Thursday, May 27, 2010


Humans are an adaptive species, and we have acquired a variety of psychological coping mechanisms to help us as we attempt to deal with the dramatic mismatch between our DNA and the demands of corporate civilization.  The ability to compartmentalize is one such mechanism. Compartmentalization involves the restriction of our scope of thought and awareness so that it encompasses manageable amounts of internally-consistent information.  By compartmentalizing, we are able to erect conceptual boundaries separating incongruent or conflicting features of experience.  As a too-common example, consider the environmental activist who nonetheless commutes several miles to work each day and continues to purchase innumerable products that are energy-intensive and ecologically corrosive to produce and dispose of.  Or, closer to home, consider the anarcho-primitivist who sits in his air conditioned office and uses a laptop computer to compose blog posts about the evils of technology and the need to unplug from civilization.  

When compartmentalization breaks down, it can lead to an uncomfortable psychological state known as cognitive dissonance.  When the person recognizes inconsistency in his or her beliefs, behaviors, or facets of experience, he or she employs one or more additional cognitive strategies in order to reduce the dissonance.  For example, the anarcho-primitivist might rationalize his use of technology by claiming that sometimes it is necessary to fight fire with fire, or that he is trying in his small way to facilitate the destruction of the machine from the inside, as a monkey-wrench in the gears, etc.  I’m not quite sure how environmental activists rationalize simultaneously protesting and participating in the destruction of the planet.

Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Human Evolution in Perspective

Imagine a football field in which the distance from the visiting team’s goal line to the last four-fifths of an inch prior to the home team’s goal line represents human existence prior to the industrial revolution.  Or, to invoke a structural metaphor, imagine a large multistory Victorian style house in which the foundation, the framing, the floors, the walls, the fixtures, the insulation, and the original siding represent the evolutionary history of our species up to the onset of domestication just prior to the agricultural revolution.  The remainder of our species’ history would be equivalent to a layer of vinyl siding tacked over the top, with mass technology represented by a thin veneer of paint over the top of that.  The siding plays no role in the structural integrity of the house—and even less so, the paint. 

But four-fifths of an inch can mean the difference between a touchdown and losing the game entirely!

Monday, May 24, 2010

The Illusion of Inevitability

Civilization is anything but inevitable.  Its occurrence is in fact one of the greatest mysteries of the human situation.  The fact that civilization accounts for less than one percent of human existence means that it is not one of our species’ defining features.  It is a quirk, an accident of geography or climate or viral invention, or some unlikely combination of circumstance. 

It is important that we divest ourselves of the teleological illusion that civilization is a natural outcome of our evolution, because until we do, we will continue to accept civilization and all of its concomitant suffering as natural and unavoidable, as part of the price we pay for being what we are. 

The meme of inevitability is repeated constantly in the media.  It is especially salient in discussions of technology and technological “advancement” (what, I wonder, is the ability to evaporate Afghani children with a robotic aircraft piloted by someone drinking Mountain Dew in an air conditioned trailer in Colorado an advancement toward?).  It is also seen in the laissez faire approach to corporate exploitation, complete acquiescence to corporate privilege, and the unquestioned assumption that “needs” of corporate entities supersede the (real) needs of individual persons.  The media propagate a malignant acceptance of the deterioration of the natural world even as they gleefully report on the latest environmental catastrophe, species extinction, climate change estimate, or industrial toxin.  It’s just the price of progress, after all.

“Progress is inevitable.  Can’t you see? It’s right there in the word progress!”

And for those few who do actually see, for those of us who are beginning to understand what we are really up against, the illusion of inevitability too often gets reinforcement from its most deadly ally: learned helplessness. 

And so we have a battle on two fronts: once we conquer the illusion that the status quo is inevitable, we must find some way to convince ourselves that, against some very convincing indications to the contrary, we nonetheless have the power to change it.  

Wednesday, May 19, 2010


Our psychology, like our physiology, has evolved for a lifestyle embedded in nature, a nature with which the average hostage of the western world has only very indirect contact.
Author/psychotherapist Chellis Glendinning claims that we are all suffering from the multifarious effects of post-traumatic stress generated by the large disconnect between our genetic preparation and the requirements of life in industrial society. In recent decades, some psychologists have begun to call themselves ecopsychologists and incorporate the natural world into their treatment of mental disorders, an approach to psychotherapy known as ecotherapy.   Ecotherapy is based on the idea that many if not most of our modern mental health problems result at least in part from a detachment (estrangement, alienation) from the natural world. The only route to a permanent cure is to somehow reintegrate ourselves with nature. 

There is a problem with this, of course.  The natural world no longer exists in anything resembling the natural world our DNA expects: the land, the waterways, the air, the food we eat, the animals we have contact with, the way we partition our days and years have all been irrevocably altered.  So we are doomed to live with the symptoms of posttraumatic stress disorder, symptoms that are bound to intensify with each generation as the natural world continues to recede from our awareness.

Even now, I sit with my face bathed in the artificial glow of a computer screen, in an office where the only natural creatures are a couple of tropical plants in pots on the windowsill and a spider hidden in the recess between the bookcase and the wall.

Wait.  There is something else.  So ubiquitous as to be unnoticed: birds singing their hearts out in the courtyard beyond my small windows.  Birdsong may be one of the very last vestiges of wild nature to which city-dwellers have daily exposure.


If ecopsychology has any validity then it would be a serious mistake to underestimate the potential importance of these feathery survivors of the late cretaceous.  And I am starting to wonder at the subliminal sustenance they may be providing for my sanity at this very moment.

Civilization is an Equal Opportunity Exploitation Machine

That doesn’t mean that all people have equal access to civilization’s accoutrements—some groups have seeming unlimited access while others are marginalized into insignificance—but all are equally alienated from their humanity. 

The rich, the famous, the powerful are presented as a kind of model so that the poor, the anonymous, the powerless masses are able to maintain the necessary sense of direction, the necessary illusion of hierarchy.  It is hard to appreciate the depth of your suffering if everyone else is suffering the same.  And it is important for a society based on consumptive acquisition that the majority of its members feel an acute sense of deficiency. 

But the rich, the famous, the powerful have exchanged what little freedom there is left available to us for their riches, their fame, their power.  They are, for all their apparent “success” more deeply embedded in the gears—they are, in fact, the gears.  As gears, their movement is only through direct transfer from the springs and gears around them.  A homeless person living under a freeway overpass has inestimably more freedom of thought and movement, is inestimably more human.  The homeless, because for many of them civilization is something they are living with more than something they are living in, are perhaps, along with their rainforest-dwelling brethren, the last remaining human beings on the planet. 

Friday, May 14, 2010


Temple Grandin is famous for her work with cows.  She is also famous for being diagnosed with Asperger’s syndrome, a variant of autism in which much of the person’s higher intellectual functions appear to be spared.  She claims that her Asperger’s gives her the ability to get into the cows' mind-space and understand, for example, how a cow feels when it is undergoing the stressful transition from pen to slaughterhouse. 

She reports having a pivotal insight while watching calves being inoculated on her Aunt’s Arizona ranch.  The ranchers used something called a squeeze chute, a device that literally clamps the calf tightly from the sides so that it is unable to move while it receives its dose of antibiotics and growth hormones.  What she noticed—an apparent paradox—was that many of the calves calmed down and relaxed when they were being constrained.  This insight eventually led to the redesigning of various physical structures used with cattle and other factory farmed animals in slaughterhouses and dairies around the world. 

I’m curious as to how this apparent paradox that there is comfort in constraint might also apply to humans.

That there is comfort in constraint suggests that freedom causes anxiety.  To be truly free to pursue your own freely chosen goals means that you are responsible for the outcome of your goal pursuit.  That can be a very scary thing.  It is also a very rare thing.  Most of us are pursuing goals that have been created for us, goals that we would never choose to pursue if we were given an actual choice.  What kind of person would freely submit to a 40+ hour work week in pursuit of fleeting material wealth and the dubious promise of a “better” future?  Who would choose to submit to a state-(and corporate)-defined formal education designed primarily to instill the skills and habits of mind necessary to become an effective consumer?  Who would willingly renounce his or her natural rights to clean water, fresh air, and a healthy land base? 

Rhetorical questions, of course.   

The discomfort of freedom is something that most of us eagerly trade for the illusion of safety found in artificially-crafted constraint; we gladly give control of our lives to other people and things so that we don’t have to bear the existential burden of freedom.  The life of a wage slave is preferred to the life of a free (wo)man.  The pursuit of convenience, comfort, and mindless entertainment is preferred to a freely chosen life purpose.  Identity foreclosure and hollow imitation is preferred to a life-long journey of self-discovery.  We have become like timid cattle—both of us animals that bear little resemblance to our spirited and fearsome evolutionary ancestors—living in domestic servitude to powers of which we choose to have little awareness and even less understanding, held comfortably placid in our corporate-consumer squeeze chutes.

Thursday, May 6, 2010

Technology, Closed-system physics, and Frankenweeds

Most people I speak with, even those with an otherwise “liberal” worldview, have a visceral knee-jerk reaction to the primitivist anti-technology mantra.  For some, the thought of a no-tech lifestyle is on par with eating live babies. 

A common response among those few who continue speaking to me is that an unmechanized life is too labor-intensive.  If it weren’t for our modern technology, we would be spending most of our time in menial labor devoted to providing life’s necessities.  Technology frees us so that our time can be spent in “the pursuit of happiness” (which, ironically, almost inevitably involves interaction with yet additional technology). 

The pervasiveness of the myth that technology reduces labor and frees up time is evidence of the effectiveness of corporate marketing.  This myth, of course, is easily exploded by looking at the amount of free time in indigenous subsistence societies: the often-cited statistic that hunter-gatherers spend about three and a half hours a day in “subsistence,” with most of their time (even the laborious part) spent not just in the pursuit of happiness, but deeply enwrapped in its actual embrace. 

Then there is the fact that much of our time in our high-tech society is spent working directly or indirectly to support technology itself.  A person commutes to her job in part to pay the expense of owning and fueling a car so that she is able to commute to her job.  And don’t even get me started on the mental and physical health costs associated with eating high-tech fast food because our technology-infused lifestyle doesn’t provide enough time to grow or prepare real food.  The pursuit of an early artery-clogged or cancerous death does not square with what I would consider to be the pursuit of happiness.

But even more pervasive than the myth that technology frees up time is the myth that technological innovations actually solve any of the problems they were designed to deal with.  Technology never solves anything.  It never has.  It merely “redistributes” the problems.

Let me explain.

Consider the first law of thermodynamics (conservation of energy).  In an isolated system, energy can neither be created nor destroyed.  If you will allow me a bit of metaphoric license, we can apply this empirical fact of physics to the “problems” specific technological innovations are supposed to solve.  It is possible to change a given problem’s form, or redistribute the problem in time or space, but the total amount of "problem-ness" remains, and will eventually turn up somewhere else, requiring the development of yet additional technological innovations. 

As a concrete example, there was an article in the NY Times a couple days ago about “superweeds” that have evolved resistance to the herbicide used on corporate corn and soybean fields.  The farmers (really outdoor factory workers) are now left with the choice of using an even more toxic chemical (probably atrazine, but the article didn’t specify) or (gasp!) pulling the weeds by hand.  One of the farmers was quoted as saying that technology-wise this development has knocked them back 20 years. 

That’s not exactly true, though.  Twenty years ago these superweeds didn’t exist.

The specific herbicide (Roundup) is a technological innovation designed to address a specific problem.  But its use didn’t solve the problem.  It merely redistributed the problem, changed its form, and pushed it into the future.  The original problem was pesky weeds.  The herbicide killed the pesky weeds (one problem), but increased the amount of toxins in the environment (another problem), and in the process, set the stage for the evolution of these superweeds (the original problem returns in a more “problematic” form).  Technology can redistribute a problem to other places and other people, but the overall quantity of “problem-ness” is always conserved.

When you think about it, that’s how all technology works in our corporate-dominated society: generating short term profit for some limited group of people by pushing problems off onto others.

For some reason, I’m reminded of a recent news item about an oil spill…

Monday, May 3, 2010


Earlier this year, the US Supreme Court made the “personhood” of corporations a legal reality.  Reified economic processes have all the rights of flesh-and-blood human beings.  As I write this, an unprecedented oil spill is turning the Gulf of Mexico into a toxic cesspool—an ecological nightmare created by one of these reified persons.

If Mary Shelley were writing today, her monster would be listed on the Fortune 500.