Friday, April 29, 2011

The subversive urban garden

There are several things that make urban gardening subversive with respect to the corporate power structure.  There is the fact that it reduces the need for corporate food and thus eats into corporate profits (pun intended).  There is the fact that it reduces demand for the machinery and other products necessary for industrial agriculture and, if lawns and parkways become gardens, all of the machinery and accoutrements associated with landscaping and lawn care.  There is the fact that healthier food, the physical exercise required to produce it, and the psychological benefits associated with working in close contact with the natural world will yield a reduction in physical and mental health problems—and thus a reduction in the profits (and thus power) of medical insurers, pharmaceutical companies, and the constellation of corporate vultures encircling the medical community. 

And while we are on the topic of big pharma, many of our most effective drug treatments come from plant-based sources that could be cultivated locally and used as alternatives to mass-produced pharmaceuticals.  We have been taught through industry propaganda that only industrial drug sources are effective and safe—although a quick perusal of the statistics associated with industrial drugs tells a different story entirely—and that individuals should not take their own medical care into their own hands.  We are told that self-treatment is dangerous.  Many kinds of self-treatment have actually been made illegal, a potent example of how we have been infantilized and stripped of our independence in the name of corporate profit. 

Back to the garden.  Growing your own food is empowering.  Urban gardening is a way of reversing the passivity and dependence that has become the hallmark of our consumer society.  People who have learned how to satisfy their own fundamental need for food are likely to transfer their sense of empowerment to other areas of their lives, to reduce their dependence on the system with respect to satisfying their other needs (fundamental and otherwise).  Empowered people are less likely to become passive victims of the system.  Empowered people are more likely to be politically active in their own communities, more likely to challenge the legitimacy of authority, less receptive to manipulative fear-based political rhetoric, and less likely to be influenced by corporate advertising.  That is, they are less likely to act as timid mindless consumers and more likely to act as human beings.       

Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Feeding the machine

I was listening to a USDA propagandist on a radio talk show yesterday singing the praises of industrial agriculture.  There are 7-billion-and-counting mouths to feed on this planet, something that would be impossible to accomplish without the miracle of modern industrial farming. 

Thank you Monsanto.  Thank you Cargill.  Thank you Archer Daniels Midland.  Without you, we would all starve to death!

Never mind that it is precisely these modern industrial farming practices that have pushed the human population so artificially far above carrying capacity.  We are teetering on the precipice of a massive and inevitable human die-off because of industrial agriculture.  Industrial ag is the cause, not the cure.  Industrial ag is not our life-boat, it is the rope around our neck.

Of course it’s too late to back up now.  We have to continue to intensify our efforts to extract as many nutritionally vacuous calories as we can out of each mono-cropped acre.  There will be even more mouths to feed tomorrow.

Thursday, April 21, 2011

Civilization reified

(Disclaimer: Old Dog thinks postmodernism is a refuge for cowards who want to continue to serve as sprockets in the machine without acknowledging their share of culpability)

I was reading through a three-year-old thread on the site the other day.  It started out being something about Daniel Quinn versus Derrick Jensen (the cage match!).  Apparently Quinn refused to dismiss completely the possibility that civilization might be redeemable if we can craft it along a more “leaver” design.  Jensen (at least the “Endgame” version of Jensen) wants to smash it all to pieces.  But the conversation took an insipid postmodernist turn when someone started to explain that civilization was just an illusion, a collection of narratives, only images and ideas, and that all we have to do is simply realize that there really is no such thing and agree to stop playing the game.  You can’t show me civilization. You can’t point to some specific thing and say “this is civilization”—one specific comment was: “If you can plunk down ‘Civilization’ on the table in front of me, I may think twice. You call it an ‘it’, but you can't show me it.” 
This is an example of the kind of reification error that the 20th century British philosopher, Gilbert Ryle called a “category mistake” in his book, The Concept of Mind.  Ryle provides this instructive anecdote (of which I am wildly paraphrasing):  Suppose that you are a college student and that you have an elderly relative, an uncle who has spent his life in the Appalachian backwoods (not a bad idea!) and has never been to a university.  You agree to show your uncle the university that you attend and spend the whole day taking him around campus, showing him the dorms, the classrooms, the cafeteria, the library, the gym, the administration building, etc., and at the end of the day your uncle turns to you and says, “These are all really nice buildings that you have shown me, but when will I get to see the university?”  Your uncle, Ryle says, has made a category mistake.  He assumed that the university was a physical object like a building when it is instead a complex and dynamic organizational configuration that includes specific buildings and people and the highly structured interactions among them.  The word university is simply a short-hand way of referring to this complex configuration of activity.  The fact that you can’t plunk a university down in front of your confused uncle does not mean the university is not real.  Likewise with civilization: the fact that you might not be able to point to a singular physical entity or isolated event taken out of context and call it civilization does not mean that civilization is merely a story we tell ourselves, a collection of ideas and images.

And I can in fact point to specific concrete physical indicators of civilization.  I can point to buildings and roads and mechanically cultivated fields and spoiled land that used to be a forest.  And I can easily plunk an oily pelican down on the table in front of you.  These things are not linguistic constructions. They were not caused by psychological ephemera, by images and ideas, they were caused by concrete, rule-governed, context-bound activity     

Civilization, like slavery more generally, is a collection of tools used to impose and assemble power relationships for the express purpose of controlling and coordinating (goading, persuading, manipulating, forcing, coercing) behavior.  You can’t plunk slavery down on a table, and yet there has probably never been a slave who considered slavery to be just a set of ideas and images.   A plantation slave in the Deep South in 1850 could not simply decide not to play the slave-game anymore, decide that she’s had enough with the slavery narrative, and just walk away. 

Scratch that.  Many did just that.  But not without risking considerable—and painfully real—consequences.    

Note that it doesn’t take any special enlightened awareness or specific psychic weapons to resist the chains of slippery abstractions like slavery or civilization.  Sticks, clubs, and the occasional plantation fire will work just fine if you have a good plan and enough comrades.  Where the psychic weapons and enlightened awareness come in handy is in counteracting the malaise and learned helplessness that attend a life defined by powerlessness—at least enough to pick up that first stick…

Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Fissile logic

Last year we watched helplessly as a cold opaque death spread across the Gulf of Mexico.  Now it’s business as usual.  We have to have oil, after all.  This year we watch helplessly as a hot transparent death spreads into the ocean, the atmosphere, and the local groundwater in northern Japan.  Next year it will be business as usual.  There is not enough oil, after all.

I listened patiently as the kid explained that we need to continue to develop our nuclear power capability.  It is really a fairly new technology, he said, and it will take us some time to work out the bugs—little things like what to do about the waste and how to avoid accidents.  The risk of accidents, by the way, can be eliminated eventually because accidents are either directly caused by human error or are the result of poor engineering.   

I started to ask how human error can be taken out of the equation, but he continued without stopping and pointed out how dirty coal was and how solar and wind technology are nowhere near what we need to provide for our escalating energy needs.  For one thing, solar and wind energy have to be collected far away from the urban centers that need the energy.   You are then left with the problem of getting the energy to where it is needed.  With nuclear, you can locate the power generation right where it’s needed, in the heart of the city.  We still have a way to go to ensure 100 percent safety, but we simply have to continue.  It would be stupid to set aside such a potentially beneficial technology just because there are some risks associated with its present state of development.  What if right after the airplane was invented we said “these things are too dangerous,” and then set the technology aside and never developed it?  Where would we be now?

Let’s see.  Without the airplane?  No World War II, no Hiroshima and Nagasaki, no Vietnam, no Iraq I and II, no Afghanistan, no predator drones—no 911!  It would be hard to overestimate the global homogenizing impact of air travel, or the degree to which the jet-setting lifestyle contributes to alienation and general dehumanization.  “Please take off your shoes and then either step into the scanner or allow me to fondle your genitals.” And then there’s the carbon footprint associated with injecting the byproducts of fossil fuel combustion into every square foot of troposphere.  I’m not sure what life would have been like had air travel been resigned to a novelty technology—counterfactuals are notoriously hard to navigate—but I’m fairly confident that it would have been a more human life than what is forced upon us now.

Where will we be if we set aside nuclear technology now?  We won’t, of course.  We have to continue—but not for the reasons the kid thinks.  We have to continue because to continue is built into the design of the machine.  It is a technological imperative.  It is the inertia of innovation.  Because we can, we must—and regardless of the cost or the risk.  The same deadly logic applies to genetic engineering and nanotechnology.

Next year it will be nuclear business as usual, and we will watch helplessly as a bloody convulsive death in the form of an artificial virus—a triumph of nanoengineering—spreads through the population.      

Monday, April 18, 2011

A diagnostic scheme for the psychopathology of civilization

Civilization—domestication more generally—is a pathological condition closely akin to obsessive-compulsive disorder in terms of need for control, recurrent attempts to reduce anxiety through compulsive behavior that paradoxically increases long-term anxiety, and resistance to treatment.   Despite this, modern mental health practitioners have yet to devise an appropriate diagnostic classification scheme.

I suggest that the extent to which modern human victims of civilization have been successfully metabolized into the system can be considered diagnostic of a group of pervasive syndromes: let’s call it Civilization Dependence Disorder (CDD).   CDD is a spectrum disorder.   A spectrum disorder is a cluster of psychiatric syndromes that have overlapping or related symptoms.  The subgroups of a spectrum disorder are frequently arrayed along a continuum—a spectrum—in order of severity.  

CDD has a prevalence rate quickly approaching 100%. It has an insidious onset, with the first symptoms emerging in early childhood.  In its most severe form, CDD victims are completely unaware that they have any problem—this despite pervading feelings of anomie, angst, and alienation (the “three As of CDD”), chronically unfulfilling and unhappy lives, and patterns of highly compulsive and blatantly self-destructive behavior. 

Diagnostic subcategories:
City-dwellers who have grown up in an urban environment and display the most severe symptoms of CDD meet the criteria for CDD Type I: domesticated human-tame.

Persons raised in more rural settings or city dwellers who for whatever reasons have had sufficient exposure to the natural world to understand that it operates by subtle principles that are distinct from those under which corporate consumer society functions meet the criteria for CDD Type II, domesticated human –cultivation incomplete.    

Persons who display either covert or overt animosity to the accoutrements of civilization while remaining more or less entirely embedded meet the criterion for CDD type III, domesticated human –feral tendencies.

Persons who actively reject civilization and participate only as a result of physical or psychological coercion represent a transition to the less-severe end of the CDD spectrum: Feral Human Type I.

Persons who not only reject civilization, but who also refuse to be coerced into direct participation (e.g., persons serving exaggerated prison terms for refusal to acknowledge the legitimacy of power or persons embedded in alternative life-ways such as communal permaculture), meet the criteria for Feral Human Type II.  It is questionable whether the latter qualifies as an actual disorder category since many of the psychological symptoms are vicarious, consisting primarily of empathetic responses to the results of civilization’s pathological effects on other people and the natural environment.

The final category, Wild Human, is applicable to an increasingly limited number of indigenous human beings living in traditional gatherer-hunter communities.  Note: Wild Human is not technically a diagnostic category, as it is associated with no symptomology.

Monday, April 11, 2011

Don't blame the bullet

The rhetoric from some otherwise hard-core green anarchists suggests that it’s not civilization per se, but industrial civilization that is the real problem.  If we just scale-back or eliminate harmful industrial practices, we can continue to enjoy all of the real benefits of civilized life. 

I’ve made reference to the zero-sum nature of civilization’s “benefits” before: there is not a single so-called benefit that does not also carry commensurate costs that completely nullify the beneficial nature of the benefit.  Value-added anywhere is always value-reduced someplace else.  But more to the point, hanging the blame on civilization’s harmful industrial practices is like saying it was the bullet’s fault Lincoln died in the theater that night.  

In terms of salience, the damage that industrial processes do to the natural world is obvious and undeniable.  But even the most blatant and hideous acts of biospheric dismemberment—say, rendering millions of acres of land in Canada toxic to all life in order to produce a poor quality petroleum out of tar sand or vomiting untold thousands of tons of plutonium-laced water into the Pacific ocean—are superficial manifestations of something far more systemic.  The real problem is with the machine of civilization itself.  Whether composed of human or metal parts, the machine of civilization will always operate according to the same deadly logic: control what can be controlled and kill everything else. 

There is no “repurposing” or “reprogramming” of civilization’s prime directive.   

Friday, April 8, 2011

New study: Facebook users are self-centered and uncaring

Still not convinced of the insulating and alienating effects of electronic mediation?

A new study finds social network usage is linked to increased narcissism (duh!) and “less nuanced” moral reasoning.  Of course this is correlational so we can’t conclude that Facebook use actually makes people narcissists.  Consumer society probably does that.  Facebook is just a convenient outlet for the more amoral and self-focused among us.       

Thursday, April 7, 2011

More fun with words

Today’s reductio ad absurdum exercise in circularity (or reason #110 why I am an anarchist): legitimate authority

Monday, April 4, 2011

Three myths of technology

“The only lasting contribution of the megamachine was the myth of the machine itself: the notion that this machine was, by its very nature, absolutely irresistible—and yet, provided one did not oppose it, ultimately beneficent.  That magical spell still enthralls both the controllers and the mass victims of the magamachine today.”   (Lewis Mumford, The Myth of the Machine, Volume 1, p. 224)

Three pervasive myths regarding the nature of technology:
1. the myth of technological progress
2. the myth of ultimate beneficence
3. the myth of inevitability

The myth of progress
According to this myth, the idea that technology is progressive is a demonstrable fact.  All you have to do is look around at the increasingly comprehensive ways in which technology is being applied in our lives.  The progressive nature of technology is a fundamental feature of technology itself.  Technology is cumulative; older technologies provide the foundation for new and improved versions, and set the stage for innovation.  Once an innovation occurs, once a new technological application is created, the ratchet sets, and it becomes a permanent part of an ongoing and ever-expanding process.

The problem here is that accretion and accumulation are not the same as progress.  Progress entails a target or goal, an end to which the current state can be compared.  What is the goal that provides us some way to gauge progress?  What is the goal of technology?  Is there some future techno-utopia in which every aspect of nature has been replaced by a technological facsimile? 

Part of the problem is that we often talk about changes in technology as “advancements.”  And it is true that within a strictly mechanical-production frame, new technology is frequently an improvement (e.g., it is faster, more efficient, etc.) over old technology.  But this interpretation of advancement does not translate to anything meaningful when you apply it outside of a limited mechanical-efficiency frame.   What are we advancing toward?  What are we advancing from?  How is an increase in the capacity to consume resources, curtail individual freedom, increase population, and impoverish the biosphere an improvement over previous technological conditions?

If there is any sense in which technology can be said to be progressive, it is only in the synonym-for- accumulation sense.  In this sense, technology is indeed progressive: it is progressively corrosive of the natural world, and progressively insulating, isolating, alienating, and dehumanizing with respect to the human condition as a whole. 

The myth of beneficence
Even the most hardcore technophile will admit that technology can create intractable problems (nuclear waste, anyone?).  Despite this, technology is seen as ultimately beneficial.  This myth is closely tied to the myth of progress.  Who could deny that technology is making life progressively better? The problem with this is that “better” is not a stand-alone generic term.  Things are never generally better; they are better in specific ways.  And by restricting the conversation to the specific ways that a limited set of conditions is “better,” the myriad ways in which things may have become worse are often completely ignored. 

The myth of beneficence becomes particularly salient when it is applied to medical technology.  Where would we be without polio vaccine or Prozac or dialysis?  Clearly medical tech has a demonstrably positive impact on the quality of life.

Let’s ignore for the moment the millions of individuals with medical problems that require technological intervention who will die because they do not have access to the technology, either because they are too poor or because they had the misfortune of being born on the wrong part of the planet—or both.  The number of people (with access) whose lives existing technology will be able to extend does not begin to offset the suffering of people currently dying from medical conditions caused directly or indirectly by life in a physically and psychologically toxic industrial society.  When you consider that the overwhelming majority of medical conditions that require treatment using advanced medical technology are themselves direct or indirect results of our dependence on technology, the argument that medical technology is making things “better” dissolves (I credit John Zerzan for this insight).  Consider diabetes, heart disease, depression, and most types of cancer.  For years I have been intrigued by the irony behind exposing people to the carcinogenic effects of X-rays as a way of detecting lung cancer.  Before anyone suggests that modern technology does more good than harm, they need to first weigh the costs and benefits associated with advanced medical technology—taking care to include the hidden physical and mental health costs associated with the corporate industrial infrastructure that serves as a precondition for modern medical technology’s existence in the first place.  You don’t get MRIs or antibiotics without a toxic environment and a crowded, stress-filled, nutritionally-deficient modern lifestyle.  The need for advanced medical technology is a direct byproduct of the conditions that support its very existence.  And the increase in need appears to be outpacing medical tech’s ability to keep up.  How much of an impact is modern medical tech going to make in Japan, as tens of thousands of people start to manifest symptoms of radiation poisoning?  Whatever the impact of medical tech turns out to be in this case, the results will be incomparably inferior to the health conditions that would have existed had the nuclear power plant never been built to begin with.  

The myth of inevitability
The myth of inevitability applies not just to technology, but to civilization more generally, and it is also closely tied to the myth of progress: “the ratchet of progress.”  Technology is inevitable.  It is a feature of the internal logic of the machine.  It is, in Mumford’s words, “absolutely irresistible.” It is an emergent property of human intellect.  It is an unavoidable feature of humankind’s cultural development.  This myth is extremely difficult to dispel despite the fact that, of the three myths discussed here, it has the least in the way of either logical or empirical support.  The belief in inevitability can only be arrived at logically through inductive reasoning (e.g., I know that technology is inevitable because I cannot think of a valid case in which its use has not been cumulative and persistent) based on a history-textbook view of Western civilization that ignores numerous actual cases in which technological innovations were never implemented or were abandoned in favor more primitive versions. 

From an empirical standpoint, the belief in inevitability glosses over numerous concrete example cases of whole-scale societal reversion to lower-tech life-ways, such as what happened with the Mayan and the Mississippian cultures.  According to the myth, these were obviously imperfect attempts at civilization that failed to generate sufficient technological solutions to the problems they encountered.

And what of the directionality problem associated with historical points of contact between technologically “advanced” and indigenous cultures?  Westerners frequently “go savage” but the indigenous never freely choose civilization.  Technology has always had to be forced on the “primitives.” 

This last feature of technology, that its acquisition is frequently the result of coercion and compulsion, may provide some insight into the true source of this myth.  For those on the receiving end of an overwhelming power differential, resistance means oblivion.

For true patriots to recite while burning the flag:

I pledge resistance
to the corporatocracy
of the United States of America

and to the repression of humanity for which it stands

one planet
raped for profit

with wage slavery and toxic waste for all.