowly, minimizing waste, and integrating with the ecosystem; under high energy flows, human systems are like annual weeds, gobbling energy to grow fast and maximize output. So the more energy a society has, the worse it is! And maybe the end of the oil age will be good for us.
Another factor is whether the energy flows are centrally controlled or democratic. That's why I'm against nuclear power, because so far it can only be done in central plants, instead of everyone having a micro-reactor in their house. (For the same reason, I'm against genetic engineering until everyone can do it.) Solar panels are potentially democratic, but I expect the control systems to push for giant centralized plants. Cynically, I expect another energy boom in the next century, with more and more of the planet being covered with solar plants, with the energy feeding more political inequality, more waste, more insulation from reality, and more artificial needs than ever before.
Loosely related, a link I've been saving all year for winter: The Fireplace Delusion argues that burning wood in your fireplace is unnecessary and terribly polluting. But in my region, with cold winters and dry summers, dead wood builds up faster than it decomposes into soil, and forest fires are part of the ecology. So if I cut up a few dead trees and bring them back to burn in the fireplace, I'm just making smoke that would have been made anyway, and it allows me to be less dependent on the money economy and the oil companies. Rather than phasing out wood heat, we need to design and build more efficient stoves, like rocket mass heaters.
November 29. Recently I've had a few reader comments about how I gave up on the homesteading thing. Here's how I explained it in one email:
"I learned by actually trying it how hard it is. And I noticed that people I knew who had gone back to the land in small groups were unhappy compared to people in the city. In practice, most back-to-the-landers end up being little developers, or remote suburbanites. They still drive into town for food and supplies, they have to drive much farther, they cut down a lot of trees, and the only advantage is a better view."
There are several reasons people want to go "back to the land": 1) They hate the city because they have a low tolerance for chaos. But wild nature has even more chaos! 2) They imagine that rural people will do better in a collapse. But historically urban people have done better, because cities densely concentrate skills, items, and economic opportunities. 3) They overestimate their introversion, and how happy and sane they can be in prolonged isolation. 4) They feel, correctly, that rural self-sufficiency will make their life more meaningful. But this is a young person's problem and a young person's solution: to trade massive physical labor for meaning. Older people have less energy, and more ability to create their own meaning, or to find it in more subtle things.
5) They feel, correctly, that human civilization is a big pile of mistakes. But it doesn't follow that trying to get physically outside it is a good move -- especially not for humans. We're an adaptable species, and adaptable nonhumans like crows and grey squirrels are thriving in human settlements. I think the best move is to stay physically close to the center, but mentally on the fringes. Or as the ancient Christians said, "in the world but not of it."
And here's some music for the weekend, an improved version of my favorite song from a video game, Retro Remix Revue - Gerudo Valley.
November 27. For Thanksgiving, check out the recipe section on my misc. page, including recipes for pies, gravy, and stuffing. I'll be making all three tonight and tomorrow, and Leigh Ann will be making real eggnog. Our recipe: 6 eggs separated, 3 cups whole milk, 2 cups heavy cream,
1 cup 1½ cups spiced rum, 1/2 cup sugar, and nutmeg.
November 25. Posting will probably be light this week. Today, two links in the "sci-fi is now" category, which coincidentally I just found right next to each other on reddit. The internet mystery that has the world baffled is about a very difficult multi-part puzzle, probably a recruitment tool for a spy agency or a tech company, but no one is saying. For a good fictional spin on this, check out the book Daemon by Daniel Suarez.
And how ayahuasca can revolutionize psychotherapy:
"It's not a question of, 'Here's a drug that's going to fix you,'" Mate explains. "It's, 'Here's a substance under the effect of which you'll be able to do a kind of self-exploration that otherwise might not be available to you, or otherwise might take you years to get to.'"
November 22. It's Friday so I'm writing about music again. Monkey-Human Ancestors Got Music 30 Million Years Ago. So music is older than language. This reminds me of something I've noticed about my own musical taste. When I was a kid, I just liked whatever my ears liked. Then as a teenager my taste became corrupted by intellect and identity. On some level I was choosing what to like because of what it said about what kind of person I was. I didn't notice myself doing this but I noticed other people doing it. For example, in a college class about music history, the instructor mentioned African pop, and some liberal students were like "Oooo, tell me more about African pop!" You could see them making up their minds that they were going to love it before they had even heard it. Meanwhile I was drawn to indie rock with smart lyrics, and within that category my honest musical taste was allowed to pick out Camper Van Beethoven and Beat Happening.
Around age 30 I started to recover and learn to go by feel again. As I get older I find that I'm less interested in lyrics and vocal melodies and song structure, and more interested in the soundscape. Last month I argued that popular music is in permanent decline, but now I think this is only true for simple melodies: there is a small finite range of simple melodies that sound good to the human ear, and it's mostly been exhausted. So there will not be another songwriter like Stephen Foster or Paul McCartney because they would have to come too close to stuff that's already familiar.
We can't even objectively define a pleasing melody -- that's how far our intellect is lagging behind our creativity -- while music continues to get better in ways that are even harder to define. This reminds me of a reader comment a few years back about entropy in the universe: that there will never be total heat death because life can always adapt to lower energy by becoming more subtle and complex.
Consider this song from 1967, Waterloo Sunset by the Kinks. In its own musical universe this is untouchable -- nothing like it can possibly sound as good. Now check out this song from 42 years later, Argyle Square by Orphans & Vandals. The theme is the same: the singer expresses the beauty and wonder of a particular London neighborhood. He's barely even trying to sing a melody, and the music behind him is messy. And yet to my ears, once I've learned how to listen to it, this blows Waterloo Sunset away.
November 18. Unrelated links... no, wait, they are related! Just Asking is a short 2007 piece by David Foster Wallace. He suggests that instead of giving up our freedoms to try to eliminate all risk of political violence against civilians, we could hold onto our freedoms and think of the inevitable victims as heroic martyrs. He points out that we already make the same trade-off with traffic laws, accepting a terrible death toll just so we can drive faster. I think the difference is, people take a bombing as a personal insult, a threat to their identity and status, while a car crash just feels like bad luck.
Game Theory Based Contrarian Football is about a high school coach who has done the math, and figured out that it's better to never punt and always onside kick. His team is now dominating their conference. It's inspiring to see someone boldly doing something a better way, but depressing that no one else is following. Even in a ruthless meritocracy like sports, winning games is a weaker motivator than saving face.
Alcohol, Obesity and Smoking Do Not Cost Health Care Systems Money, because healthy people live longer, consuming more health care, and ultimately die of other things that still cost money to treat. I would add: the real reason that alcohol and cigarettes are heavily taxed is that people who use them are seen as morally inferior and deserving of punishment. The purpose of sin taxes is to make obedient people feel righteous.
And a great reddit thread, What are stories about picture perfect families who do fucked up stuff behind closed doors? Sample post:
When I was in school, there was one girl who epitomized all-American girl-next-door cheerleader. She was gorgeous with blue eyes, long blonde hair, perfect body, and always had this 100 watt smile. She was on Homecoming court, and so was her little sister. Her family was prominent locally: the stay-at-home mom ran the PTA, the dad had a prestigious job.
This girl was on a parent-imposed diet since at least 3rd grade, despite never being fat. If she or her sister sassed her parents or got less than a B+ on an assignment, they were told they were "dogs" and they were forced to crawl around the house and eat their food from dog bowls under the kitchen table.
November 15. I overposted this week, so today I'm just going to ramble about personal stuff. Leigh Ann and I are still getting along great after six weeks of living together. The main conflict is that our preferred daily schedules are almost completely different, but we're both flexible. She has a Netflix account and I have a good TV and a Wii, so we've been watching stuff every night. Right now we're going through the TV show Fringe. At first I thought, "FBI agents investigate the paranormal? Hasn't that been done?" But the plots are more complex than the X-Files, and more challenging to stay on top of. Another difference is that all the strange phenomena are man-made. This creates room for my favorite difference, that skeptics don't even get a voice. Olivia comes to her boss with some crazy shit and instead of saying it's absurd, he says now that you've found that out, I can show you something even weirder. And Walter Bishop is probably my favorite character ever.
Two and a half years after buying this house, I finally have curtians on more than half the windows, and today I put on bubble wrap for winter insulation. My bees are also set for winter, with the back half of the hive packed with honey. And I haven't read about this, but I'm sure they're bigger now than they were in summer. With foundationless comb, they have a variety of cell sizes, and I'm guessing that when the weather cooled, the queen started laying worker eggs in the old drone cells, because bigger workers are more fit to survive winter.
In music news, Nik Turner played sax and woodwind for Hawkwind from 1971-1975, and wrote and sang a few songs, like Brainstorm and D-Rider. He should have been washed up decades ago, but he has just come out with a really impressive space rock album, Space Gypsy. That link goes to a review, and here's a YouTube page with Space Gypsy videos.
November 13. The Mysterious Case of Elisa Lam is about a young woman who drowned in a hotel water tank, with no easy way to get in and no plausible motive. Also there's a creepy surveillance video, a dark history of the hotel, a movie that foreshadowed the incident, and other coincidences:
Shortly after the discovery of Elisa Lam's body, a deadly outbreak of tuberculosis occurred in Skid Row, near Cecil Hotel. You probably won't believe the name of the test kit used in these kinds of situations: LAM-ELISA. That is hardcore synchronicity.
The article is on Vigilant Citizen, a smart conspiracy site, but I still think they're too literal-minded. The really weird stuff is not being planned by human elites -- it's the visible surface of a level of reality that we can't even understand with Cartesian/Newtonian thinking. And I think the most powerful people in the world understand less than the people on the front lines. As John Keel once joked: UFO researchers are not telling the government what they know.
And some links related to travel. From No Tech Magazine, Africa Teaches the West How to Build a Car:
In Suame Magazine, first the cars are stripped to the bone. Secondly, all computerized devices are thrown out. A sustainable African car has to be mechanical. When the car is stripped the construction process can begin. The result is a strong and simple car ready to carry heavy loads, with extra cargo space, a mechanical motor, a stronger chassis, stronger rims and iron springs. African roads demand very strong cars.
Probably they get worse fuel economy. But I suspect, as we get deeper into fossil fuel decline, that it will be more efficient to let the roads decay and build cars stronger, than to keep maintaining the roads.
It's cheaper to live in Barcelona and commute to London by air four days a week, than rent in London. You might expect this to change with energy decline, but I think there's still a lot of room to make air travel cheaper, including hybrid airships, and tearing out the seats so twice as many passengers can ride standing up. When you factor in the cost of maintaining roads, long-distance travel in the future might be done almost entirely by air.
And travel across oceans could be done by ship, except I think human extinction is more likely than human culture changing so that we're not in such a hurry. Anyway, water travel is super-cheap. Here's an inspiring blog post, Why Cruise Ships are My Favorite Remote Work Location:
On a cruise ship, everything is taken care of for you. No time at all has to be allocated to cooking, choosing your meal, or to cleaning. You show up at the restaurant, in which all of the food is free, order whatever you want from the rotating menu, eat, and then immediately get up and get back to work.
And the cost, for a transatlantic cruise, is only $30-50 per day. How many of us are living that cheaply now?
November 11. Today, some smart links. Thanks Gabriel for telling me about this blog, Novel opinions by Katja Grace. Instead of a table of contents or a chronological list of posts, the front page is a big summary of all her thinking, where phrases and words serve as links to posts. A few samples:
I like to think that thinking is better than reading as a first step to understanding a topic, but I haven't read a lot about this. ... Calling your mother on Mothers' Day tells her less about your affection than calling her any other day of the year. ... It is best to celebrate unimportant things, so that everyone else doesn't also love them and remove the information from your signal. ... There is no correlation between the verdicts of different wine competitions because if there were, there would be space for fewer wine competitions. ... The process of science could be taught better in the realm of unanswered questions that students care about, rather than answered questions that they don't care about. ... Loyalty is the only commonly approved form of extremism.
Thanks James for this long 1988 essay on teaching computing science by E.W. Dijkstra. The main idea is that computers are a radical novelty, meaning that they are so different that "our past experience is no longer relevant, the analogies become too shallow, and the metaphors become more misleading than illuminating." He makes a similar point to Katja Grace about education: Textbooks "constantly try to present everything that could be an exciting novelty as something as familiar as possible... The educational dogma seems to be that everything is fine as long as the student does not notice that he is learning something really new."
My favorite idea is about halfway down the page: we imagine that artificial intelligence will grow powerful by mimicking human intelligence, but the real power of AI is being smart in ways that computers are smart, and that are alien to human intelligence. Applying this to forecasting the future, long before AI is able to make a replica of your brain, it will have transformed the world so radically that we will no longer be interested in replicating our brains.
Finally, reddit user The Old Gentleman is one of the smartest anarchists on the internet. His posts are loaded with good information and careful thinking. Here's an example, a critique of anarcho-capitalism for failing to understand how our freedom has been destroyed by a radical concept of "property" that we all take for granted.
November 8. Loose ends from the previous post. First I want to say more about state repression. Any control system, including the U.S. government, will crush anyone who is effectively working against it. At the same time, if someone in North Korea holds up a sign that says "Kim Jong-un is a liar and life is better in South Korea," they'll be killed. If you do the same kind of thing in America, maybe someone will glare at you.
I've often wondered, when there's a street protest in the Arab world: Why don't the rulers just ignore it like they do here? One possibility is that Arab rulers are being vain and stupid, and ignoring it really is their best move. The more likely explanation is that in those cultures, for reasons I don't understand, purely symbolic dissent is tactically effective. I would love to know what would happen, step by step, if North Korea or Saudi Arabia suddenly and permanently removed all restrictions on political speech. I have no idea! But I do know that if they stuck it out, eventually the power of political speech would run its course, and there would still be a control system that would now be immunized against language.
This is mostly a good thing. It means that instead of an artificially high level of repression held by intimidation and open secrets, there is a moderate level of repression defined by the inability of the citizens to understand the subtle ways that they're being repressed.
In another loose end, a reader comments:
In too many circumstances, you don't even have to be actively pointing out flaws or advocating changes. If you seem too content, too confident yet not stressed over "advancement", if you seem like you shrug the usual poop off too easily, you will get targeted, and not always by bosses, in fact more often by people on your own level. In today's workplace, if you aren't constantly, visibly stressed, the assumption is that you are slacking off or cheating.And on another subject, more music for the weekend. Over the last week I've been making and uploading videos of my favorite songs that were not yet on YouTube (and that will not be immediately taken down, like "Boots of Spanish Leather" by Bob Dylan and "Wendell Gee" by REM). Here they are:
November 6. Another big psychology link. The Girl in the Closet is a giant 8-part article about Lauren Kavanaugh, who at age 20 months was taken from her adoptive parents and given back to her evil birth mother. For the next six years she was locked in a closet, nearly starved to death, and repeatedly beaten and raped. Eventually the stepfather confessed to a neighbor, and he and the mother are in prison until 2031. Lauren, now 20 years old, has made an impressive but incomplete recovery.
The interesting question is, why would parents do this? Especially when they had five other kids who, while badly raised, were not horrifically abused. I think Lauren was singled out because she alone had the experience of living in a healthy family. She would not put up with the abuse and neglect of a bad family, and at 20 months, could not possibly be diplomatic about it. The parents had to either raise the level of how they treated all their kids, or escalate the conflict; and the easiest way, other than killing her, was locking her in a closet. And then they either had to admit their own failure, or imagine that she deserved to be locked in a closet. Then she became the sink for all the family's frustration and hostility.
You can see the same thing in repressive states that kill or imprison people who try to make things better. I think it can happen in any dysfunctional system of any size. You could even use this as a definition of dysfunction: that anyone who draws attention to what's wrong with the system and how it could be improved, is punished.
That's why America is not seriously repressive, because if you do that here you're simply ignored. It's also an advantage of a system built out of subsystems from which people are free to leave. You can quit your job at a bad corporation and let it die out while you find somewhere else to be helpful, but it's much harder to quit a family.
I think this can also happen inside of a person: that someone might lock up and punish an aspect of their personality that threatens to make their life better in a way that a more dominant part of their personality cannot tolerate.
November 4. A few psychology links. First, Vandana Shiva explains How economic growth has become anti-life, and most of the examples are about how the way we live has veered away from the way humans like to live, even when we're getting more material wealth.
Also from the Guardian, The secrets of the world's happiest cities. There's some stuff about social connections, but it's mostly about transportation: driving makes us unhappy, and walking and bicycling make us happy, especially if the city is designed for traveling without cars. I have two ideas not in the article. First, given identical commute times, I think we would rather move at a steady pace than alternately move super-fast and be stuck. Second, we cannot operate a car without depending on a giant system that we cannot understand and in which we have no participation in power. The first time we experience something like that, it feels like a magical miracle. But over the long term, we feel disconnected, weak, and unsatisfied.
The Psychological Power of Satan. When we believe in pure evil, it leads to a political climate in which we want to identify the bad guys and totally destroy them, which makes the world nastier. The article is too cautious to make the obvious point that if two sides each think the other side is pure evil, it leads to a feedback loop of increasing aggression -- and then the eventual winners, since they're still unhappy, go looking for more pure evil.
The Psychology of Cheating. Again, mostly obvious stuff: people cheat more when they have more power, when they're in a competitive culture, when they're not being watched, and when they're tired. Notice that the American elite score four out of four. One of my utopian visions is universal democratic surveillance, where there is no spy agency making sure all surveillance is top-down, but anyone can watch anyone at any time. It follows that the most powerful and famous people would be watched every moment, and nobody would seek power unless they were okay with that.
October 30. Mental Illness, the Video Game. A woman who learned to deal with depression and anxiety designed a game about how she did it, a game that directs your attention outside of the game and back into your own mind and body. If humans avoid extinction, it will be through this kind of use of technology, and this game will be historically important.