Life Outside the Mental Comfort Zone
25 June, 2013
While procrastinating on the topic of Communities that Abide (will it be a series of blog posts, a book, or both?) I'd like to take a step back. I've been running this blog for over five years now, and it's time to take stock.
The subjects I like to explore on this blog lie far outside the mental comfort zone for most people, making it a sort of proving ground of mental fortitude—mine and the readers'. Some topics have become safe for discussion since I started this blog some years ago, others are yet to do so.
Financial collapse is now a perfectly acceptable topic: the financial collapse of 2008 has been postponed by money-printing, runaway sovereign debt and various other kick-the-can-down-the-road schemes, which will all stop working today or tomorrow or the day after. Peak Oil (the fact that conventional oil production peaked in 2005 and that unconventional oil is too expensive to produce to keep industrial economies from collapsing) emerged into the mainstream and then went for a sort of continuous mental loop-the-loop of centrally choreographed delusion. I expect the loop-the-loop to turn into a tailspin once the reality of rapid depletion rates and high costs of the unconventional resources catches up with the delusional script. The end of the American Empire is also quite acceptable as a topic of conversation now, and university faculty can now expound on it without facing any negative repercussions. But that's a boring topic; as I witnessed in Russia, there is nothing quite as boring as an empire right before its collapse.
But there are some other topics that are still considered beyond the pale. One of these is the idea that the industrial nation-state is a doomed institution throughout much of the world, and that we are headed toward a world of slums run by criminal warlords. Another is that agriculture is a method of growing food that dates to the now bygone period of Earth's history—the ten thousand-or-so-year period of unusually stable climate during which all of human civilizations will have emerged, risen and fallen.
To comply with the Principle of Least Astonishment (a very useful principle if you want to keep people listening), let us explore in some detail the mental discomfort these topics tend to cause. This will allow you, as you read along, to classify your own reactions, and if you find that you fall into one of the nonproductive categories I will provide, then you can either work at developing a different, more productive reaction, or you can go play fetch with the dog instead, because your participation in this project is entirely optional.
There are various lines in the sand which most people are loathe to cross. To help you gauge your own level of mental discomfort, let us try grouping the expected reactions in accordance with common, (though meaningless) political labels. I expect the first two categories to balk at what follows to be the so-called “conservatives” (what it is they are conserving is anyone's guess—certainly not their land's once-abundant natural resources) and the so called “liberals” or “progressives” (what it is they are progressing toward is anyone's guess too—I think they are progressing toward collapse).
The conservatives tend to be more tolerant of separatist and isolationist groups found within their midst, generally disliking government meddling in people's lives, but on the other hand they are also more likely to eagerly swallow the propaganda spewed forth by their corporate government media, and any criticism “their country right or wrong” is likely to produce an angry reaction, especially if such criticism is coming from a “foreigner.” They also tend to take a dim view of those who do not resemble them ethnically, attempting to preserve Anglo cultural dominance the fiction of the US as an ethnically Anglo country even though the Anglos have already lost their majority status. Some of them even go as far as advocating the use of subjective (person on person) violence to remedy what they perceive as the source of the country's problems—“immigrants” and such—with the assistance of lightly armed militias and vigilante groups. No self-respecting American-equipped cannibalistic Syrian “freedom fighter” would ever sally forth with such a puny armory, and yet some Americans feel that they can use their pea-shooters to face down the US military. That is pathetic.
The liberals/progressives tend to be more tolerant of criticism (producing some of their own—up to a point) and, being constrained by the requirements of political correctness, they would never (in public) disqualify a criticism simply because it is coming from a “foreigner” or attack groups simply because they are “immigrants” but on the other hand they tend to be all too eager to condemn separatist and isolationist groups on the grounds that they do not share their set of social values, which they deem to be the only right ones. Separatist and isolationist groups tend to come in for harsh treatment for their supposed ill treatment of women, or children, or animals, for their “substandard” educations, for their “substandard” living arrangements and so forth. They tend to couch their rhetoric in the language of universalism: universal human rights, universal rights of women and so forth; the educationalists among them strive for universal literacy (and fall ridiculously far short). They often advocate the use of objective (system on person) violence to remedy what they perceive as the source of the country's problems—substandard practices of this or that group—by the imposition of government mandates, the dismantlement of the communities in question through regulation, law enforcement, imprisonment and the imposition of large government programs.
Having listened to the rhetoric and the propaganda from both sides, I have found them to be equally obnoxious. I have come to see them as part of a sickness: the brain of the body politic seems to have had its corpus callosum severed (that's the crossbar switch between the two hemispheres of the brain that allows them to act as a unit). Each side thinks that it represents the whole even as the two sides have all but lost the ability to communicate with each other. This arrangement has evolved as a convenience for the corporate government media whose job is to manipulate them into submission: it is classic “divide and conquer.” But the rhetoric of both groups serves the same purpose: to gain their consent for suppressing, dismantling and destroying all that which does not serve the system. Both groups embrace the use of violence: subjective, “shoot 'em up” sort of person-on-person violence in the case of conservative groups and objective, system-on-person violence in the case of liberals/progressives. Of these, it is the objective violence—which works its destruction through the use of regulations and mandates, educational standards, paperwork requirements, ever-present law enforcement and a hypertrophied surveillance system that is supposed to provide “security”—that produces the wide assortment of bad personal outcomes we see all around us.
What's worse, both hemispheres of this particular split-brain patient's brain also suffer from bipolar affective disorder. During the manic phase each hemisphere believes in infinite technological progress toward some sort of space-based, highly automated nirvana; during the depressive phase it believes in some version of the apocalypse, which presupposes more or less instantaneous destruction by forces beyond anyone's control, which, obviously, it is useless to try to resist. Neither side wants to believe in its steady degeneration into irrelevance and extinction. But perhaps this is not an illness at all, but simply the way we tend to remember things: we remember pleasure and forget pain, and thus we remember being in the state of nirvana as a process, but we remember being in a persistent state of pain as the event that signaled its onset.
John Michael Greer has done a wonderfully thorough job of explaining the tendency to jump to extremes (endless progress or instant destruction) when facing the future, along with the true shape of things, which is that cultures and civilizations germinate, grow, ripen, mellow and rot according to a timeless pattern, and the fact that this particular global technological civilization is following the same script to perfection in spite of it being global and technological. He even trotted out well-forgotten intellectual mighties such as Oswald Spengler to show that there is a science behind his claims. As with all methods, this method has its limits, however: characterize the growth and decay of cultures all you like, but it all becomes moot if a large rock comes around and smashes your Petri dish. And there are two such rocks flying for it right now: one is rapid nonlinear climate change; the other is natural resource depletion. A new narrative is emerging, called NTE, which stands for “near-term (human) extinction”—the idea that we humans won't be around for more than a couple more generations. I am an optimist, and so I believe that some of us will persist as small bands and tribes of semi-aquatic, nomadic humanoids. What's more, I find this perspective quite inspiring—far more so than the perspective of breeding many more generations of office plankton whose job is to convert natural resources into smoke and garbage while popping pills to try to stay sane.
Here's where I was with these ideas five years ago, and that is where I am with them today. The only difference is that now a few more people might pay attention to them, not as a work of whimsy but as something that will affect them and their children. What follows is an excerpt from The New Age of Sail, which I published in August of 2006.
A few decades from now, just off the coast...
It is nearing sunset when the vegan ship sights land. There are two vegans on deck; two more are roused from their hammocks below the deck to help with the landing. They lower and furl the sails, take down and secure the masts, then row and scull the boat through the surf. When she finally noses up onto the beach, they jump down into the water and wade ashore hauling lines, then labor mightily to get her up onto level ground, panting in the stuffy air. They thrust pieces of driftwood under the bow, tie lines around trees and rocks, and roll the boat out of the water and well away from it. To lighten the load, they drain the ballast tanks that kept the boat upright and stable while it was underway. Once the boat is high and dry, and sitting upright on level ground like a giant piece of furniture, they unload their cargo of dried sea squirrel. Finally, they post a watch, and the other three retreat below, stretch out in their hammocks, and rock themselves to sleep, for once without any assistance from the sea.
Sea squirrels are pale, sickly-looking, and, above all, sad. Dried ones doubly so. They are endowed with flabby bags for a body, some ineffectual spiny tendrils, and dangling dark bits of uncertain purpose. One might conjecture that they are mutant shellfish that survived having their shells dissolved by the carbonic acid in the seawater. Being vegans, the vegans would never think of eating one; nor anything else that washes up on the shores of that brownish, carbonated ocean, almost lifeless after that final, desperate binge of coal-burning that occurred just as oil and gas were running out. Picking dead sea squirrels off the beach with a pointed stick is an unpleasant chore, making it useful for teaching children the subtle difference between work and play. Sea squirrels have but two charms: they are at times plentiful, and, dried into flat chips, they burn with a clean, yellow flame – not bad for illumination, and convenient for cooking the food which the vegans both plant and harvest all along the shore.
The Vegans' passion is for spreading seeds and gathering and consuming the proceeds. They are on an indefinite mission to boldly grow food where no one grew it before. They are carried forth by their ship, which looks like a long box sharpened into a wedge on one end, but is capable of a full warp four knots to windward, and double that in anything more favorable. Their mission is of an indefinite duration because their home port is under several feet of water, and although that water came from pristine, ancient glaciers and icecaps, it is now briny and laced with toxins. And although their grandparents never tire of telling them how at one time their home port had not one, but several excellent vegan restaurants, now there is hardly anything there that a vegan would want to eat, and hardly anyone to eat it with.
The vegans abstain from eating animal flesh not because of their tastes or their sense of ethics, but because most animal flesh has become toxic. The increased mining and burning of coal, tar sands, shale, and other dirty fuels, dust storms blowing in from desertified continental interiors, and the burning and degradation of plastic trash, have released into the biosphere so much arsenic, cadmium, lead, mercury, dioxins, and numerous other toxins, that the vast majority of predatory species, non-vegan humans among them, have become extinct. Since toxin concentrations increase as they travel up the food chain, certain top predators, such as belugas and orcas, went first, followed by most non-vegetarian animals. Along with chemical toxins, the biosphere became inundated with long-lived radionucleotides from derelict nuclear installations left over from the hasty attempts to ramp up nuclear power generation. Those built near the coasts are still bubbling away underwater due to rising ocean levels. And so the only surviving humans are those clever enough to realize that only the plants remain edible.
Although the vegans rarely want for food, this is only because of their Permaculture skills, because growing food has become an uncertain proposition. Droughts and wildfires alternate with torrential rains that wash away the topsoil, the ocean keeps spreading further and further inland, and in better years insects sometimes stage a revival and devastate much of what the vegans have planted. Were they to settle in any one place, they would certainly starve before too long. But because they have boats, and because climate upheaval is constant but uneven, they can be sure that something of what they have planted is growing and bearing fruit somewhere. It is solely by virtue of being migratory, and, over the years, nomadic, that they are able to persist from one generation to the next. They carry what they gather with them, and, carefully conserving the seed stock and constantly experimenting with it, manage to renew it. When a period of devastation runs its course, they step in and plant a new forest garden ecosystem. When they revisit it, after a few weeks or a few years, it may be dead, or overgrown with weeds, or it may be thriving, and yield a harvest of wood, nuts, berries, fruits, tubers, and herbs. And, of course, seeds.
The shore is for gathering food, for hauling out, making repairs, and for congregating. For everything else, there are the boats. They provide shelter, transportation, and a place to store food and other supplies. They carry all the tools needed to repair them, and even to reproduce them. They provide fresh water for drinking and washing, by capturing the rainwater that falls on their decks: one good torrential downpour is enough to fill their freshwater tanks, which hold several months' supply. They provide escape from wild weather, being sturdy enough to ride it out safely. In open ocean, away from flying and floating debris, they dutifully pound their way up and down towering waves, rattling the bones of the crew hiding in the enclosed cockpit and below the deck, but remaining impervious to either wind or water. It is little wonder, then, that boatbuilding and seafaring skills are at the top of the vegan home schooling curriculum: they are what keeps them afloat.