Thursday, November 13, 2014

Pro-civ ill-logic

Pro-civ arguments frequently have the same form as arguments for the existence of god made by theologians who are also true believers: start with the conclusion you want, and then work backward to find ways to support it.

The fact that humans are an adaptable species is sometimes used to dismiss the negative aspects of civilized life. The idea is that humans will eventually “evolve” in ways that make civilization a more suitable lifestyle. Unfortunately, evolution operates on a far broader timeframe than the lifecycle of a typical civilization.

But human adaptability is irrelevant anyway when it comes to questions of how people should live. Plantation slaves “adapted” to hard labor—and the ones who adapted the best were able (allowed) to reproduce and thus provide additional slaves who, because they inherited their parent’s genes, were likely to be able to adapt to a laborious life themselves. But that’s hardly an argument for slavery.

A related form of this argument is that although humans aren’t necessarily “meant” for civilized life, once it occurs we are adaptable enough to learn to live with it. It might not be the best way of life, but it works. What is invariably glossed over is that not all of us are living with it. Several people are being killed as a direct function of the normal operation of civilization even as I write this.

Too bad for them, I guess. And I need to stress that killing people is part of what civilization does—all civilizations everywhere.

Civilization most definitely doesn’t “work”—except in the short term for an increasingly small minority of elites.

Tuesday, November 4, 2014

Still looking for a hole in the fence

Polar bears are not really white. Their skin is actually closer to black. And their fur has no pigment at all; its white appearance is due to light refraction. Polar bear hide has evolved to function as a solar collector: the individual hair fibers are clear and hollow, and act like fiber optic tubes that trap sunlight and channel warmth to the bear’s heat-absorbing skin. When polar bears are forced to live in zoos south of their arctic habitats, algae begins to grow in their hollow hair, and their pelt takes on a decidedly non-aesthetic yellowish brown color. During peak visitor season, zookeepers have been known to spray the bears with bleach because nobody wants to see a less-than-white polar bear.

I have compared our civilized situation to that of confined animals on display in a strange sort of zoo where we act as both captive and keeper. Like the discolored captive polar bear, we are forced to accommodate an unnatural habitat and are disfigured by the mismatch. And like the bear, our keepers—that is, you and I—resort to superficial methods for concealing the resulting ugliness. But the ugliness is just a symptom, of course. The real problem, for us and for the bear, is captivity.

But the zoo metaphor makes for a too rough analogy. For one thing, our enclosures are not limited to concrete walls and iron bars. Our enclosures are not mere physical structures designed to confine us to a circumscribed physical place. Instead they penetrate the very tissue of our thoughts and provide the structures that frame our experience. Our enclosures appear absolute; there is no outside. Also, because we are ultimately our own keepers, our self-confinement needs continuous, moment by moment renewal. This is accomplished through a steady diet of anxiety and fear. Fear serves as an ever-present reminder to keep to our assigned place in the bureaucratic order, and anxiety becomes our mantra of impotence.

Both the fear and the anxiety are of our own design—we hold the keys to our cage. All we have to do is open the door and walk through. But first we have to find the door. And before we can do that we have to know that a door is possible, we have to recognize that there is a world outside after all.


Wednesday, October 22, 2014

The counterfactual thinking trap: what if civilization wasn't?

I had just finished cooking a stellar batch of sweet potato fries to use as a vehicle for testing my latest attempt at homemade ketchup. I walked the pot of still smoking-hot oil carefully down the back steps and out to the compost pile. I read somewhere that cooking oil shouldn’t be thrown into the compost because it can make the composting process less efficient by sealing off areas of the pile from air and water exposure.

Fuck efficiency.

I have two side-by-side four foot square “compost corrals” made by alternately stacking 4x4 pieces of heavy-duty oak pallet wood that my son-in-law brought home from a construction site. When the first one fills up, the contents are shoveled into the second, where they sit until the following spring when they are spread on the garden. It was late summer, the second corral had been sitting full for a couple months already and the first had a sizable start with yard debris from the last storm and the usual surfeit of kitchen scraps forming an amorphous damp mound in the center.

I emptied the pot directly above the kitchen scrap mound and witnessed a holocaust beyond all reckoning. The hot oil instantly deep-fried the debris at the top of the pile, releasing a violent waft of steam accompanied by a satisfying sizzling sound. I was expecting that. But what I hadn’t anticipated was the number of living creatures that came pouring out from the moist earthy depths—a desperate and screaming mass of life, each wriggling, crawling, buzzing part expending every drop of itself in an attempt to escape an oily incineration.

Compost is decayed organic matter. And a compost pile is a pile of organic matter in varying stages of decay. But, a compost pile is also a vibrant local ecosystem that includes all manner of invertebrate animal life, and in a moment of thoughtlessness I had committed an atrocity, the local effects of which will resonate for days.

My initial surprise quickly turned to shocked remorse, and then to anger directed at my own lack of forethought. I should have known.

“I should have known” is a form of counterfactual thinking. It assumes that the past could have happened differently than it did, that there are alternative courses for events that have already transpired—or at least that there were viable alternative courses open at the time. Counterfactual thinking is clearly an adaptive human capacity. To re-envision the past is in some sense to prepare for the future. By imagining alternative outcomes for past events, we enhance our ability to act should a similar situation arise later on. The problem comes when we treat the alternatives, clearly visible in hindsight, as if they were actual possibilities within the unique context of the passing moment. This particular problem with counterfactuals has several names, regret and recrimination being the most common.

Civilization didn’t have to happen. After 100,000 generations of human experience, civilization intruded unexpectedly, a toxic anomaly. That it happened when it did, that it took the historical forms that it did, that you and I find ourselves in the present moment, wrapped in its cancerous embrace—all of this might not have been. But it did. And it is. And the past can’t be undone. We must live with the past as it ingratiates itself on the present. There is no choice.

But the future always and forever remains an open sea of possibility.

Wednesday, October 15, 2014

Civilized futility

Sisyphus was a deceitful and murderous Corinthian king in Greek mythology forced to spend all eternity in grueling and futile labor pushing a boulder over and over again up a steep hill only to have it roll away from him just before he gets to the top. The number and nature of Sisyphus’ evil deeds makes it difficult to feel sympathy for him. But his punishment is not meant as restitution for the nasty treatment of his fellow mortals. There are many versions of the particular chain of events leading to Sisyphus’ torturous repetitive predicament, but in each case he is being punished for more-or-less successful attempts to outsmart the gods. In one version of the tale, Sisyphus’ sentence was devised by Zeus specifically to demonstrate his own godly cleverness and send the message that Sisyphus, the wisest of human tricksters, wasn’t so smart after all.

Mythological tales are not necessarily supposed to make logical sense, but there is something about Sisyphus’ afterlife activity that doesn’t make any sense at all. Why does he keep at it? What is it that compels him to continue to push the rock? Why doesn’t he simply refuse to go on, sit down with his back against the hill, prop his feet up on top of his boulder, and give the gods the extended middle finger? I mean, really, he’s already dead. What more can they do to him? Does he fear an even worse punishment if he refuses? Surely if there was a worse punishment, Zeus would have thought of it.

Of course, they’re gods. They can conceivably deprive him of all choice in the matter and make his limbs move of their own accord. But if so, then Sisyphus is no longer purposefully engaged, and his actions lose their futility. Once his free choice has been usurped he is just along for the ride and the most punishing feature of his punishment has been rendered inert. It would make no difference whether he rolls an uncooperative rock up a hill or hauls heavy sacks of dirt—or works in a Nike shoe factory. The thing that makes the boulder punishment different from simple tedious labor, the thing that makes it uniquely punishing, is that he is intentionally slaving toward a goal that he continually almost but not quite achieves.

The writer and philosopher, Albert Camus, suggested that there might be more to Sisyphus’ circumstances than meets the eye. The tale is always told with an emphasis on the upward leg of Sisyphus’ hillside round trip. But the climb up is only half the journey. The other half is spent traveling burden free, and one might imagine in a leisurely fashion, downhill. In this, Sisyphus’ fate is not so different from normal civilized life: struggle toward largely futile goals interspersed with periods of respite. Could it be that Sisyphus managed to outsmart the gods yet again?

But let’s return to the idea of futility, to the notion that there is something distinctly different about purposeful effort directed at an unachievable goal as opposed to forced labor, and to the question of what keeps Sisyphus—and you and me—from simply setting the rock aside and refusing to continue.

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.