Friday, September 19, 2014

The hole: A children's story

Suppose one day a small group of people got together and decided that digging a hole in the ground would be an interesting way to pass the time. There was no reason that they should choose digging a hole over any other activity, say, building a treehouse or carving pornographic images on rocks. Digging a hole just happened to be what seemed fitting to this particular group of people on this particular day. Suppose that after they had been digging a while, other folks came around and joined in the fun, and pretty soon there was a substantial hole in the ground, large enough for several people to be digging at once.

And the hole got deeper and deeper.

It didn’t take long before the hole was so deep that it was impossible to toss any more dirt out without it falling back in. At this point it was also getting pretty difficult to pull people back to the surface, and most of the folks stopped digging and said “Well, that’s obviously as far as we can go.” But then someone came up with a clever idea. By tying a basket to a length of rope, people on the surface could drop the basket into the hole, people in the hole could fill the basket with dirt, and the people on the surface could pull the basket up, empty it, and then send it back down for another load. Then someone else came up with the creative idea of tying two lengths of rope together at regular intervals to make a ladder that would allow people to climb easily in and out of the hole, and the people started digging once more.

And the hole got deeper and deeper.

The hole got so deep that it became hard for the people digging at the bottom to see what they were doing, and so they stopped digging, and said, “Well, that’s obviously as far as we can go.” But then, someone came up with a clever idea. By rolling beeswax around a string, they made a device that could be burned to provide light sufficient to dig by, and the people started digging once more, by candlelight.

And the hole got deeper and deeper.

After a while, the people digging at the bottom of the hole and the people pulling baskets of dirt to the surface got too tired to continue, and so they stopped digging and pulling, and said, “Well that’s obviously as far as we can go.” But then someone came up with a clever idea. By this point the excavation project had attracted a lot of attention, and there were several people just standing around watching. Some of the spectators could take the place of the diggers and pullers. And when they got tired, other spectators could take over for them. A few of the spectators were persuaded to climb into the hole and dig, and a few others were convinced to pull and empty baskets of dirt.

And the hole got deeper and deeper.

Days passed, and the excavation project became the only subject of conversation. “How deep is it today?” they asked each other. “How deep do you think it can go?” Soon everyone was involved. Everyone was expected to spend part of their day digging and part of their day pulling. Those who were too feeble to dig or pull were expected to make candles or weave rope and baskets.

And the hole got deeper and deeper.

Then, one day tragedy struck. A torrent of water from a surprise rainstorm collapsed part of the hole and buried a group of diggers, killing them all. After the bodies were retrieved, family members of the dead diggers grieved and lamented, “Well, that’s obviously as far as we can go.” But then someone came up with a clever idea. Dying as a digger was a truly praiseworthy end. Such a sacrifice simply cannot go unrewarded. Surely there is an inestimable reward in the afterlife for diggers who meet such a fate. And the people agreed. And a shrine was built in their honor.

And the hole got deeper and deeper.

More days passed, and the hole become so deep that the air at the bottom was hot and hard to breathe, and even a few hours of digging became difficult to endure. And the pullers had to pull so long to raise a basket that their hands became blistered and sore. And they stopped digging and pulling and said, “Well, that’s obviously as far as we can go.” But then someone came up with a clever idea. A person who refuses to act of their own accord, can be convinced to act if they have to in order to survive. And so the community elders made it a law that an able bodied person could not have access to food or shelter or partake in any pleasurable community activities until they spent the expected amount of time digging and pulling. Those who were not so able bodied were still required to make candles and weave rope and baskets, but now according to law they could not eat until they met their candle or basket quota.

And the hole got deeper and deeper.

Then one day, a group of pullers decided that they had had enough, dropped their ropes, and left the town for the forest where they could hunt and collect their own food and live life in peace without having to work on the stupid hole. Soon several diggers, candle makers, and weavers joined them. And a few of the community elders said, “Well, that’s obviously as far as we can go.” But then someone came up with a clever idea. Since the people who fled to the forest broke the law, they have forfeited their rights to equal consideration in the community. A posse was formed and the defectors in the forest were rounded up, fitted with shackles, and forced to work on the hole at the end of a whip.

And the hole got deeper and deeper.

But the shackles and whippings made the workers clumsy and inefficient. Work on the hole began to slow to a crawl. Some in the community became uncomfortable with the cruel treatment of the workers and others started to question why there needed to be a hole in the first place. For a brief time, it looked like the entire hole-digging enterprise would collapse. But then someone got a clever idea. Children could be taught from an early age that hole-digging is the greatest of aspirations. What they learn as children will carry forward as adults, and shackles or whips will rarely be needed because the idea of doing something other than working on the hole will be unthinkable for most people, and anyone who would turn their back on the hole would become a pariah and considered an abomination. A program of compulsory education was developed and implemented. The children grew up with internalized whips and shackles, and eagerly joined the ranks of diggers, pullers, candle makers, and weavers.

And the hole got deeper and deeper.

Tuesday, September 2, 2014

Social ecology and the techno trap

Corin Bruce penned a nice essay providing a cogent definition of green anarchism and situating green anarchism in relation to other anarchist perspectives. All forms of anarchism share a fundamental antagonism toward hierarchy. For classical anarchism, oppressive subordination to the bureaucratic state was the target. For more recent forms of “social anarchism,” the target has broadened to include all potentially oppressive hierarchical relations among people, including those based on race, class, gender, and sexual orientation. Social anarchism holds that all relations should be fundamentally egalitarian. Green anarchism takes the logical next step and applies this principle to the nonhuman world as well. Green anarchism thus represents the most developed form of anarchist thinking, according to Bruce.

Bruce then describes a variant of green anarchism that has been called social ecology, which takes all of the ideals of social anarchism and extends them to all sentient beings. Domination is wrong whether the target is a human being, a domestic pig, or an old growth forest.

So far so good. But then Bruce dismisses primitivism with a simple wave of the hand, and rows the boat right off the edge of the map.

Social ecology is not anti-technology, Bruce cautions, and should not be confused with those muddle-headed primitivist anti-civilization critiques that—although they “certainly come infused with interesting anarchist currents”—apparently don’t fit within anarchism proper. Social ecology is a perspective that happily embraces “the most desirable aspects of modern society, such as its alleged focus on reason, science, and technology.”

Wait a minute now, Corin. The problem for all anarchists is the oppressive operation of hierarchy. Social ecology extends this anti-hierarchy focus to the nonhuman world, and presumably rejects all forms of domestication. What is primitivism other than a call to adopt non-domestic lifestyles? But let’s take reason, science, and technology in order.

Reason should not be a problem for any form of anarchism. Reason is not an invention of civilization. Nor is it limited to humans. Several other species clearly operate on their environment in rational ways.

Science, too, at least in terms of core notions about the importance of systematic observation, was practiced by the very first humans. However, science as a category of civilized activity that includes the partitioning and sanctioning of authority and expertise is a paradigmatic application of hierarchy in the social world, and is plainly inconsistent with the ideals of social ecology.

But it’s the tolerance of complex technology that makes social ecology—and all other non-primitivist anarchist perspectives—incoherent. Technology is the direct application of hierarchy. Hierarchy is the single dominant feature shared by all forms of technology, from the simple hand loom to the international corporation. If green anarchy—and more specifically, social ecology—rejects the subordination of the natural world though the application of hierarchy, then all forms of technology are potentially suspect, and anything much more complex than a hand loom is rendered off limits.

In addition, and most importantly, it is simply not possible to have complex technology without the hierarchical subordination of human beings. This basic fact is what renders classical anarchism and all other forms of anarchism that limit their focus to economic considerations incoherent. An egalitarian sharing of control over the means of production turns to millimeter thin ice when it comes to questions about who gets to work in the coal mines.

I think that Bruce is on the right track in terms of placing classical, social, and green versions of anarchism in order of progressive coherence. And I really like the idea that the increasing coherence of anarchist perspectives is tied to an increasingly generalized rejection of hierarchical relationships. But the dismissal of primitivism is clearly unjustifiable. By Bruce’s own logic, primitivism represents the most highly developed form of anarchist thought because it casts the broadest anti-hierarchy net and takes the rejection of hierarchy to its logical extreme.

Friday, August 29, 2014

No room for civilization

A planet containing wild humans leaves no room for industrial civilization.

That sentence might seem to have things the wrong direction. From the perspective of a thoroughly colonized mind, it is civilization that has the power to leave no room.

But the logic of the sentence stands as written. Wild humans have been a problem for civilization from the beginning. And the solution has almost always been genocide. Wild humans, being complete in themselves, lack the psychological substrate necessary for civilization to operate—there is nothing for civilization to latch onto. Civilization and wildness are incompatible. Human wildness engenders a fullness of experience that literally leaves no room for civilization.

From a civilized standpoint, the application of overwhelming deadly force becomes the only viable option. But, then, the application of overwhelming deadly force is not restricted to wild humans. Any human choosing to act in a genuinely human way risks triggering civilized methods of containment.

Witness the cops in full military dress rolling through Ferguson, MO—quick to use fear as a patch for any leaks that might form in the white-walls of authority.

Tuesday, August 26, 2014

Contact versus connectivity

Spectacle long ago replaced community, spectatorship instead of participation, vicariousness instead of presence. A shared and penetrating narrative, an intimate evening around a communal fire, to sing, to dance, to tell stories, to laugh, and sometimes to cry, has become an insulated and isolating narcissistic touchscreen fiction.

Social networking through social media is just that, social contact reduced to mere connectivity, human interaction digitized and packaged and commodified and stripped of all meaning—community becomes a collection of patterned connections among empty nodes, hollow echoes bouncing through a billion electronic tunnels to nowhere.

We are drawn into this ersatz experience out of misplaced fear—180 degrees misplaced. Our loneliness makes us afraid of being alone. The triviality of life makes us afraid we might miss something important, afraid to blink. Our lack of authentic meaning makes us vampires of the superficial, attempting to siphon a tiny soul-warming drop of relevance from a cold mass-produced two-dimensional flame.

Monday, August 4, 2014

Smartphones can do anything

A recent news headline boasted “Researchers Use Smartphone App to Track Gut Bacteria.” The important detail that gut bacteria can affect your health in subtle ways was sidelined in favor of the sensationalistic (and fallacious) implication that there is a cell phone app that can monitor your intestinal fauna. It is part of the news media’s mission to paint a sparkly veneer over all forms of technology, and to reinforce the delusional belief that humankind is rapidly approaching a techno-utopian future in which every problem will have a simple touchscreen solution.

The cell phone's role in the study was considerably more prosaic, of course. Basically, it was used as a sophisticated clipboard for the study's participants to record their diet and exercise. "Cell Phone App Replaces Pen and Notebook for Collecting Data" doesn't carry quite as much punch.

Wednesday, July 30, 2014

OldDog on the train

The train crawls into the heart of North Dakota. Rickety rail and a constant procession of freight trains carrying oil and coal means frequent stops and slow speeds.

Outside the observation car window stretches an endless sea of virgin prairie grass and herds of buffalo so thick that they seem to form one giant amoebic mass that threatens to engulf the horizon as if to digest the few small clouds that linger there. The feeling is one of breath and life and endless space.

And then my eyes blink through into the modern era, the mechanical now, and the prairie becomes coal and oil in the form of GMO corn and soybeans arrayed in GPS guided rows upon the sterile ground, and the black amoebic mass of buffalo is foreshortened into an endless passing parade of tanker cars, their sides dripping with the dark toxic lifeblood of civilization.

Tuesday, June 24, 2014

What is lost

This and so much more: to be born into a world saturated to capacity with unmediated meaning, to see a brimming lake of stars at night and never to question the legitimacy of your place beneath it, to inhabit an actual physical place and to know that place as an extension of your own skin, to converse with the mountain in a language without words and to sense each subtle change in the wind’s perpetual caress, to hear the ground yield to your footsteps as an invitation, to feel community as an intimate and inseparable characteristic of each passing thought—the very source of thought itself, to know and embrace the full spectrum of human emotional possibility, to have no words to express self-worth or dignity or freedom because the ideas they represent have no defining opposites, to live each and every breath authentically human, with death a mere returning home, a giving back of what is only borrowed, your hair and muscles and organs and sinews and blood and bones as offerings of appreciation for the Earth’s infinite bounty.

What is lost? From within civilization’s mechanical cage and its violent detachment, from its objectifying non-perspective, its mandatory isolation, its callous commodification, from the standpoint of a system built on brutal and ever-expanding planetary consumption and all-penetrating control, what is lost is nothing at all, or, if something, then nothing worthwhile, the trivial sediment of better-forgotten forms of life.

From a genuine human standpoint, what is lost is nothing less than everything.

Wednesday, June 11, 2014

Human rewilding

The term rewilding emerged from within the applied science of conservation biology. Rewilding typically involves attempts to reinsert “keystone” species that have dwindled or vanished or were intentionally eliminated from local ecosystems, in an effort to reestablish some semblance of what those ecosystems were like in the past.

Large terrestrial predators are common candidates for rewilding because they frequently serve as keystone species and because they have historically been targets for elimination due to their presumed (but usually minor or nonexistent) threat to humans or livestock. So a wolf pack might be reintroduced into an area in which wolves have been hunted into extinction, for example, with the idea that the reintroduction of the indigenous predator will resonate through the rest of the food chain and restore a level of balance and ecological integrity that has been missing.

A few environmental activists, along with proponents of certain versions of anarchism, most notably green anarchy and anarcho-primitivism, have appropriated the term from conservation biology, and advocate a “rewilding” of the human species. However, to talk about rewilding humans requires a nuanced reworking of the original meaning of the term if it is to be used as something other than a trite bumper sticker.

For the biologists, rewilding typically involves reinserting keystone species into environments in which they are presently absent. Keystone species are those that play a foundational role in the complex web of interactions within a given ecological system such that without their presence the system is altered dramatically or collapses altogether. Despite our self-assigned position at the top of the global food chain, civilized humans are nothing close to being a keystone species. In fact, for the last few millennia the human impact on local environments has been the diametric opposite of a keystone; the introduction of post-Neolithic humans into an ecological system invariably leads to destabilization and, in many cases, complete local ecological collapse. Nor are we in any immediate danger of disappearing from the scene: humans presently inhabit virtually every inhabitable chunk of land on the planet, and in numbers approaching or greatly surpassing the land’s natural carrying capacity.

The one qualification that, to my mind at least, renders the idea of rewilding in its original sense applicable to the human case as something more than bumper sticker propaganda is that most humans—check that, almost all humans—are no longer inhabiting anything close to a natural human habitat—and the vanishingly few humans that are still living like actual humans appear to be on a very rapid and inescapable slide into oblivion.

Thus, taking the conservation biology definition of rewilding and applying it in a direct and literal fashion to the human situation suggests that humans need to be reintroduced to their natural habitat.

What does that mean?

What is a human’s natural habitat? Over the course of the last few million years, humans and their ancestor species have occupied such a wide variety of environments, such a large number of distinct and disparate habitats that the question may be impossible to answer.

Perhaps a better way of approaching the question of “What is a human’s natural habitat?” is to ask its inverse: “What isn’t natural human habitat?” It turns out that this reversing of the question makes it a fairly easy one to answer. Although I strongly suspect that for most folks the answer will not be at all an easy one to hear.

And the project of human rewilding will require more than just learning how to survive outside the cage of civilization (although that will surely be part of it). It will require a relearning—or, more precisely, an unlearning—of everything civilization teaches us about what it means to be human.

Tuesday, May 27, 2014

The liberating power of refusal

When I was in my very early teens, my family got together with the family of one of my mother’s old friends from her school days for a week long summer visit. They had a girl almost exactly my age, and we had been congenial playmates on numerous visits in the past. Early on the first day of this particular visit, I was rudely introduced to the game of “jinx,” a childish sort of game in which when two people accidently say the same thing at the same time, the person who noticed first would say “jinx” and start counting rapidly out loud until the other person said “stop.” The other person was then obliged to remain completely speechless for a number of minutes equal to the number the person who said “jinx” made it to before the other person said “stop.” I had never played the game before, and she made it to 45 before, out of frustration and confusion, I yelled at her to stop. She then explained the rules and informed me that I would have to remain silent for 45 minutes. I was also informed that speaking before the time was up would automatically add 10 minutes to my sentence. From that point on, she and the other kids were committed to doing what they could to get me to speak.

For perhaps 20 minutes, I sat on the couch, brooding in my forced silence. I became increasingly frustrated and angry that I was not allowed to participate in the ongoing conversation and wracked by a deep sense of injustice. I had not known the rules, after all. It was hardly fair that I had to remain quiet for three quarters of an hour. And then, to make things worse, in a moment of careless inattention I spoke, I started to say something, and was immediately rebuked and informed of the additional 10 minute penalty. I remember feeling trapped, helpless, and angry that I let myself get caught in this oppressive web.

But then I had a flash of insight, a potent revelation, even. It was, after all, just a game. And a silly one at that. No one had removed my vocal cords. There was no gun at my head threatening my life should I speak. It was just a game, and my participation was entirely voluntary. I immediately began speaking entire sentences. In fact, I grabbed a book from the shelf next to the couch and began reading aloud in a loud expressive voice. My prisoner added 10 minutes, and another 10, and then another until I had amassed several hours before she left the room in a huff.

How much of our present circumstances are of this form? We continually act in strict accordance to the rules of a game that we never agreed to play, a game that, should we choose, we could simply stop playing. We could at any moment simply walk away—if it were not for the fact that there are real guns at our heads. . .

Wednesday, April 30, 2014

Gratitude is servile

It is easy to confuse gratitude with what might better be called appreciation.

Gratitude assumes someone or something to which we owe our thanks, a benevolent and powerful other that bestows gifts: a king, a divinity.

Appreciation is possible without a gift-giver. Atheists can appreciate. Christians have no choice but to be grateful.