Friday, November 14, 2014

Nascent Neofeudalism?

It was during a winter in about 1991, I believe, and I awoke after midnight to an astonishing spectacle: “thundersnow.” Lightning flashed against the windows of my rented second-floor flat as the wind drove falling snow with an intensity I hadn’t seen since childhood. By the end of the storm, drifts had shut much of the city in. Main roads had been cleared, but driving to them from where I lived on a side street was nearly impossible.

As the storm abated, the digout began. Neighbors piled snow high beside their driveways and sidewalks, but the road was still nearly impassible as the traffic that had somehow made it through had only compressed the snow and made it heavier. Nonetheless, resident after resident attempted to navigate it and get to work. Whenever somebody tried and got stuck, five or six people who were shoveling nearby driveways would walk over and push and shovel as needed to free the motorist. This happened maybe ten times that I saw, and I helped push four or five cars at my end of the street.

It’s kind of cliché to observe that neighbors often get together to overcome weather-related challenges, but in the years since then what stuck with me was the economic value that this neighborhood cooperation yielded. Local towing services were overwhelmed with disabled vehicles. Because of this, the “normal,” get-out-your-credit-card-and-bite-the-bullet, middle class response to a disabled vehicle was simply not available. There would be no savior in the form of a professional tow-truck driver showing up with a huge piece of machinery to help get cars out of the snow in exchange for “money.”

But it was amazing how, with five or six people pushing for a few minutes per vehicle, we managed to get car after car out of that neighborhood, quickly and efficiently. And here’s the thing: while we were certainly generating value, we did so by bypassing the traditional economy, which mandates that we earn money, have our income taxed, put it into a bank, then swipe a credit card to pay for the driver, tow truck and associated maintenance, fuel, insurance, advertising and other miscellaneous business overhead, and of course the credit card issuer’s transaction fees. None of that happened. People just moved. When the money economy failed, a different, more primitive, and more efficient one prevailed.

Ironically, our efficiency came at the cost of our normal productivity. The people pushing were in effect temporarily unemployed, and could not get to their fossil-fuel-enhanced, highly productive jobs.  The distinction between efficiency and productivity is probably worth a quick mention here.  Let’s use the example of a bicycle as a piece of technology.  A bicycle is highly efficient in terms of energy required to move a person and a small load in many kinds of common conditions. If a person is using the bicycle to make deliveries, putting a gasoline powered engine on it does not add efficiency – in terms of energy use per unit of work, the engine reduces efficiency, in fact – although it will very likely add to the user’s productivity. In confusing efficiency with productivity, people may consider cars to be an efficient way to get around. Automobile transportation may or may not be an efficient use of the driver’s time, but in terms of energy used per passenger mile, cars are grossly inefficient: most of the energy in the fuel is wasted. And the important thing is, while our culture can discount such inefficiencies for a time, nature doesn’t really lose track of what’s going on. Do you desire timely delivery of hot pizza to outlying rural areas by motorcar?  It’s technically feasible, requires highly productive machinery, and in some areas it has even become a cultural norm. But on a basic level of physics and biology, does make any kind of real sense as a way of feeding ourselves? 

I don’t think so. Beginning with the assumption the rural hot pizza deliveries and a great many other such highly productive but inefficient kinds of economic activity will prove unsustainable, the Green Hand Reskilling concept embraces the more primitive and more durable concept of efficiency. And the fact that efficiency is currently coming out the loser in its competition with all the glittery prizes that energy-intensive productivity has to offer does not dissuade me from betting on efficiency as the winner in the long run.

In fact, the efficiency of direct value creation is what motivated the Green Hand Reskilling Initiative in the first place. For those just joining us for the first time, this blog was intended to promote a very simple community-building and skill-sharing strategy: displaying a sign with a green hand printed or painted on it to indicate one’s willingness to share knowledge with one’s neighbors. Born out of a statewide strategic meeting of Michigan Transition groups in 2010, it’s a low-tech, intrinsically local strategy that is elegant in its simplicity and efficiency – and, as a practical initiative, it’s basically gone nowhere.

However, recently I happened to read John Michael Greer’s blog post,” Dark Age America: The End of the Market Economy,” and I felt it lent some support for the inevitability of concepts such as the Green Hand in one form or another, and so I thought I’d share the connection here. One of the themes Greer has been following in this series of posts is about the collapse of civilizations, including ours, as the energy required to maintain a given level of complexity is no longer available. “Loss of complexity” in Greer’s post refers to all the aforementioned layers of structure that insert themselves between producer and consumer. Greer introduces the term disintermediation to describe the movement toward direct value transmission. This basically means the removal of all unnecessary layers of economic complexity in the process of value creation, including eventually money and all its associated costs. Disintermediation is the name he gives to the process of removing the administrative clutter from value creation, such as we saw when money, business, and machinery were efficiently bypassed by neighbors to overcome the problem of cars stuck in the snow.  

Greer’s point, if I read him correctly, is that these layers of complexity inevitably disappear as a society loses the net energy surplus that had supported them. The result, after a period of adjustment, is a relationship-based, land-centered, steady state economic arrangement that Greer identifies as feudalism. But the process takes time. It starts with people in straits finding workarounds in an economic system that is failing to provide what they need, and often finding those workarounds in opposition to those who still striving to maintain the dying system.

I encourage everyone to read Greer’s blog, but for now this sketch should be adequate to help the reader understand why I would be inspired to draw a connection between the ideas Greer is sharing and the Green Hand Reskilling Initiative. Greer’s “disintermediation” is the essence of the Green Hand concept: direct exchange of information, skills, or what have you, all in the name of building a community resilience (read: a community with more than one way to get necessary tasks done). And while I conceptualized Green Hand being largely a gift economy in which, for example, everyone’s food security is enhanced by the dissemination of food production and food preservation skills among community members, disintermediation does not require the instantaneous abandonment of the market economy, nor does it require that everything be shared for free.  It happens also at a farmer’s market or roadside produce and egg stand, where money moves directly into the hands of the producer without distributors, managers, advertisers, marketers, or other intermediaries taking a cut of the transaction. It happens when the woefully underused productive capital of the typical American kitchen is put to work turning raw commodities into tasty foods. It happens when you watch your neighbor’s kids for a day after getting some help with your brakes.

But while the compelling efficiencies of a roadside transaction for sweet corn, for example, may understandable to many (and they apparently are for the producer, anyhow), the concept of sharing skills for the sole purpose of having a skilled community is still a long stretch for people. We’re born into the thrall of the market. On some level, we think food comes from stores and believe that money has some kind of intrinsic reality when it’s actually simply a social construct. I’ve taken the money economy and markets to task several times in this blog (some of the more salient broadsides can be found here, here, and here). These articles also found a readership at the Post Carbon Institute’s and Energy Bulletin website, but this hardly a mainstream venue. However, as immediate conditions on the ground get harsher, as we realize that we really don’t need most of the crap people are selling, and as it becomes obvious to many that Wall Street has become, at best, bloated administrative overhead, and, more fundamentally, a nonproductive skimming and scamming operation, more people may be willing to start waking up from the hypnotic conditioning of money, at which point, mental barriers currently inhibiting all kinds of alternative economic arrangements will start to make sense. Whether the Green Hand plays a part in it or not is anybody’s guess, but I’m still advocating for personal relationships over money-mediated ones because ultimately we may find that “social security” boils down to a door that opens for us when we’re standing in the rain.

Basically, the question I found myself asking this week was: What if Greer is right and we’re at the beginning of a long slide toward feudalism? You could call our current period 'nascent neofeudalism' if you like big, tasty words, or just “people figuring out smarter ways to be poorer” if you don’t mind plain English. Either way, I agree that it makes sense to start practicing ‘disintermediated’ (i.e., direct) value creation, as well as building the kinds of relationships that can collectively push our society forward when our economic machinery is spinning its wheels.

Monday, July 14, 2014

The Inner Path of Permaculture

There’s something magical that happens for me around mid-July as we decidedly move out of the summer solstice time and I feel reenergized by a barely perceptible yet daily increasing tilt toward fall. I don’t think I’m alone in this, and as we get closer to the month of August and start accelerating toward the equinox, I often feel another, stronger uptick in nervous energy as the days grow shorter. Perhaps in this people are similar to squirrels busily fattening up on summer bounty. Maybe I’m on the same page as my garden leeks, which usually seem to suddenly realize after a few months in the ground that it’s time to get busy and start outwardly growing.

But I love mid-July because, even though I can feel the pace starting to pick up with each passing day, we’re also still plenty deep in the fat part of summer, a time known for bringing on midsummer dreams. I find myself caught up in little whirlpools of fascination everywhere, whirlpools that tend to get bigger the longer I participate in them. I think the languor brought on by summer's heat helps me relax into those places, too. As a gardener or walker in woods and meadows, I am certain I’ve learned as much by ambling about in this way as by disciplined study. Sitting down in the squash patch or resting on a fallen log for a while can be an educational experience, and at this time of year especially, it feels like there’s still time for some of this productive laziness.

Noticing way the tilt of the earth affects the inclinations of my mind and body brought me to a number of thoughts about permaculture as a personal journey. I am reminded of a few years ago when I read Sam Keen’s book, A Passionate Life. The basic idea I gleaned from Keen’s book is that humanity is in the midst of an erotic crisis, and the conflation of the erotic and the sexual is but one of the many symptoms of a broader cultural crisis at the root of many of our social ills. Keen takes his readers back to the original meaning of eros, which to the Greeks was understood as “the prime mover of stars and acorns and the affairs of men.” (p. 26) 

Setting aside for a moment the obvious error evident in the quote above — did the Greeks leave women out of a discussion about eros? — the immediate point is that eros moves everything, which perhaps also explained for them why people, squirrels and leeks all tend to step it up a notch at certain times of year. However, by relegating our conception of the erotic only to what happens in our bedrooms, there is a tendency in our culture not to see how this same forward-leaning impulse of life also moves in our thoughts and feelings, and how it forms the driving energy behind our households, communities, and workplaces. It is easy to forget how this thing that moves us, call it what you will, also connects us to everything else that moves. This connection spans everything from the slowly moving mountains to things most ephemeral: the flash of insight, the bursting of an angel’s trumpet into flower.

This is highly significant, because from what I’ve seen, the strongest practitioners of permaculture are not first and foremost the most learned people. Yes, they do tend to amass considerable, even amazing stores of knowledge, but the most essential quality of real permaculture practitioners is their aliveness to their world, since only by being alive to the world can we align our livingness with it.

However, we run into strong cultural headwinds here. The culture tends to separate things, and our inner schisms ultimately manifest as an overdeveloped capacity to compartmentalize. This in turn is reflected in the structures and systems we design. These external structures tend in turn to militate against awareness of our profound connection with all of life. Modern agricultural practices show one of the more grisly outcomes: the reproductive power of plants and animals is here commandeered and dominated in a way that would make most devoted sadists woozy. We lay waste to the fertility principle. I suggest we do so because we have not adequately cared for our own, and more broadly for that thing now beyond the pale of science that Keen hints at —perhaps we should just call it life.

Keen writes, “First love and sex, like value and fact and mind and matter, were separated. Love became a private, subjective emotion, a way of feeling about another person. Its cognitive status was denied; it was not considered a way of knowing. Modern philosophies of science rejected as sentimental nonsense Augustine’s conclusion that we can only know what we love.” (p. 15) Yes, that does sound like science: Get rid of that fluffy-headed “love” stuff! 

But we see where that takes us, right?  It brings us exactly to where we are, and I honestly think we can do better than this. Love may not be reasonable, but that doesn't mean there is no reason for it. Still, there are those who would say that it is naïve to include feelings in our ways of knowing, or even deny the possibility of connecting with the pulse of life that moves us. Some look at the state of the sciences and say and that what is needed to rectify the absence of these inner connections is a stronger code of ethics. From my perspective there is no evidence to support the idea that external measures will support life-enhancing action in any field when the inner connections to life are lacking or disregarded.

Later in his book, Keen elaborates on the observation that we treat the earth precisely as we treat our bodies. This should come as no surprise, because the two are one and the same. Thus, the junkie and the industrialist, both under their own kinds of anesthesia, become addicted to spilling toxic substances into living streams, be they blood vessels or rivers, and the CAFO operator is, in every sense of the word, a pervert.

In a way, it’s a bit of an irony (and perhaps a great moral victory!) to even study permaculture as I first did, in a university biology department, given the extent to which science has become the handmaiden of industry and a tool for the abstract, symbol-driven world of monetary gain. Take a look at the people who really care about the practice of permaculture and we see that it’s about making connections, and the deeper motives of these people must align with those of the natural systems in which they are embedded. Thus, and this is really the main insight I’m offering here, there is another axis of permaculture practice that intersects with the art and science of arranging elements on a given piece of land. This other axis, the one I’m calling the inner path of permaculture, goes straight through the living heart of the designer.

The importance of this axis is obliquely hinted at when we look at the crucial role of observation in the design process. What moves the designers’ eyes?  What sublime impulse walks us forth?  What moves our thoughts, our feelings, and what brings forth remembrances that lead to sudden conceptions, ideas, and the creative upwelling of inspiration?  In a very real sense, our ideas spring from the soil of our minds as the flora and fauna of that inner terrain. “The force that through the green fuse drives the flower,” as Dylan Thomas wrote . . . yes, that too drives us.

This is why it’s so important to follow those little whirlpools of fascination, the ones that that get bigger the longer one looks, even if it takes a bit of time. Through them, the world looks into us as lovers, touches and dialogs with us, and moves us to its side. When we feel the ancient depth and urgency in the rise and fall of each breath that we take as part of earth, we will know ourselves as well as the planetary system that meets and inspires us, breath by breath, with its own gifts and passion. A friend of mine once quoted, “I am the Earth walking,” and so likewise we must also be the Earth’s thought, speech, and feeling. Taken together, this is the consciousness of unity, and as a connecting science, the practice of permaculture ultimately requires nothing less.

Friday, April 25, 2014

If This Didn't Seem Impossible, It Probably Wouldn't be Necessary

A seed potato in a planting hole, April 2014
It’s been three years since I launched the Green Hand Reskilling Initiative as a way to generate community resilience in the face of economic and ecological shifts. The basic idea is this: display a sign at your residence with a green hand printed or painted on it to indicate your willingness to share skills. When I first put forward the idea at a strategic meeting of Transition groups from around Michigan in Feb 2010, the idea was warmly received, and subsequent conversations with knowledgeable people were very encouraging.

But so far, the simple idea – that physical signs in neighborhoods would generate conversations, skill sharing, and more resilient community, has gone nowhere. It seemed so elegant in principle, requiring no centralized organization, no expensive or hierarchical infrastructure, and no organized meetings except among interested and presumably local people as needed to meet immediate needs.

When I first started the Green Hand website and blog at the suggestion of my friend Ken and the help of my technologically astute daughter, it was intended to be a solutions-focused affair, a celebration of the possibilities of sharing and human ingenuity, promoting the Green Hand sign concept as a vehicle for community building.

Three years later, the blog might just be the most successful part of the project in terms of people I’ve reached, because as far as I know, I myself possess the only Green Hand sign in existence. I wondered about this failure for some time as I continued with my increasingly sporadic blog postings and occasional presentations at community events. Was the problem my admittedly lackluster performance as a promoter and marketer of ideas, or with the idea itself?

While I’m certain I could do more as a promoter, before I renewed my efforts I felt that it would be a good idea to vet the concept’s viability again. As it turned out, I had the good fortune to encounter a veteran consultant in cooperative living with 20 years’ experience in the field. After sharing my "elevator pitch" version of the concept, I asked why the idea wasn’t getting any traction. He said simply: “We’re not ready for it yet.”

Is it really that simple? But then, I thought about what I’m really asking people to do by tracing their hand in green on a sign and posting it. It’s taking a public stand within a known community at a real location. It’s showing up as “different.” It’s opening the door to interactions with strangers. It’s identifying yourself as a person who values basic skills that may not get much attention or value in the world today. It’s saying that you’re willing to do something untried, unproven and maybe even a little bit nutty because it’s a dead certainty that the stuff we’re doing that seems ‘normal’ is leading to a nasty future. It’s saying: I’m here and I’m willing to trust my neighbors enough to start making (as James Howard Kunstler would put it) “alternate arrangements,” because in my view, it seems quite likely that our leaders in government and industry are planning for a future that isn’t going to happen.

In other words, participating in the Green Hand Initiative is asking a lot of people, socially, emotionally, and psychologically. It’s terrible but often true that when people get stressed, they hold more firmly, not less, to dysfunctional coping strategies that may have worked in the past. Trying new things can get harder to do as it becomes more imperative.

However, the difficulty of each of the things the Green Hand concept asks of people – willingness to publicly identify one’s self; to reach out in trust and build community solidarity; to embrace novelty, ambiguity, uncertainty, and stand up in the face of potential ridicule; to take a stand for a future that isn’t here yet but could be by virtue of my standing for it – these are the very dimensions of difficulty we will ultimately have to face anyhow.

My conclusion is that Green Hand Initiative is “failing,” at least in part, because it is asking of people precisely those behaviors and attitudes of mind that, were they the prevailing norm, would render the signs moot. Just as with individuals, in communities the contours of resistance delineate our areas of potential growth. Thus came to mind the maxim: If this project weren’t so impossible, it wouldn’t be necessary.

What to do about it?  Personally, although my blog postings have been irregular at best lately, when it comes to the actual Green Hand work of skill-sharing, plant-sharing, and relationship-building, I keep at it. On that level, I have never stopped. My driveway is becoming a veritable nursery of plants destined for new homes in other gardens. And, amazingly enough considering my location on a dead-end road, my Green Hand sign actually got noticed. One day in the middle of the record-setting winter we endured here in southeast Michigan, I was startled as I drove down my driveway to meet a visitor making his way toward me on cross country skis. He identified himself as a neighbor living some distance away who had seen a presentation I’d done at a local church. He’d seen my Green Hand sign and my fenced-in garden while skiing and wanted my contact info for a friend who was asking to know how to build a fence that keeps out animals. Of course, I’ll be happy to help. I’m also directly adding labor these days to other people’s gardens, and giving seeds, seedlings, slips, and offshoots away. Last year I estimate I gave away over 100 raspberry canes just as they were leafing out in spring, with maybe 50 or more of them going to a friend with ample garden space. A couple months later I received a photo of my friend’s grandson sitting by her new long row of raspberries, messily eating the ripe fruit from his hand.

But honestly, can this kind of thing really help to stave off or mitigate suffering as our high-energy culture sputters out of gas?  My response to that question is that the Green Hand idea is more than helping people grow food or learn other basic skills, it’s also about cultivating relationships in the process. In addition to relationships with plants, animals, wind, sun, rain and soil, I encourage everyone to build human relationships because at a very basic level, “social security” may come down to a door that opens when you’re standing in the rain.

As far as the work itself goes (supposing we as a culture are capable of better than shooting one another for canned goods if food delivery systems break down), we’re going to need to take productivity into our own hands somehow. There’s no time like the present to gather the treasure of last year’s fallen leaves and layer them in place to improve the soil, no better time than now to plant a tree or vine, no better time to befriend a property owner and offer to grow and share some food on an underused piece of land.

Do I honestly believe that the millions of garden spades hanging in the garages of America can make a difference in meeting the nation’s food needs if they were put to skillful use? Absolutely. If not, they wouldn’t have been called into service in the Victory Garden campaign of WWII.

And in addition to uprooting weeds and preparing soil, those shovels can also help dig out the pernicious idea that anything that isn’t the latest electronic gizmo from China is irrelevant to the future. On the contrary, I encourage you to put down your phone and pick up instead a handful of really good soil—at that moment you’re holding something of vastly greater subtlety and complexity. Plus of course, I’m planting potatoes in that soil today because, come November, it’s nice to know where to dig for them, and even nicer if I can find a friend willing to dig them up together. It’s amazing to see how they glow as they come out of the dark earth. You can almost bask in the stored sunshine.

So in the end I don’t see this project as impossible after all, because personally I’ve found a place to build from, and that’s all I can do. Scope and scale can come later, and hopefully will, as changing conditions continue to prompt social transformation.  I take some comfort in the thought that this and many other worthy ideas are slowly spreading, often underground and out of sight, and that they will be ready to sprout into action when we really need them.  For now, my approach is simply to share what I know, do what I can, spend time and work with those who appeal to me, and model what can be done with a piece of land. I can, in short, “be the change,” and if those I share with further expand the web by connecting with others, then maybe one Green Hand sign in the world is enough. At least – like the handful of bee balm roots I brought to a friend yesterday to encourage pollinators in her garden – it’s a start.

Thursday, October 24, 2013

Zombie Cannibalism: Why We Should Be Concerned if there’s a Business Case for Eating People

Green Hand Blog, 2013 Halloween Edition 

I ate a few of bites of a particularly bad cut of meat last night for dinner before I had to throw the rest of it out, I’m sorry to say. I don’t know what made it taste so bad, but as I was lying awake waiting for an expected case of food poisoning, I started to wonder how to describe my abortive birthday dinner, and the best and most memorable description I came upon was: “It tasted like something out of Jeffrey Dahmer’s freezer.”

Then, it being 2am and the infinite darkness of the ceiling being something of a mirror for my mental processes at the time, I moved on to other considerations. There was way too much of that meat on sale for it all to have come from a single crazed serial killer’s Frigidaire. That left only one possibility: it had to be the product of a global mafia of crazed zombie serial killers.

What if, I speculated as my stomach churned, the on-the-bone lamb that had been labeled for purchase as originating at a ranch somewhere actually originated, say, in China? And what if it were not lamb at all, but the natural byproduct of policy of a large Chinese factory complex – perhaps a policy called, without any special attempt at irony, the Merciful Justice Program – in which slow-moving or fatigued Chinese factory workers are disciplined by having their limbs cut off and marketed to US consumers? 

This certainly seemed plausible, though admittedly my thought processes may have been affected somewhat by what I’d eaten and the lateness of the hour. Still, I reasoned, disciplinary amputations have a long history in China, and would have the effect of encouraging the slowpokes to work harder and faster with their remaining limbs. They would also serve as an effective warning to others who might want to take a break. Plus, there would be a marketable product: the severed limbs themselves.

Ok, maybe describing severed human limbs as a ‘marketable product’ goes a little too far. What I’m talking about here is a product that, with a little advertising spin, some creative labeling, and considerable effort to hide the truth about where it came from and what it really is, can be sold to unwitting consumers at a profit. Oh, wait a second…I guess that’s exactly what a ‘marketable product’ is these days. Never mind.

It’s important to note that from a zombie managerial perspective, gaining such a product in this way seems only fair. These workers, in their failure to labor at the prescribed rate of speed for the prescribed number of hours, had limited the productivity of the factory. It only makes sense, really, that their reduced output be compensated for in this way. And if such workers still don’t get the message and up the pace of their work, well then, logic says we should simply cut up the rest of their bodies for the market and replace them with new workers. I mean, for heaven's sakes, isn't that why managers like maintaining a large pool of unemployed people?

Of course, none of this really happens—that I know of. But still, it’s unnerving to think: there’s a business case for eating people.

It’s so simple it’s brilliant, really: People are farmed animals that will run straight into the slaughterhouse, and not only that, they will work to get there. The beauty of it is that a savvy manager can take advantage of human reproductive capacity and natural tendency to grow and gain skills by setting up a system in which they will of their own accord present themselves to be gathered up. And the whole thing is pure profit, my friends, pure profit! Business doesn’t get much better than this, does it? Oh, and don’t forget the organ meat! High markup if handled correctly after slaughter.

Now, I’ve gone over this and over this in my mind, and I’m convinced that we’ve reached a stage in the senescence of industrial society where if a business case can be made for a practice, even a heinous, criminal, and unthinkable one, whether it’s happening right now or not, sooner or later, it will. Mad cow disease, which spread due to the forced cannibalism of cattle fed the meat byproducts of their own species, can be seen as a template for how the current system operates. Zombie cannibalism is the new economy. Welcome to the global slaughterhouse.

For example, I’m trying to imagine the thinking that went into the decision to exempt or at least skirt the intent of the Clean Air, Clean Water and Clean Drinking Water Acts here in the United States in natural gas and petroleum fracking operations.[i] The reason this had to be done is that, like slaughtering people and marketing human flesh, the pollution that fracking generates would have been illegal if the changes had not been made. So, essentially, we’ve decided for convenience’ sake that an activity that we’d previously prohibited is now ok. Just like that. But why, then, was it ever made illegal in the first place? Forgive me, but wasn’t it because it was known that these chemicals, when they get into the air and water, cause people to get sick and die? So I guess that’s okay now, too. Yes, it’s a slow and geographically selective slaughter, but it’s a slaughter nonetheless. Most importantly, however, it generates a marketable product that can be sold at a profit -- or at least in this case a marketable business model that can drill investors.

I’ve read about how in West Africa’s cacao growing regions, children are forced into labor at picking the cacao pods. Frequently trafficked as slave labor across international boundaries,[ii] children may have to climb trees with machetes and walk around in shorts and barefooted, carrying blowers that fog insecticide and fungicide.[iii] My basic question is, when I put that chocolate into my mouth, is that a sweetened form of cannibalism? And if I heat my home with fuel that has been purchased at the cost of fracking area residents drinking industrial waste from their home water wells, is that possibly also a kind of cannibalism, warmed up for sale? Do their tears and blood have to fall in my soup for me to consider myself a zombie cannibal, or is it enough to know that my body’s warmth this winter was paid for by their bodies’ suffering, disease, and premature death? Or to take another example, if I aspire to grisly zombie mayhem, do I have to go to India and hack a poor cotton farmer to death myself, or is it sufficient to go to the nearest mall and buy a pair of jeans made from the GMO cotton that bankrupted that farmer and led to his suicide? I have to ask because, after all, the mall is a heckuva lot more conveniently located, and these jeans look great on zombie cannibals like me.  

However, there seems to be some controversy about that last example, so perhaps it’s best to focus on the hairless heads of childhood leukemia victims fixed atop pikes on the dandelion-free lawns of suburban homeowners and their sponsors at the local chemical company. You haven’t seen them? You should, because such deaths, while not made so public, are statistically inevitable given the widespread use of cosmetic lawn chemicals.[iv] Or the cancers reported from petroleum contamination in Ecuador[v] and elsewhere. Or cancers and birth defects among electronics workers.[vi] I mean, what zombie cannibal doesn’t like creating death and real-life monsters, especially if we can consume the results?

But the beauty of the economic system of zombie cannibalism isn’t just in our miraculous ability to use our dollars to kill and torture people at a distance, in effect consuming their bodies in the attempt to keep our own bodies whole. (And our public images intact as well-dressed motorists with weedless lawns and fancy gizmos.) No, as appealing as that is in a zombie kind of way, the real beauty of the cannibalist system is in its increasingly comprehensive structure, which guarantees universal participation in the carnage and the spread of zombie cannibalism to every corner of the earth and every nook of society.

It’s a two-step process. First, we legalize mayhem like releasing toxic chemicals via fracking, or alternately, in our zombie trance we allow people to start doing ghastly things like factory farming. Okay, that’s step one. But then, the second step is, it’s important to make protesting and organizing to stop these practices illegal – or at least suspect enough to warrant the attentions of law enforcement.[vii] That’s right – see the beauty of it? So if you organize to stop fracking in your neighborhood, or protest outside a bank that funds zombie cannibalist mayhem, or even gather in the vicinity of a government building where your legal representatives are ostensibly making the laws, or a coffee shop, you’re now a suspected “terrorist.”[viii] And if you photograph your local factory farm, depending on jurisdiction, you very well might be a criminal. Do these things and you could end up in jail, and you know what you’ll find at every step of the legal process?

You guessed it -- other zombies! Police, judges, clerks, corrections officials, attorneys and others who together will feed off of your suffering, imprisoned body.

And here’s the thing: They must have more victims. Systems will be built to encourage it. Laws will be crafted to guarantee it.[ix] The need is imperative: Bodies will be stuffed into prisons. And more bodies. And more prisons.  Zombies rule!

So, looked at comprehensively, the system of zombie cannibalism is extremely elegant. Because it’s not just that we’re practically forced to gorge on one another like mad cows, but that if we ever try to raise a hand to stop it, it’ll get chopped off, too.

So, Happy Halloween, everyone—today and every day. And thank you for your brains.

[viii] Ibid.

Monday, July 8, 2013

Protecting Higher-Order Values from the Profanity of the Market

A friend recently brought to my attention on online article about the destruction of a pre-Inca pyramid in Peru by land developers:

It’s a short article and I haven’t been able to find anything else in the news about the incident, but given that the recent Turkish protests started with another commercial encroachment on public space, I think it’s worth considering what’s going on here. Look around the world and you will see the pattern again and again in the ongoing struggles of people in Alberta to stop tar sands development, and in many other places including anti-fracking groups in New York and Pennsylvania.

Whether people are concerned with protecting a forest, an ancient site, a public space, or their water supply, this is a common theme: there absolutely must be places, things, and values that money does not touch and cannot reach. This assertion directly opposes the agenda of powerful economic interests seeking to bring everything from DNA to public lands, waters, and airwaves under market control — hence the battle.

I once looked up the etymology of the word "profane." I found that the word is derived from the Latin words for "before" (pro) and "temple" (fanus). So, that which is profane is that which is not allowed into the temple, is kept outside of it, and is unworthy to enter.

And what exactly is it that must be kept "before the temple?" What is it that must not be allowed to enter it?  What is profane?  

Answer: The market.

In many traditional towns and cities, this is literally true — the marketplace occupies a space in front of the place of worship, often in the city square. Nobody would think of hawking bananas or haggling over the price of a basket inside the local Cathedral. But this principle also holds for anything of a higher-order value: clear boundaries must be drawn that keep the profanity of the market from entering and defiling things of higher-order value. There have to be places where priceless things are protected from the instincts of market mentality to throw a number at them and determine their relative value. Whenever the market does this, higher-order values and the things they represent are in jeopardy, and every protected place is threatened with defilement: our parks, our waters, our ancient sites, our homes, our beds, our bodies, and our minds.

“Is nothing sacred?” goes the old cliché. In the market, the answer is clear: No. Where numbers and money rule, all things of higher-order value, from our children to our local rivers, are just so many things in the marketplace.

From a metaphysical point of view, I don’t see how such a system can endure. There have to be things of absolute or at least higher-order value to bring the relative valuations of the markets into right relationship with life as it is lived. But as we see, our society is remarkably schizoid in the way the eroding bulwarks against market hegemony are maintained. We hold as criminal those who exploit children in the sex trade or the market for child pornography, but on the whole we seem comfortable with and even willing to enable the wholesale commercial exploitation of children through television advertising and pharmaceutical drugs. Many people say a blessing over their meals, but much of the food marketed today by industry should be reckoned as a slow poison, and it is produced in ways that the writers of the ancient food preparation laws of great religions could not envision and thus could not prohibit.

As I wrote in my previous blog, whenever money moves into a place of primary value in society, values are inverted and bad things happen. Regulation, the demon of neoliberal economic liturgy, amounts to the place where society erects a barrier between things of primary or higher-order value on the one side and the profanity of the marketplace on the other. This barrier is by necessity somewhat moveable in places as a society negotiates the tradeoffs of resource allocation to find balance. Nonetheless, our health, the safety and quality of our food, the preservation of water, air and land for future generations, the care of our children, and the ability of citizens to peacefully operate in an environment without excessive threats — these are broadly embraced, higher-order values. Where regulation is lax, tailored to industry, or badly enforced, then buildings fall down, tainted food finds its way to family dinner tables, and lakes, rivers and the air we breathe become dumping grounds.

Perhaps worst of all is when commercial interests find their way into the honorable duty of national defense. Next thing you know, people are fighting, killing and dying for no higher cause than the profitability of a given war to defense contractors and other interested businesses. While there is by necessity always a commercial element to war, the degree to which warfare is a product of commercial interests is a very good gauge of how far into our imagined “temple of higher-order values” the marketplace has advanced. If we extend our original metaphor and identify one of the “holy of holies” within this temple as being human life itself, the taking of lives and the destruction of nations for monetary gain will demonstrate how deeply into the temple that these profane market interests have penetrated. Once again: when the relative valuations of the market take the place of the higher-order values that guide our living, ultimately all values are reduced to rubble.

Bill Clinton said something during an interview with Jon Stewart on The Daily Show last year [9:20] that I thought was pretty remarkable, and which I paraphrase here: All markets tend to self-destruct. If true, this begs the question: What does this mean for a nation that has hitched its destiny to these markets?

Perhaps this sobering thought will shed some light on why the ancient Hebrews set aside a day without commercial activity or productive labor of any kind and called it “the Sabbath.” Granted, we don’t see many people in contemporary society following the guidelines set forth in the Bible, even though the text is rather specific. I’m neither religious nor a scholar on things biblical, and I certainly don’t want anybody telling me what day to work or rest. However, I think it’s worth considering why a culture with such remarkable powers of endurance made it a matter of fundamental law that one day each week the butcher should put down the knife, the farmer hang the hoe in the barn, and the lender of money turn away from business.

Part of the reason, I suspect, may lie in the fact that the knife, the hoe, the stack of shekels and the international corporation are, basically, tools. Human beings have a peculiar relationship with the tools with which they shape the world. The wielder of the knife, the hoer of the earth, and the corporate executive are in turn themselves shaped by those tools, both in body and in mind. Consequently, if we cannot let go of the tools that extend our range of influence, we in turn become mere extensions of these tools, and less than fully human.

Viewed in this way, a day without labor is a way to push back the pernicious and dehumanizing effects of commercial activity and productive work, and with them the dangerous blowback they generate if the energies of a society are entirely monopolized by economic activity. The Sabbath presents a balancing counterpoint, a day when our hands can unwrap themselves from their accustomed handles, so that we may find in that release something of greater value that may guide us in our work when we pick them up again.

Of course, I am not suggesting that this is a desirable approach to the problems we now face; I’m pointing to the larger pattern here, which is that there must be places in our lives, both public and private, from which the market is excluded if we are to endure. Getting money out of politics looks to me like a very good place to start, but wherever it is, however it is, whenever it is, and whatever it looks like, we need to protect our higher-order values and subordinate the market to those values rather than the other way around, in both our private and public lives. Otherwise, there is clearly a danger that, both as individuals and as a culture, we will become lost without knowing it in the profanity of the market, and ultimately destroyed by it.

Wednesday, January 23, 2013

The Dissociative States of America

I’ve been wondering about money lately. It’s been said to be the root of all evil, but that’s been so often repeated that even if it’s true, it doesn’t help much. Yet, money does seem to have a perverse effect on people and societies unless its influence is actively kept in check. For some time, my question has been, what’s the mechanism? Why is this so?

The answer, or at least part of it, turned out to be surprisingly simple. It came to me the night I was dismissed from jury duty a few months back. The case I would have heard, had I been seated on that jury, involved money.

I pondered why so much organizational energy would be expended on such a thing when there are potatoes to dig and clothing to sew. Money is, after all, a secondary value. It has no intrinsic worth. So what is really at issue in a crime involving money?

My conclusion is that the criminality of theft consists in that the thief values my money or possessions over our relationship, and our relationship in that moment is the local node of a more universal human connection. Break the bond of trust and the whole fabric is compromised.

The thief, the embezzler, and the perpetrator of fraud present an inversion of values. This inversion is the metaphysical underpinning of the crime. It is also an important determiner of whether or not a crime has been committed. In the case of stealing money, it is not a crime because money is so valuable, as is commonly believed within a culture that has made an idol of it. The criminality of the theft is that the thief breaks something of primary value in our relationship, trust, in order to elevate something that is inherently of secondary value: mere money. Ultimately even property, things of real value, is also secondary to relationships. Where this is not the case, relationships break down.

This distinction – crime as violation of relationship versus crime as violation of property – is of immense significance, for those who would promote the idolization of money and property would have us believe that precisely the opposite is the case: that we have made a crime of theft because money and property are of primary value. Once this misunderstanding takes root, those whose power flows from money can constantly enlarge the domain of legalized criminal behavior – behavior that elevates money, a thing of secondary value, over relationships of intrinsic worth. Corporations creating and introducing chemicals and organisms with demonstrably hazardous effects on life, for-profit prisons that successfully lobby for laws that ensure a steady stream of prisoners, banks selling worthless securities to credulous pensions and would-be retirees … there are relationships being compromised by all of these activities, but the activities are profitable, so they go on.

People think it’s all about the money, and these kinds of activities seem to support that idea. But it never really is. It can’t be. Money is nothing. Its meaning is entirely dependent on the contiguity and integrity of the social fabric. This is the reason that money crimes, from embezzlement to fraud to robbery, are real crimes: they are attacks on the social fabric upon whose integrity the value of money ultimately depends. However, for this same reason, money and property are secondary to the primary injury of a “property crime.” This cannot be emphasized enough: the thief becomes a criminal not so much by taking things of value, but by breaking something of infinitely more value in people’s trust. This is why “The People of the State” have a vested interest in maintaining the trust that underlies social functioning. Distrust can reach a level that society cannot bear, as it exacts a toll on every interaction. Transparency, truth, trust, honesty, labor, and freedom: these are the things that generate wealth in the grand sense of the term.

But the interesting thing is, once enough people think money and property are the primary focus, the relationships involved and things of intrinsic worth fall into a secondary position, and then become obscured. The next link in the chain that follows from this error is that as primary and secondary values are inverted, they dissociate. Navigating by the headlights of monetary gain alone, soon enough, medicine will make people sick and dependent, chemicals will be introduced into foods for the convenience of their manufacturers as opposed to the well being of those who eat it, and livestock will live in perpetual misery and stress because more money can be made when their misery is discounted. Criminality can expand virtually unnoticed in such a society and subordinate the law to its own ends. Lacking the discipline of real relationships and intrinsic worth, false relationships rule, and it isn’t long before the mass of society is living in the throes of an amnesic, dissociative fugue.

On the other side of my tax dollars I find torture, predator drones, war crimes and crimes against humanity. On the other side of the dollars I spend on gasoline is an industry that leverages tax subsidies with political donations, despoils the environment, and hires scientists willing to lie about climate change. There’s a banana peel beside my computer – and on the other side of that purchase, often enough, are agricultural practices that abuse land and labor, as well as gross social inequality. And finally, this miraculous device on which I type these words is made by what might as well be called slave labor, except that slaves, being owned, are treated as assets, while many manufacturing workers in some overseas markets are treated as expendable.

Contemplating these realities, I can try to extricate myself from the web of moral failure connected with nearly everything I do with my money, or I can join the amnesia, allowing money to dissociate my experience from the realities on the other side of my monetary transactions.

Assuming I choose to regain consciousness, it is essential to wake up from the mass hallucination of money as a primary value. I can think of no better illustration of the nexus of this confusion of primary and secondary values than the television game shows I watched as a child. Many of these had a quiz format where the participants' production of scripted, called-for information or other performance is instantly rewarded with specific sums of money, the tally of which appears somewhere on the screen. So what is important here? Where is the value? Is it in the information, the task, the performance, the skill, the intelligence? No, it’s pretty clear that there’s no meaning to the maze but the cheese, and the cheese is the money. Drill that into people – it isn’t hard in a social construct where hunger follows from pennilessness – and soon money becomes a value unto itself rather than a marker of value. It becomes primary. Once these values have been inverted, it’s almost automatic that money will further dissociate them, altering our perceptions. We don’t see the hungry person, we see the poor person—and the response is very different. Again: first primary and secondary values are inverted, and then they split. This is highly consequential.

Because, regardless of how stuck a culture is on it, money is not primary. This is simply an error, albeit one that can remain undetected among many for longish periods of time under the right cultural conditions. Of course, the effects of the dissociative psychology of money are everywhere to be seen, for its deep genealogy of dissociation is revealed in the social fragmentation, broken people, and broken world it invariably engenders unless it is held in check.

If money holds its inverted place as a primary value long enough, eventually we reach a position where, for example, supposedly sane, reasonable people in the nation’s highest court can assert that money is speech and that corporations are people. Yes, well I can say that donkeys are daffodils, but that doesn’t make it so; I guess it’s because I’m not sitting in a special chair in a black robe. It’s as though they would do anything rather than admit the original error of putting money in the place of primary value. So much was built upon it subsequently, and the constituencies of this error became so large and powerful, that any verbal devices that are needed to prop up the false front can and will be used, regardless of how internally twisted, weak, and just plain false they may be.

However, a child could spot the absurdity of such propositions, even if a presidential candidate cannot. Not only does the emperor have no clothes, it is abundantly clear, if we are reduced to talking in this way, that neither has the empire a fitting social fabric. The pernicious influence of inverted and dissociated values ultimately shows up as socially sanctified madness, and in the blindness of that insanity, criminality insinuates itself into everything from the highest institutions of governance down to everyday acts like fueling a vehicle or buying a piece of fruit.

Am I saying that we should do away with money altogether? No. However, I am suggesting that we do away with the thinking that puts money in a place of primary value, which inevitably leads us to a place where we confuse profit making with value creation and monetary wealth with personal worthiness. Granted, those who have used money to cudgel their fellow citizens down will not willingly concede that privilege. But the reality is, both individuals and nations who use money in this way are relying on the dissociative power of money and the hallucinated world it creates to hide their actions from view. The deeper truth here is that we are all collaborators to one degree or another in these crimes, but this doesn’t mean the bosses of the rackets shouldn’t go to jail.

Thursday, September 20, 2012

Fairy Houses

Fairy House - builder unknown
Macworth Island, Maine

            I was first introduced to fairy houses in the Nichols Arboretum in Ann Arbor, Michigan, and then encountered them again while sightseeing in Maine on Mackworth Island.  Bark, sticks, stones, leaves, pine needles and (in Maine) shells were the construction materials.  A little online searching will reveal it’s a growing phenomenon.  Fairy houses are big!

            And small.  They’re cute little houses, and lovingly made.  Maybe that’s the reason I’m starting to think there’s more hope for the future in fairy houses than pretty much anything else I’m coming across these days.  Certainly there’s more hope in them than anything I’m seeing in politics.  The recipe is simple: Find a little place and love it.  The fact that the sticks and bark are real, things with smell and texture that came from the cycles of life and are still part of those cycles, well, that’s a bonus.  And, they’re free.  That’s a bonus, too.

            What’s most amazing to me is that, just a few years ago, such fairy house villages were largely unknown.  Now they’re popping up everywhere.  Secondarily, it amazes me that, in this age of digital multimedia glitz, people of all ages would see such beautiful worlds of creative possibility in forest litter.  So what happened? First, there was a model: somebody built a fairy house.  Then, as with the cairns that also seem to have sprouted in colonies across the landscape, so too do additional fairy houses spring up.

            Find a little place and love it: Presto! Something new under the sun.

Find a little place, and love it.

Because it’s not so much with sticks and moss that children young and old are building, but with love, with feelings, and with imagination.  The sticks were already there.  The leaves, the green mosses, the shining stones, they were waiting, they are waiting for new hands, new eyes, new heart.  The things of this world that people have built already are likewise at our disposal.  The great nations, the cities, the sheaves of legal wrapping paper that shroud the corporations, these are just moss and mineral crusted upon the earth, and fallen leaves.  We can make something of all of this.

Find a little place and love it. 

First, it becomes a mirror.  As we build with feelings, so our feelings become visible through our building.  Are we building barricades and fences for our fairy houses? What perils are we imagining? Do we really want to build this way again?  This is our world.  We can make it in our image.  In fact, we cannot do otherwise. 

This is our world. 
This is our world!  
This is our world!   
This is our World!

So we will build with awareness, with feelings, and with love.  The fairy houses we build attract attention, visitors, and emulation.  More spring up, all in different styles.  More visitors come.  Amazing how they all fit together!

Find a place and love it.  First it becomes a mirror.  Then it becomes a lens. 

We feel the intent of the builders, look into the works before us, and see the possibility of new worlds.  Same old stuff here, but with new possibilities inherent, new vision opening possibilities within the treasures and the trash.  Each example becomes a lens that brings new possibilities into focus, new ways of building, yes, but more importantly, the new feelings and sensibilities that built the buildings, even new ways of being that are implied by how things are being made.  And the world is different in the moment we are changed.

Find a little place even a moment in time and love into it.  First it becomes a mirror, then a lens.  Then, the world begins to bend around it, and be remade. 

Find a little place and love it; let it be a mountain or a stone, a river or a cup of water handed to a child, a handful of forest litter.  Let it be a business, a garden, a home, a corner of your desk, or a clear and intimate moment shared during the day.  We can build with moments as children build with sticks.  Everything and every moment holds a new world within it, bursting with anticipation, longing to expand with us.

Find a place and love it. First it becomes a mirror. Then it becomes a lens.  Then, the world begins to bend around it, and be remade.