Consumerism

Consumerism, Collective Psychopathology, Waste

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Published on FEASTA on May 29, 2016

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This chapter about the power elite on display and the economics of Thorsten Veblen covers topics like conspicuous consumption and the consumer society, branding and the manufacture of wants. The role of advertisers is explored as well as the way that attention grabbing has become an economic sector that affects the quality of life radically and for the worse.

The Power Elite on Display – the economics of Thorsten Veblen

In 1899 the maverick economist Thorsten Veblen portrayed the power elite of his day in The Theory of the Leisure Class. What he described were extrinsic motivations at work. Success for the business elite was demonstrated through conspicuous consumption, by which he meant display to achieve social status, power and authority:

This growth of punctilious discrimination as to qualitative excellence in eating, drinking, etc. presently affects not only the manner of life, but also the training and intellectual activity of the gentleman of leisure. He is no longer simply the successful, aggressive male — the man of strength, resource, and intrepidity. In order to avoid stultification he must also cultivate his tastes, for it now becomes incumbent on him to discriminate with some nicety between the noble and the ignoble in consumable goods. He becomes a connoisseur in creditable viands of various degrees of merit, in manly beverages and trinkets, in seemly apparel and architecture, in weapons, games, dancers, and the narcotics.

This cultivation of aesthetic faculty requires time and application, and the demands made upon the gentleman in this direction therefore tend to change his life of leisure into a more or less arduous application to the business of learning how to live a life of ostensible leisure in a becoming way. Closely related to the requirement that the gentleman must consume freely and of the right kind of goods, there is the requirement that he must know how to consume them in a seemly manner. His life of leisure must be conducted in due form. Hence arise good manners in the way pointed out in an earlier chapter. High-bred manners and ways of living are items of conformity to the norm of conspicuous leisure and conspicuous consumption.
(Veblen, 1899)

Plus ca change… Contemporary narcissism of this type is visible in the “How to Spend it” weekend supplements of the London Financial Times. Students of narcissism will find the column “Diary of a Somebody” particularly educational. This celebrates people with the message that you will not be a nobody if you have lots of money to spend and are thus able to hang out with other wealthy (and therefore beautiful) people.

If we are to believe economic theory, these “somebodies” are “maximising their utility”. However the word “utility” is an empty concept – it is not information rich in the sense that it does not explain why people of this sort get utility by showing off and profiling themselves in front of all the nobodies. This was a point that Thorsten Veblen made in an essay written in 1909. The idea of marginal utility simply does not tell you very much that can help us understand people like this. (Veblen, The Limitations of Marginal Utility, 1909)

In his essay, Veblen argued that marginal utility theory did have an element of truth in its explanation of people’s actions but that “It deals with this conduct only in so far as it may be construed in rationalistic, teleological terms of calculation and choice.” In their analysis the marginal utility theorists took the institutional framework in which people’s calculations and choices for granted, when it was the very emergence and evolution of the institutional framework, the context, that was the interesting thing. Marginal utility theorists like J. B. Clark were shutting down their exploration and theorisation at the very point at which it scientific inquiry should begin.

It shuts off the inquiry at the point where the modern scientific interest sets in. The institutions in question are no doubt good for their purpose as institutions, but they are not good as premises for a scientific inquiry into the nature, origin, growth, and effects of these institutions and of the mutations which they undergo and which they bring to pass in the community’s scheme of life. (Veblen, 1909)

Marginal utility theory is no help at all if we want to understand where the institutions and practices of a consumer society have come from, how and why they have come into existence and what their consequences are. On the other hand, Veblen’s ideas are helpful, at least as a starting point. This is because he had resources that most economists, in his own time and subsequently, did not and still do not have. Firstly, he was an outsider and no sycophant so was able to view the behaviour of rich and powerful people (and of the poor when they were emulating them) from a standpoint that was uncompromised. Secondly, he had read sufficiently in other social scientific fields. He resorted to sociology, anthropology and psychology without artificially hiving off the subject matter of “economics”. That made him able to recognise that although a market society had its own features that shaped the form in which various social practices took place, many of the features of that society were not fundamentally different from what occurred in supposedly “more primitive” societies. Thus:

Presents and feasts had probably another origin than that of naïve ostentation, but they acquired their utility for this purpose very early, and they have retained that character to the present; so that their utility in this respect has now long been the substantial ground on which these usages rest. Costly entertainments, such as the potlatch or the ball, are peculiarly adapted to serve this end. The competitor with whom the entertainer wishes to institute a comparison is, by this method, made to serve as a means to the end. He consumes vicariously for his host at the same time that he is a witness to the consumption of that excess of good things which his host is unable to dispose of singlehanded, and he is also made to witness his host’s facility in etiquette. (Veblen, The Theory of the Leisure Class, 1899)

Conspicuous consumption and the consumer society

Thus it is that Veblen’s theory of “conspicuous leisure” and of “conspicuous consumption”, whose purpose is to make a status display, provide us with a possible starting point for our understanding. It gives us ideas with which we can start to make sense of the motivations and behaviours apparently underpinning a lot of the actions in a “consumer society”. In a consumer society not only the rich but other strata of society are using consumption goods to profile and project themselves. As in the diary of a somebody, jewels, hair, make-up, i Pad, purple couture dresses and the names in one’s impressive choice of stylists or the beautiful people in one’s guest collection are all a means to an extrinsic end.

To a large extent the end in question is to make a status display – status conscious people are pursuing the acquisition of what are called “positional goods”. These goods signal one’s position in society and depend on relative income. It is the fact that the rich can afford them and others cannot that is on display. If and when poorer people were able to afford a Ferrari then a Ferrari would lose its value for the rich people who first bought them. In that case rich people would pursue another status display. ( Kallis G 2014)

In his article Kallis argues that “..positional consumption is not a personal vice. It is a structural social phenomena to which individuals conform to remain part of the mainstream…..” For Kallis there are risks for those who try to exit the rat race especially if they are from less privileged backgrounds in which case there will be loss of respectability and economic insecurity. What’s more “the system can co-opt its dissidents: even back to the land and “eco-life style choices” by privileged educated and artistical groups can become types of new positional goods”.

Perhaps – but is this too “either-or”? Explaining peoples’ actions through ‘structures’ can be revealing but after a point too much emphasis on the structures within which people act implies this explanation for people’s actions: “The system made me do it”. It removes the idea that individuals make choices. It can tend to the view that regards people as automatons without freedom. As Erich Fromm pointed out, and other psychologists have since confirmed, a market society creates particular personality types, marketing personalities – people who put great store on marketing themselves. However, individuals can come to recognise the features of their own habitual responses – that’s a point of therapy after all. Individuals can and do change and not only in the context of broader “system changes” – one of the tasks at hand is to identify when and under what conditions.

The Helbig society

It must be admitted however that things have moved on from Veblen’s day to make marketing far more prominent – particularly the all-pervasive presence of “brands” which work together with advertising to create what I describe as a “Helbig Society”. That is, a society of technicolour appearance and empty narratives designed to manipulate.

To explain: the term “Potemkin Village” is sometimes used to describe a manufactured appearance, designed to impress, which is a deceptive facade. The phrase refers to a tour of the Crimea and the Ukraine in 1787 by Catherine II of Russia in which it was alleged that her former lover, Prince Grigory Aleksandrovich Potemkin, created pasteboard villages along the bank of the Dnieper River which the monarch was travelling down, with the aim of making an illusory show of prosperity. Recent historical research has shown that this story was largely a slander created by the Saxon envoy to Catherine’s court, Georg von Helbig. The villages therefore ought, with more justice, to be called Helbig Villages.

If the Potemkin Villages of 1787 were a slander, Helbig Villages have existed at other times in history. A number of places designed to deceive are mentioned in the Wikipedia description of “Potemkin Villages”. For example, the Nazi Theresienstadt concentration camp called “the Paradise Ghetto” in World War II was designed as a concentration camp that could be shown to the Red Cross. Apparently attractive, but deceptive and ultimately lethal, with high death rates from malnutrition and contagious diseases, it ultimately served as a way-station to Auschwitz. As is well known, people who arrived at Concentration Camps were sometimes greeted by orchestras playing classical music. An analogous management tool is used today in slaughterhouses. Animals are calmed after a stressful journey before they are put through a process that stimulates their curiosity about what is going to happen just before they are sedated and then slaughtered. If they got upset, the stress hormones would spoil the meat. Or, to put it the other way around – the meat tastes nice to the customers because the animals have been deceived.

Less gruesome, and more like the Helbig Village example, was the PR job done on the town of Enniskillen in Northern Ireland for the G8 Summit in June 2013. Large photographs were put up in the windows of closed shops in the town so as to give the appearance of thriving businesses for visitors driving past them. This has now become a common practice for property companies to cover messy re- development or dereliction. (Wikipedia, Potemkin Village, 2013)

Branding

Deception is ubiquitous in a modern market economy. We might even call a consumer society a Helbig Society. To get a proper sense of the gulf between the illusion and the reality in this kind of economic system we have to delve into the evolution of advertising and of “brands”. In her book No Logo Naomi Klein shows how the economy has moved a long way from when it was about people selling products to other people in markets that were regulated to ensure that prices were fair. By the end of the 19th century and the early 20th century, adverts were about selling innovations. New kinds of products like cars, telephones and electric lights which producers needed to convince people to use. The advertisements were, as Klein explains, rather like product news bulletins. This was to change as a process began of building an image around a particular brand name. Generic goods like sugar, flour, soap and cereal had hitherto been scooped out of barrels by local shopkeepers. These now had names
bestowed on them, particularly with a view to evoking a feeling of folksiness and familiarity. Henceforth it was the product brand names – artificial images of imagined personalities – that interfaced between consumer and producer rather than the shopkeeper – Uncle Ben, Dr Brown, the Quaker Oats man…

There were those in the industry who understood that advertising wasn’t just scientific; it was also spiritual. Brands could conjure a feeling – think of Aunt Jemima’s comforting presence – but not only that, entire corporations could themselves embody a meaning of their own. In the early twenties legendary adman Bruce Barton turned General Motors into a metaphor for the American family, “something, personal, warm and human”, while GE was not so much the name of the faceless General Electric Company as, in Barton’s words, “the initials of a friend”. In 1923 Barton said the role of advertising was to help corporations find their soul. The son of a preacher, he drew on his religious upbringing for uplifting messages: “I like to think of advertising as something big, something splendid, something which goes deep down into an institution and gets hold of the soul of it… Institutions have souls, just as men and nations have souls.” he told GM president Pierre du Pont. General Motors ads began to tell stories about the people who drove its cars – the preacher, the pharmacist or the country doctor who, thanks to his trusty GM, arrived “at the bedside of a dying child” just in time “to bring it back to life”. (Klein, 2000, pp. 6-7)

As advertisers evolved their techniques of psychological manipulation, they delved into psychology, anthropology and culture while coming to see themselves as the “philosopher kings” of commercial culture. “It took a while for people managing companies to finally get it. They were not in business to produce stuff, they were in business to sell brands. This meant continuous and increasingly intrusive advertising – the problem being, as one senior ad executive explained, that consumers “are like roaches – you spray them and they get immune after a while”.’ (Klein, 2000, p. 9)

The manufacture of wants – the role of advertisers

One of the few economists to take this on board was John Kenneth Galbraith, whose book The Affluent Society, first published in 1958, argued that, for much of the modern economy, production preceded wants rather than, as economic theory assumes, the other way round.

The even more direct link between production and wants is provided by the institution of modern advertising and salesmanship. These cannot be reconciled with the notion of independently determined desires, for their central function is to create desires – to bring into being wants that previously did not exist. A broad empirical relationship exists between what is spent on the production of consumer goods and what is spent on synthesizing the desires for it. (Galbraith, 2001, p. 34)

Perhaps economists rarely venture into these fields because we can see that advertising, marketing and public relations employ methodologies which are all about shaping preferences and the “methodological individualists” are not interested in how preferences are formed. They are content to assume that people have given preferences and then act rationally on the basis of these preferences in the face of prices and a certain amount of purchasing power. To find out what happens in aggregate the economists simply add together the individual market behaviours.

Such an approach obviously devotes no attention to the way that people influence each other. The very existence of a fashion industry shows that, as well as the efforts that marketing departments work to create collective consumption trends. These marketing approaches actively foster disutility because they “work” by creating dissatisfaction. They seek to put in people’s minds the idea that their intended purchasers cannot live without some new product. They are also intended to be disruptive of relationships because they are based on fostering rival status display.

Sales departments, advertisers and public relations companies do not take people’s preferences as given. They are a big part of the economy and mostly, economists ignore them. The sales departments and the marketers do not use ideas from “utility theory”. They take ideas from group psychological dynamics, crowd psychology and approaches from psychotherapy theory which explores the interplay between human emotion and cognition. We need to do this too in order to understand advertising and PR on its own terms – and hence its usefulness to the people who pay for it, and its ability to influence the political process.

Well-being and marketing

Money is made when people “have to have” products and stay on the treadmill of work, spending and debt. Society functions by advertisers ensuring that people feel uncomfortable, inadequate and bereft unless they have the latest product designed for their peer group which is also an identifiable market segment. That said, if buying a product were to make you satisfied for too long you would not keep on buying it…

So how do the advertisers do this? Often it is by an astute manipulation which forms motivations through the use of stories, rituals, ceremonies and culture. The moral of the stories told by the advertisers is that the audience is lacking in something that possession of the brand will give them. For example, to be attractive, to be in tune with the American grand narrative of rugged individualism, personified by the cowboy, one needs to buy Marlboro cigarettes and participate in the social ritual of smoking them. In contrast with identity in an indigenous society, where people have totem identification with a creature, or a plant, based on deep knowledge and loyalty to part of the natural world, individuals in the consumer society define themselves partly through brand loyalty. The consumer “totems” are the designer labels that fashionistas wear – a sign of their discrimination, knowledge and affluence as consumers.

The implications for psychological well-being are profound. The message of the advertising stories is to convey how products will make us a better and more desirable person – mother, father and lover – which means that we are not good enough as we are now. The insights of Sigmund Freud that people think in emotionally associative ways (cf his therapeutic technique of free association) is hijacked to design the advertising message. Metaphorical allusion portrayed in vivid colour in high definition and on the biggest possible screens attempt to create emotional links between brands and desirable episodes or scenes in personal life stories. Fizzy drinks with sugar in them, are associated with adolescent sexuality in blue jeans. Getting the boy, getting the girl, getting the job, your forthcoming celebrity status, the perfect mum, dependable dad, the happy family – all are associated with a product – perfume or gravy granules… Messages of this type bombard us all with attention-grabbing messages from street billboards, newspapers, magazines, television and cinema commercials, on the internet, on the radio. Over and over again, visual and narrative connections are made between sex, glamour, wealth, power, speed, desirability, happy families, and shiny new products magnified and flashing in front of our eyes, dynamically displayed with clever graphical effects.

Attention grabbing as economic sector

Correspondingly a large part of the economy – its institutions, its technical infrastructure – exists solely for the purpose of grabbing our attention. When we are awake we can only focus on so much during a 24 hour day, a third of which we are asleep and a lot of which we are drilled to attend to employment tasks. At other times advertising agencies, market research companies, public relations companies, publishing companies, theatres, cinemas, television companies, newspapers, internet organisations are all trying to ensure that at every available opportunity, every available surface, every available screen, every available shop window, every available stage, and every broadcast, carries something about their product and/or their message. This is not to mention 9 out of every 10 phone calls on telephone landlines when a complete stranger assumes that they have the right to interrupt whatever you are doing with what they call a “courtesy call” – despite “a service” run by the marketing industry which is supposed to prevent this happening if you don’t want it. (Franck, 1998)

Naturally the more power specific people and specific institutions have, the more this “economy of attention” is skewed in their favour. Rather as the passage of light is bent by powerful gravitational fields, so the “information space” used by a society is buckled to massively magnify the concerns and priorities of the super-rich elite and their hangers on. At the same time rendering virtually invisible and unintelligible the suffering, concerns and needs of the large part of the world’s population. In the information space these people are driven to the edges and almost literally do become “nobodies”.

The nobodies are then only noticed in the crowded messages being transmitted in the information space when they get in the way of elite agendas and/or require expenditure and management because they have become a problem. (For example, because “attention seeking” turns into what is characterised as a mental health issue – mania and depression being opposite emotional reactions to experiencing oneself to be a nobody and being unable to cope with that – excitement at the idea that one is about to become a star as a result of one’s brilliant work and thus, attain celebrity status oscillating with depression as one remains in the wilderness).

These are all properly a subject for economics because there are multiple senses in which the attention seeking assault from the marketing sector impacts negatively on well-being now and in the future. We have already mentioned the way that this vast pantomime is about making its audience feel inadequate. But more than this – there is another economic consequence that Veblen realised over a hundred years ago. A part of his argument was that what the Leisure Class consumed as status displays – and also the way in which many members of the poor tried to emulate them – led to a waste of resources. It is stuff that never needed to be produced and is a waste of the time of the producers, a waste of material and natural resources and a waste of energy. And what Veblen could not have known is that the huge pile of garbage which is still being produced today drains depleting fossil fuel and material resources while exhausting carbon and other kinds of sinks. For no good cause other than the need of the “celebrity class” to be noticed, the planet appears to be locked on the road to destruction.

The Facade

Another way of expressing this is to describe “the economy” as operating with a vast deceptive facade.

I have used the example of Potemkin/Helbig Villages to describe the resulting culture that we live in – a way in which mass psychology is manipulated by a culture of appearances that hide an underlying reality that is much more shoddy. We look at a mass of separate products on the supermarket shelves and see a bright dazzling multi-colour array of images and styles – on the boxes and tins. Yet when it comes down to it, most of them are produced by just ten different business groups. The variety is an illusion – at least when it comes to who owns and produces them. The conservative reassuring man on the Quaker oats packet is owned by Pepsico. Yves Sant Laurent, Diesel (that celebration of fossil fuel) and Giorgio Armani are owned by Nestle, Uncle Ben’s Rice is owned by Mars. (See attached graphic) (Bradford, 2012)
convergence-alimentaire
Source: convergence alimentaire, 2012, with permission. Click to access original image

There are many other things hidden by the facade. Why else is such a high proportion of world trade and world finance routed through tax havens and secrecy jurisdiction? Behind the gloss, the cute sentimental products on sale at your local supermarket, there are factories producing the stuff staffed by child and slave labour in unsafe conditions; there are oil spills and air and water contamination; there are greenhouse gas emissions; there is military intimidation of workers and there are mountains and mountains of toxic throw away trash.

In her book Klein describes how the American NBC network aired an investigation into Mattell and Disney just days before Christmas 1996. “With the help of hidden cameras, the reporter showed that children in Indonesia and China were working in virtual slavery “so that children in America can put frilly dresses on America’s favourite doll”. (Klein, 2000, p. 326)

Many other examples can be given between the appearance and the brutal reality. However, if you mock and take on these cuddly friendly folksy corporations you see what they are really like. Like the MacDonald Corporation who tried to ruin activists who took them on with critical leaflets which led to a long running court action in the UK.

Although there is nothing at all glossy and high definition about economics, although it is often tedious and dull, economics is a part of this facade. Too often the descriptions of what is happening stay on the surface. The descriptions of markets are about products not about brands. The fact that branding and advertising are about creating product differentiation makes nonsense of the default assumption in the textbooks that most production is from competitive firms producing homogenous products. Textbooks are still describing a world in which shopkeepers scoop flour, sugar and cereals out of a barrel. Into this barrel the shopkeepers have put the identical products of a large number of producers all of whom were obliged to sell at a going market price. But of course if you go to buy some kind of computer, or a car, or an appliance of some kind there are a bewildering variety of non-comparable products and a barrage of adverts as to the advantages of each. While price plays a role in the choice of a product it is often a minor one.

As regards the huge growth and economic importance of marketing, the textbook writers have little to say. Certainly they do not appear to recognise that the rise and rise of the marketing industry demonstrates that the chief constraints on what companies supply are not production conditions, leading to rising internal costs as companies try to expand. Rather the constraints on firms are external market limits if they try to sell more of their brand beyond their market niche. Pierro Sraffa understood this from as early as the 1920s and wrote a paper to explain his alternative viewpoint. This will be described later. Suffice it to say here, that although Sraffa, and a few others, like Joan Robinson, tried to keep up to date, most economists did not. You don’t update the Holy Scriptures – scriptures are true for all time.

The Validity of Rage

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Published on Pray for Calamity on November 14, 2013

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There are a lot of blogs out there that focus on “collapse,” and many of them will from time to time post statistics about increased crime rates in order to demonstrate the slow deterioration of society, occasionally showing videos of flash mobs such as this one below.

Video Removed by You Tube

There was a time when I would have seen something like this and thought, “Whoa, things are getting bad.”  My evolution has been long, and now I find myself seeing something like this and thinking, “Good for them!”  Previously, I was subject to knee jerk reactions which were preprogrammed responses that were silently imprinted in me by our culture.  Now that I have slowly stripped away layer after layer of cultural programming and dogmatic response, I can examine any given scenario based on it’s specific criteria, and come to an analysis that I find satisfying.  I’m open to critique of my analysis, as challenging my biases and interpretations hones my senses and my ability to comprehend my surroundings.

I think it is fair to suggest that most people residing in our culture see such a thing happen, and as a matter of reflex, condemn it.  This condemnation comes from an inner policing that was built partly from Judeo-Christian values as well as capitalist social indoctrination.  I would even argue that Judeo-Christian values as they currently stand are informed by mercantilist necessity.  Summarizing briefly my interpretation of the knee jerk condemnation of such acts as the one in the above video, I would say most people feel like Society (capital “S”) is a good thing, and that people who would mob into a retail store and in a flash, steal as much as they could get their hands on, are going to negatively impact Society.

This is where my personal bias comes into play.  I do not believe Society to be a good thing.  My view is that megalithic Society — these nations of millions of people — are unnatural constructs ultimately glued together through violence, whether implicit or explicit.  Humans, I do not believe to be social creatures, as much as they are tribal creatures.  This is to say, I believe when not arranged into massive groups by other humans wielding power (via violence, whether armies, police, law, etc.) people will self organize into smaller groups, communities, clans, or tribes.  The main difference being the over all size of the social organism created by such organization, and where the individual falls within this organism.

In a small tribe or clan, the individual is an integral component and is valued.  However, the unit as a whole can maximize the benefits of group togetherness and group work without losing prowess due to curves of diminishing returns.  Why is this?  For one, the human animal and our psychological and emotional responses have evolved to exist within smaller communities.  Emotions like empathy are a boon to tribes and clans, as individuals are all known to each other, are interrelated with one another, care for one another, and thus gift and sharing come naturally.  Not only are members of small tribes capable of caring for those who are less skilled, sick, elderly, etc. but they almost always insist upon doing so.  The empathy of the individual becomes collective and thus becomes a cultural norm: When you are successful in the hunt, you share the meat, and no one goes hungry.  When you are not successful in the hunt, but another clan member is, you eat because they share.

These sorts of relations which are natural to humans, which have allowed humans to survive through massive environmental shifts and calamities of the past, are not only absent from mega-social structures, but under capitalism, they are considered foolish.  Does anyone really believe that the people who wield power within this Society are actually empathetic to the masses at large?  This is a crucial failure of democracy.  Unless decisions makers and policy setters actually know — and I mean in person — all of the people they claim to represent, how could they possibly be expected to be truly empathetic towards them and their particular circumstances?  Democracy and the governmental architectures of megalithic social organisms suffer a myriad of contradictions and failures to be sure, but I would just like to highlight for this argument that small clans of people can function in a fashion that is far more agreeable to the individuals involved, thereby giving these individuals a reason to care about the well being of the greater social system.  Large scale Society cannot do this.

Even when humans are corralled into massive social constructs like those of today, tribal behavior is still implicit in many of our daily activities.  This behavior, depending on who is engaging in it and what the ultimate outcome, will be dubbed “gang activity,” “nepotism,” “cult,” “clique,” or even “patriotism,” “networking,” etc.  Tribal behavior that is seen to have a net benefit to the social organism — and primarily to those who sit atop the social hierarchy, will be granted a positive connotation.  Tribal behavior that is engaged in by those low on the social hierarchy that is gauged as only having a benefit to that tribe at the expense of the social organism or its narrative is given negative association and is often the target of state repression.

When a group of teenagers mobs into a corporate retail location and in a flash, steals a large amount of wares, this is immediately cast as “bad for Society.”  As noted above, I personally believe Society to be a bad thing.   Massive social organisms such as the Society in which we live require massive prison complexes, squadrons of well armed police, and a penal system so obtuse and selectively applied as to make Franz Kafka blush.  Above all, we have to recognize that the Society in which we live, and the greater industrial civilization of which it is a part, are both decimating the biosphere of the planet.  Polluted, overfished, rapidly acidifying oceans; mountaintop removal coal mining, hydraulic fracturing, deep water drilling, and tar sands strip mining; top soil loss, rivers and waterways tainted with agricultural run off, deforestation, over grazing, desertification; massive die off currently underway of trees, amphibians, mammals, and so on; must I even argue that the way humans are organizing and sustaining themselves (with the exception of the world’s remaining indigenous tribes who are also fighting off an ongoing genocide) is killing the planet?

When a true and honest calculus of the costs is visible, it is clear that modern human paradigms must be shattered immediately if there is to be any hope for the future of life on Earth.  This is if it is not already long too late.

Balancing this knowledge in one hand, and then watching as a bunch of modern teens, whose minds have no doubt been warped and bent by a lifetime of consumerist propaganda, plunder a store of some clothing no doubt made in a third world sweatshop, I am supposed to weep for the retailer?  It would require a chasm of cognitive disconnect to see an injustice.

In discussing this, people have been quick to point out to me that these young people are likely not aware of the larger social and environmental context in which their action took place, and that in all likelihood these teenagers just wanted to steal because they wanted stuff they couldn’t afford, and maybe the adrenaline rush generated by breaking the social convention was an alleviation from boredom.  Most people assume these youth aren’t knowingly taking direct action against an unethical capitalist system, and thus the robbery is just another example of disrespectful teenagers acting out.

I think this is an extremely unfair assessment.

I’ll start with a thesis statement: I believe rage is valid.  This culture demotes emotion to be subordinate to thought.  The predominantly white male “educated” upper class has for centuries defined what reason, logic, and rationality are.  Not surprisingly, logic and reason have always substantiated the Social order, and hence the system can constantly reify itself while those who benefit from it the most can claim that it is all high minded and rational.

Members of the lower social classes are abused by the Social organism.  They are subject to the highest levels of toxic pollution that accompanies industrial activity, they are far more policed and prosecuted by the penal system, and in general are confined into a go-no-where economic merry-go-round that keeps survival necessities always just barely within reach so they will tolerate egregious treatment by employers; low wages, poor conditions, etc.  When people from these classes finally act out in society, whether via a peaceful demonstration or a full blown riot, their demands and their actions are almost universally decried as irrational, unreasonable, and anti-social.  Their actions and movements are condemned all the more thoroughly if their demands or motivations are not articulated in a language acceptable to the mostly white middle and upper class.

The absurdity in this rejection is that articulation follows feeling, not the other way around.  The feeling of “getting the shaft” or “being shit on” is actually far more relevant than any individual’s ability to explain the particulars of their condition in academic verbiage.  The feelings are the truth of lived experience, the explanation is merely a communication of these feelings.

Right and wrong, our internal distinction between the two, and our sense of justice are natural to us.  Empathy is a survival instinct, as I noted above, as it promotes the welfare of the tribal unit which is ultimately beneficial for the individual participant.  Society has co-opted this sense and attempted to blur the line of what is moral or ethical to include the social machine not as a construct, but as another member of the whole.  In this sense, the judicial system uses language which claims criminals have wronged society and that in doing so they owe a debt to society, as if society is itself an individual who could be wronged or paid restitution.  This methodology of thought is then further blurred when it is also applied to businesses and enterprises as if these entities are persons.  This is why shoplifting from Wal-Mart is condemned by those who think in binaries, where stealing is always wrong regardless of what or from whom something is taken.  Wal-Mart in this example, is given the status of an individual to be empathized with, instead of allowing a detailed analysis of just what exactly a Wal-Mart unit is, where from and by what means they acquired their inventory, and what the true costs of Wal-Mart’s existence are relative to the environment and humanity.

This is how those in power manipulate people into expressing outrage and dismay when they witness an incident of flash mob shoplifting.  They have confused people into equating the retailer with an individual, whose shoes the witness then mentally dons, and thusly they ask, “If these kids so brazenly rob a retail outlet, what is to prevent them from doing the same to me or my home?”  And the illusion is complete, with the average proletariat seeing the retailer as a poor victim, setting the stage for themselves and their loved ones to be next.  This leads to fear and demands that the perpetrators are dealt with swiftly, which leaves the social narrative and the hierarchy of power in tact.

If my bias against Society and the greater industrial civilization is well founded, if we can accept for a moment that continuing along with business as usual will allow the continuing onslaught against life which is driving at least one hundred species per day into extinction and will certainly lead to the extinction of human beings as well, then the only moral response is to shift one’s biases to agree with mine: to see the massive social organism as a parasite which needs to be expunged.

Let me be crystal clear; I am not suggesting that humans are parasitic, but that the current experiment of civilization, is.  Human beings are just another mammal, who have in the past, and who do in last remaining pockets now, live in balance with nature.  Mine isn’t misanthropy, but an anti-civilization (or anti-civ) understanding, which is biocentric, meaning that I believe all life has value despite whether or not it plays a role in human economy.

If the current paradigms of human organization, thought, and behavior — our Societies — need to be completely undone, then why are we at all concerned with whether or not particular retail outlets profit off of the merchandise in their stores?  Should this not be among the least of our concerns?  Should we not see a breakdown in the domination of commerce as positive?

On this point, people have suggested to me in many manner of ways, that it is not the retail outlet for whom they are concerned, but for the individuals involved, as well as any future victims they may have should they make a habit of breaking social conditions.  This suggestion contains a handful of premises.  First, concern for the perpetrators.  I too share a concern that these young people might end up in the hands of the prison industrial complex, to be sure.  Concern for their general state of being, for their character, is less of a factor for me, because all people in this Society have the content of their character on the line every day.  Frankly, the store employees who rush after thieves worry me more than the thieves themselves, because in these individuals I see subjugated minds chained and shackled by the hollow promises of a market system that demands loyalty to wage payers, as if we should all be oh-so-grateful to have employment under which to waste away the years of our lives.  For those concerned about the character and potential “slippery slope” of looser and looser ethics on the part of the teenage flash-mobbers, there is still an underlying assumption that this act is one that is of low moral fiber — a premise not demonstrated — and an assumption that this act won’t lead in the other direction, to a greater and greater questioning of the status quo, of why some people have a lot when the rest have very little, of how global neo-liberalism actually functions, etc.

The second major premise is that this is in fact, a “slippery slope,” a “gateway drug” to breaking more and more laws and/or social conventions.  While this could be one possibility, it is not necessarily the case.  Some slopes are not slippery at all, and some acts are not gateways.  In fact, in committing such actions and challenging the social conventions impressed upon one since youth, it is quite reasonable to assume that these young people have had internal or external dialogues about their actions, and whether and how they are justified.  In any case, to assume that it is necessarily so that these teenagers will engage in more brazen acts, possibly including violence, is unfounded.  Someone who smokes marijuana doesn’t necessarily move on to crack cocaine.  Someone who runs a red light doesn’t necessarily move on to tax evasion.

Law is interesting in that some of Society’s prohibited behaviors are those that run counter to our natural state of being, such as murder and rape.  These are acts that to a mentally and spiritually stable human, are repugnant.  Our natural empathy for one another and our evolution as a tribal cooperator already has cast murder and rape as abhorrent in our minds.  Crimes that are bureaucratic, or prohibited actions which are prohibited to preserve an economic order — such as theft, writing bad checks, counter-fitting, what have you — do not require necessarily that the perpetrator have been mentally or spiritually broken.  These are crimes committed because Society itself creates an enormous amount of economic pressure and lays is on every individual, requiring everyone to take on wage labor in order to survive. This unnatural order creates scenarios in which certain pockets of Society have very few options to legally attain a dignified survival.  Or again, some people sense the greater injustice of “getting screwed” by an imaginary construct over which they have no say in their participation.  So while committing a murder or rape usually requires first that the perpetrator be mentally or spiritually broken down, this is not the case for those who commit “crimes” against the economic order.  This is all to say, engaging in actions of the latter type, does not place one on a “slippery slope” to commit actions of the former type.

Systems of power do not create available methods for the ruled to dismantle the power structure.  Power accumulates more power, consolidates it, and entrenches itself.  It throws up walls and defenses to ensure its continuation.  There is no flow chart of legal and available political channels for the ruled (I should say, “owned”) peoples of the world to set themselves free and to terminate the industrial economy which is hell bent on destroying all life on Earth.  The only hope, is calamity.  This calamity can be an environmental mega disaster, or an amalgamation of social disruptions compounding upon each other.  Either way, the current paradigms — economic, political, social, et al — are toxic, and grass roots behaviors that are detrimental to the success of these paradigms are ultimately to our benefit, as contradictory as this may seem at first glance.  In simple terms, “Good for the machine, bad for you.  Bad for the machine, good for you.”

Of course, billions of people are now dependent upon the machine to access their needs.  This is aptly described by Derrick Jensen’s statement that,

“if your experience is that your food comes from the grocery store and your water comes from the tap, then you are going to defend to the death the system that brings those to you because your life depends on them. If your experience, however, is that your food comes from a landbase and that your water comes from a stream, well, then you will defend to the death that landbase and that stream.”

We should not be inclined to preserve the machine because it is meeting our basic needs today when we know that it is accomplishing this by destroying the planet’s ability to meet those needs tomorrow.  This is doubly true when we know that the machine is only accomplishing this task through a massive program of violence meted out upon the global poor as well as all non-human species.

My last observation on this issue concerns balance.  The universe is a system in balance.  Even temporary imbalances are only perceptions of a frozen timeline, for all they will all come into balance once again.  Our mega Societies — the global civilization — is a system out of balance.  When I suggest to people that we abolish police and prisons, most are immediately mortified.  They assume that such an abolition would be immediately followed by an immense surge in crime.  To this I respond, “Of course!”  This should tell us something about the Society in which we live, particularly that it is entirely out of balance.  The need of so many runs up against the wealth of so few.  No natural state would allow such a one sided distribution of resources.  Any other place in nature, devoid of constructed law and cordons of militant law enforcers, would see a rapid diffusion of the resources to a balanced state.  Imagine one-hundred gorillas, with two of them controlling ninety-eight percent of the available bananas, and the other ninety-eight gorillas having two percent of the bananas to divide amongst themselves.  This would be an absurdity even modern humans from this culture wouldn’t be able to explain if they stumbled upon it in the wild.  Yet we exist within such a system!  In our example, the hungry ninety-eight gorillas would quickly take what they needed from the other two by whatever means necessary, and we wouldn’t expect them to validate their actions or any sense of indignation that preceded them with artful discourse.

No doubt, the teenagers engaged in flash mobs, and indeed plenty of other people who steal, are often taking non-essential items.  Cultural distortion of need due to advertising propaganda is surely playing it’s role.  Despite this, we should at the very least see these acts as the result of causation.  These hard and fast broad daylight robberies are a clever tactic undertaken by people who have been given zero reason to care about the bloated social organism  The real question we should be asking ourselves, is when and how we are going to join them in acting out against that which is rapidly killing us.

 

Degrowth

Off the keyboard of Brian Davey

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Published on December 18, 2014 on FEASTA

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Discuss this article at the Environment Table inside the Diner

Degrowth – A Vocabulary for a New Era: Review

Degrowth. A Vocabulary for a New Era, just published by Routledge, is quite a slim volume of 220 pages and 51 short chapters.

Before anything else it seems important to say that there are lots of chapters in this book that I think are quite excellent as short pithy descriptions of the key concepts of degrowth. If in this review I have not mentioned many of these chapters it is usually because I have no quarrel with the choice of the word or phrase, the way that is elucidated, the way that it is related to the other words and combined with a short reading list. An attempt has been made by the editors and by the individual authors to relate the words in the vocabulary together so that they are not isolated chapters about stand alone ideas. This puts the idea of “Degrowth” on the intellectual map as a wide ranging discourse, a movement of thinkers about the future of society that needs to be taken seriously…and yet….

…because it is supposed to be a “vocabulary” of degrowth my inclination has been to try to get an idea of which words and concepts relating to degrowth the authors consider to be important enough to be given explanatory chapters, and then to compare this choice of concepts with the vocabularies used by other analysts. Do the words that have been chosen for inclusion cover the constellation of concepts which match the range and types of degrowth ideas that there are and the degrowth idea as I have understood it?

In fact there is only a partial overlap with my own ideas. In this review I will try to explain some of the differences.

No chapter on climate change

http://www.slate.com/content/dam/slate/articles/technology/future_tense/2014/01/140122_FT_Degrowth.png.CROP.original-original.pngOn this first point the most striking absence is that there is no specific chapter for climate change. Although climate change is mentioned throughout there is no chapter for the topic as such.

In their introduction to the book the editors write that one of the “foundational degrowth claims” is “the inevitability of disastrous climate change if growth is to continue”. One would think that, if this is such a central issue, it requires proper elucidation. Perhaps the editors thought people would already know about climate change and there was no need to cover it. However this is not really what I am getting at. I am not stating a case for a thumbnail sketch of elementary climate science; I am arguing for an exploration of how the climate crisis contextualises the way one perceives degrowth. For example, given the policy failure of the growth enthusiasts to mitigate climate change at the rate and scale required is “degrowth” now, in any case, too late? If degrowth ideas are not too late, then how much time is left to implement them? Exactly how desperate is the situation that the degrowth agenda is supposed to address? A related question is “how quickly must degrowth proceed, how deep must it be and how could it possibly be delivered?”

It is now widely recognised by people involved in climate politics that only with a level of CO2 in the atmosphere of under 350 parts per million, perhaps much less, will the planet be safe from runaway climate change. Since the actual level of CO2 in the atmosphere is nearly 396 parts per million we are already well on the way to a catastrophe in the absence of emergency action. I have always assumed that a core rationale for degrowth was to be found here.

Degrowth could be driven by climate policy

http://blogs.worldwatch.org/sustainableprosperity/wp-content/uploads/2012/03/degrowthVsGrowth-Desazkundea.jpgNot only that – in my own vision for degrowth, and I guess for others associated with Feasta, degrowth would actually be ‘driven’ by an adequate climate policy. Many chapters in this book draw attention to the role of energy as central to the metabolism of the economy. Most of that energy is currently derived from fossil fuels so if there is a mechanism to screw down the available fossil energy entering the economy it should be possible to force an amount of degrowth on the economy appropriate to averting catastrophe.

To use an metaphor – we need a climate policy regime that is akin to the process of turning down the tap through which carbon fuels enter the economy until no more carbon energy is available to be burned. Were the political will there, and the general political support for degrowth, this would be easy to administer. One would simply require all companies that extract fossil fuel to have permits for the tonnage of carbon in the fuel that they extract before they are allowed to sell this tonnage. Some agency would limit the tonnage of carbon permitted out of the ground each year and would only make available for sale a rapidly reducing number of permits. The money that the fossil fuel companies paid to buy the permits would be distributed on an equitable basis to the general population. That’s called “cap and share” and if I had edited a book on degrowth then ‘cap and share’ and/or similar climate policies would have a chapter as the driver of any voluntary degrowth process.

Voluntary and involuntary degrowth

I write “voluntary degrowth process” because there is an argument that I think ought to have been explored in this book that degrowth will mainly be an involuntary process. Let me try and explain what I see as being the difference.

http://clubfordegrowth.org/wp-content/uploads/2013/07/450px-Degrowth_strategies.jpgBy “voluntary degrowth” I mean a vision for the future that is promoted because it is regarded as preferable to a growth economy. It is preferable, for example, because it encompasses a number of proposals for change that get no attention in the growth economy where more output is seen as the solution for all problems. An example would be Ivan Illiich’s tools for conviviality – creating the kind of tools that would make possible “space for relationships, recognition, pleasure and generally living well, and thereby, reducing the dependence on an industrial and consumerist system” as Marco Deriu explains in his chapter. Thus what I might term “voluntary degrowth” is a mainly French idea that is sometimes termed “décroissance conviviale”, a cultural and social critique of society – an alternative “imaginary” of how society might be.

By “involuntary degrowth” I mean a view of the future that the production economy will contract anyway, whether we like it or not, perhaps in a chaotic fashion, perhaps through collapse, so that the task of the degrowth movement is to prepare for, and ameliorate, that contraction as best as we can. It is not so much communities and societies making a choice against growth – but communities finding means to cope with difficulties that they will inevitably face when the economy contracts anyway. For example the Transition Movement (that is barely mentioned in this book) has had an idea that “energy descent” is going to happen in the near future and that it is an urgent task to prepare communities so that they will be able to cope.

Now in trying to cope with this process that people like me think will happen anyway the Transition Movement have had a strong idea of making the most of the situation. They have wanted to “make a virtue out of necessity” and to look for the silver linings around the storm clouds. There is the suggestion that people might be surprised to find that the quality of life might actually be better. The Transition Movement thus works towards the revival of community, relationships and different kinds of creativity too. The kinds of projects advocated for – like urban gardening – are the same as for décroissance conviviale. However, the starting point is not a choice for a different kind of society compared with the growth economy – so much as making the best of what will happen in the difficult conditions associated with future contraction.

To my mind it is a weakness of this book that it does not draw out and emphasise these distinctions enough. In fact different kinds of future are possible. Thus we can consider the possibility that involuntary degrowth happens (in the sense of a contraction of material production) but not quickly enough to reduce carbon emissions at an adequate pace. In this situation cap and share to drive a faster pace of emissions reduction – and a process of voluntary degrowth of material production would still be needed to speed up the involuntary contraction.

Reducing the allowable extraction of fossil fuels in order to leave most fuels in the ground would degrow the economy. However, on its own this is unlikely to be enough to avert runaway climate change. That’s because CO2 is already over the limit and any more will add to the danger. So a lot of CO2 will have to be taken out of the atmosphere. This is another urgent future task. However, any draw-down of CO2 will probably only be possible, if at all, by extensive land reclamation and re-vegetation, locking up the CO2 in biomass – using ecological design methods (like permaculture). In my view draw-down or sequestration ought to be another idea with a chapter. It isn’t. There is no consideration of enhancing carbon sinks.

http://www.barcelona.degrowth.org/uploads/media/maclurcan.jpg

Overshoot and collapse – some more missing words

https://panosz.files.wordpress.com/2015/01/degrowth.jpgOf course academics at the University of Barcelona, who have played a leading role bringing this book together cannot be expected to know everything but the failure to address these urgent practical issues is serious. Or that is my point of view anyway. We need to remind ourselves that the original authors of the 1972 Club of Rome sponsored study “Limits to Growth” worked with a model in which growth could continue for some time beyond the carrying capacity of the planet in a phase that they termed “overshoot”. Overshoot was analogous to living beyond ones personal means by running down the family savings or running up debts. It can be thought of as a delay in adaptation to ecological realities which would mean that eventual adjustment, when it comes, will be that much more of a shock. An overshoot that goes on too long eventually leads to collapse – a chaotic reduction in complexity likely to involve a great deal of insecurity. You can think of collapse as involuntary degrowth and it is much more serious than stagnation, recession or even depression. That’s because it is a much longer and irreversible process of transformation in humanity’s relationship with the planet likely to be associated with rising death rates and falling populations. Unfortunately words like “overshoot”, “collapse” or “involuntary degrowth” are not part of the vocabulary either. To my perception this “vocabulary” lacks a continuity with the “Limits to Growth” thinkers of 1972. It is a southern European and French choice of words even though the book is written in English.

Many of the actions and policies that are proposed under the heading of “degrowth” might conceivably help in a collapse – but one feels that most of the authors in this book do not conceive their proposals for action as emergency measures. They are not being proposed as survival arrangements; they are still being proposed in an alternative paradigm in a future which is rather like the present. They are being framed on the assumption that “developed economies” are entering “a period of systemic stagnation” in which “an abandonment of growth will revive politics and nourish democracy, rather than animate catastrophic passions” as it says in the introduction. I find this framing to be rather too complacent.

Not all of the contributors share the same ideas. Christian Kerschner has written the chapter on peak oil (and other resource peaks). He thinks “Economic degrowth is no longer an option but a reality”. For him it is starting to happen involuntarily.

Another author not on the editors’ wavelength is Alevguel Sorman who has written the chapter on ‘Societal Metabolism’. Sorman concludes “ The biophysical view of social metabolism warns about the limitations of degrowth strategies based on voluntarily consuming fewer resources, less energy or less capital. These will not suffice on their own”. In particular Sorman warns against the assumptions of many thinkers that worksharing will enable a trade of income in exchange for more free time because “In a future scarce in energy we will have to work more, not less”.

There is also an indirect and partial consideration of collapse in a chapter by Serge Latouche titled the “Pedagogy of Disaster”. This is a discussion about whether future disasters will allow a sociopathic elite to exploit the vulnerability of shocked, disorientated and frightened people ( ‘disaster capitalism’) or whether the coming shocks will shake people free of their complacency so that they wake up in time to forestall an even worse future. Latouche concludes that both are possible, depending on context.

An version of degrowth flawed by optimism bias?

http://theoverthinker.org/wp-content/uploads/2014/10/lemmings.jpgOne way of summarising these points is to say that the editors have drawn together a mainly optimistic version of degrowth. It is not a view that I share. I find it is interesting to contrast the approach of the editors with the attitude of Dennis Meadows, a surviving member of the ‘Limits to Growth’ study of 1972. Meadows stopped believing that humanity would be able to adequately respond to the limits to growth crisis in the 1990s and feels that a collapse is now inevitable.

“In 1972 there were two possible options provided for going forward — overshoot or sustainable development. Despite myriad conferences and commissions on sustainable development since then, the world opted for overshoot. The two-leggeds hairless apes did what they always have done. They dominated and subdued Earth. Faced with unequivocable evidence of an approaching existential threat, they equivocated and then attempted to muddle through.

Global civilization will only be the first of many casualties of the climate the Mother Nature now has coming our way at a rate of change exceeding any comparable shift in the past 3 million years, save perhaps the meteors or super volcanoes that scattered our ancestors into barely enough breeding pairs to be able to revive. This change will be longer lived and more profound than many of those phenomena. We have fundamentally altered the nitrogen, carbon and potassium cycles of the planet. It may never go back to an ecosystem in which bipedal mammals with bicameral brains were possible. Or, not for millions of years”.

Graham Turner, an Australian academic has now done 30 and a 40 year follow-ups to see how the business as usual predictions of the 1972 ‘Limits to Growth’ computer model compare with what actually happened. He concludes that they are pretty much on target – and that the turning point will occur in 2015.

“With significant capital subsequently going into resource extraction, there is insufficient available to fully replace degrading capital within the industrial sector itself. Consequently, despite heightened industrial activity attempting to satisfy multiple demands from all sectors and the population, actual industrial output per capita begins to fall precipitously, from about 2015, while pollution from the industrial activity continues to grow. The reduction of inputs to agriculture from industry, combined with pollution impacts on agricultural land, leads to a fall in agricultural yields and food produced per capita. Similarly, services (e.g., health and education) are not maintained due to insufficient capital and inputs.

“Diminishing per capita supply of services and food cause a rise in the death rate from about 2020 (and somewhat lower rise in the birth rate, due to reduced birth control options). The global population therefore falls, at about half a billion per decade, starting at about 2030. Following the collapse, the output of the World3 model for the standard run shows that average living standards for the aggregate population (material wealth, food and services per capita) resemble those of the early 20th century.[1]

The distinction between voluntary and involuntary transitions matters. Without a transition that is at least partly involuntary it is highly unlikely that sufficient people will voluntarily adjust their lifestyles in the directions that degrowthers see as vital. At the same time what we are describing an unpleasant historical epoch in which death rates will be rising.

Risk aversion, prospect theory and the collapse of lifestyle packages

http://thetyee.cachefly.net/Life/2010/05/04/Degrowth.jpgIn order to understand the inertia in current systems and peoples reluctance to change their lives towards degrowth the work of Daniel Kahnemann is helpful.

Kahnemann’s “prospect theory” is another idea absent from this book. It shows that people organise their lives around ‘reference points’ and are very “risk averse” when it comes to retreating away from those reference points. A reference point might be something like the income level to which one has grown accustomed and therefore the amount that one spends in day to day life, the expenditure associated with a lifestyle that is more or less adjusted to the income. My interpretation of this is that a fall in income is not welcome not only because one has less but because the organisation, the management of life’s details, must be adjusted so as to create an adjusted expenditure pattern and this requires thought and attention. One spends less money but spends more time thinking about what one spends money on. This is unwelcome extra mental effort. For a significant change one must adjust a whole pattern of hourly, daily and weekly purchases with possible consequences for habitat, relationships, routine transport arrangements etc.

It is all very well to write, as the editors do in their epilogue, that scarcity is social, and that society can produce more than enough for our basic needs – but that does not address the main issue that people worry about when they manage their day to day lives. This is how to maintain their “lifestyle package” in sufficient balance so that their lives are not at risk of descending into chaos. Most individuals whose lives are in balance will be living in a set of circumstances where their income is more or less appropriate to match their habitat needs, which must match their relationships (accommodation suitable to living with their partner and dependents). These must match their job with its income – and with its time and travel commitments. These must match their job skills and domestic commitments. There is mental and emotional work involved in balancing one’s life and it is scary if it seems like unravelling.

The biggest fear is of a generalised life crisis in which all of these things unravel together. For example because they lose their job a person might find that they cannot service their debts (mortgage) or pay the rent and thus lose their accommodation. During the stress and practical chaos of this their relationships might break apart. During the last crash many ended up homeless living in tents or cars on their own. Many people also lost their minds – i.e. became totally disorientated, extremely emotional and unable to function.[2]

The practical projects as “lifeboat arrangements”

https://jaqastan.files.wordpress.com/2010/05/adeptes-de-la-decroissance1.jpgThe point about a generalised crisis is that large numbers of people could find themselves in situations like these – and thus need the urban farms, the food co-ops, the repair and maintenance workshops, the back to the land projects, the alternative currencies as “lifeboat” arrangements to keep them afloat. They will need these kind of projecsts to give them new social relationships and enable them to begin again, to regain confidence, to “recycle their lives”. It seems implausible to me that most people will join these projects and organise their lives around them as a choice of rejection of the growth economy – although some will. It is however not implausible that if and when the growth economy is breaking down that people will join these projects. (I have seen how valuable a community garden can be for people who have mental health problems.)

Until a generalised breakdown occurs most people will remain too tightly tied into the economic mainstream. When a breakdown does occur however the times will be very dangerous and the projects must be there ready to include and support people. This is because it is when all their options seem bad that people lose their risk aversion and are prepared to take gambles – like for example betting what little they have left or, in a more fundamental sense, gambling with their life by joining a criminal gang or an extremist movement.

Resilience – another missing word

The word to describe this set of issues is “resilience”. Unfortunately resilience is another missing concept in this book. Resilience is about how much stress an individual’s ‘lifestyle package’ or a community or a society can take and still function before it breaks down catastrophically. It is about the tipping points or thresholds within systems that reflect their levels of complexity and interdependence.

This ought to have been clear from the chapter by Sergio Ulgiati on “Entropy” which is about what role low entropy energy has in the maintenance of systems. The availability of low entropy energy in economic and social systems is not just in order to be able to produce enough “stuff”. The conversion of energy in “hub interdependencies” – in transport systems, transactions and financial systems, computer controlled production systems and global supply networks is used to maintain the continued functionality of an immensely complex set of organisational structures. If the energy is not there then the complexity degrades – systems cease to function – the organisation falls to bits.

The crucial issue here is how resilient are these interrelated structures to disruptions in hub interdependencies brought about by energy and resource supply shocks? Systems can cope with reductions in inputs of energy and other resources up to a point but beyond that point they may break down completely. When organisational arrangements break down altogether nothing at all may get produced because workers are unemployed, production systems stand idle, banks are bust, nothing moves. There would not be stone age levels of production but no production at all. Gar nicht. Rien du tout. Res en absolute.

Here’s a quote from a colleague in Feasta, David Korowicz, which reveals the issue at stake:

“In September 2000 truckers in the United Kingdom, angry at rising diesel duties, blockaded refineries and fuel distribution outlets. The petrol stations reliance on Just-In-Time re-supply meant the impact was rapid. Within 2 days of the blockade starting approximately half of the UK’s petrol stations had run out of fuel and supplies to industry and utilities had begun to be severely affected. The initial impact was on transport – people couldn’t get to work and businesses could not be re-supplied. This then began to have a systemic impact.

The protest finished after 5 days at which point: supermarkets had begun to empty of stock, large parts of the manufacturing sector were about to shut down, hospitals had begun to offer emergency only’ care; automatic cash machines could not be re-supplied and the postal service was severely affected. There was panic buying at supermarkets and petrol stations. It was estimated that after the first day an average 10% of national output was lost. Surprisingly, at the height of the disruption, commercial truck traffic on the UK road network was only 10-12% below average values.”[3]

It will be noted here that 10 to 12 % less commercial truck traffic and British society was about to fall to bits. It is easy to imagine particular kinds of emergency where the “life style package” of a lot of people would disintegrate.
Climate change, climate policy, overshoot, involuntary degrowth, collapse, risk aversion, inertia, resilience…here are a whole series of concepts and words that in my view ought to have appeared in the vocabulary but did not. As I said at the beginning of this review the constellation of concepts or the words in this vocabulary do not cover the issues to my point of view.

http://www.sustainabilitysc.org/wp-content/uploads/2014/06/EconomicGrowthCartoon.jpg

A French book written in English?

The Degrowth book is a collection of 51 very short essays, almost all of which are by academic authors – 16 of whom are at the University of Barcelona. Although it is claimed to be the first comprehensive collection about degrowth in English it is very much a southern European academic view of what degrowth means. This is reflected in the choice of topics by the editors who have clearly been very influenced by thinkers on the French left. Thus, to my mind, many chapters sit uneasily alongside the chapters by some of the English and American authors some of whom have started from a different pre-analytical framework. I have no problem with a book whose authors start from different points but it places a particular responsibility on the editors to give the reader some orientation to the differences. It makes me wonder what the English and American authors have made of the parts of the book that they had no hand in writing.

In a footnote early in the book the editors explain why some words have not been translated into English:

“In this entry we leave the original titles in French, not only for reasons of language pluralism or practicality but also because many of the words involved sound more inspiring in French!”.[4]

My response to this is that it is not always practical not to translate. It is not practical for readers when it makes it more difficult for them to understand the meaning. Indeed if one does not understand what a word is supposed to mean then I for one don’t find that word inspiring. This is particularly the case with words that do not translate easily because they come out of a different intellectual tradition, background and patterns of thought.

An adjective used as a noun – “the imaginary”

http://foreignpolicyblogs.com/wp-content/uploads/polyp-org-uk-No-Economic-Growth-cartoon-e1298661998815.jpgThroughout the book many authors write out of a left wing French intellectual tradition about the “social imaginary”. The use of the adjective “imaginary” as a noun, as “the imaginary”, I have now learned has a long intellectual tradition in France. Novelists like Gide, philosophers like Sartre and Castoriadis and psychoanalysts like Lacan all used “L’Imaginaire” in different contexts. The idea seems to be that the words and symbols used in human communication, as well as in our thinking, do not necessarily match or correspond to actually existing realities.

The words and symbols that we use may have an invented component that corresponds to nothing ‘out there’ in the world. In fact the imagination is necessary to thought. Our ability to shape patterns of words, images and symbols in creative writing or painting is not merely an ability we have to create fictitious realities. The mind has to have this capacity to imagine if it is to be able to think at all. How else can a scientist theorise except by imagining what might be the explanatory causes for some phenomena? The imagination can later be tested and found to be true or false but the initial act of making a hypothesis is an ability to construct what might be, to imagine.

Furthermore it is through our ability to imagine the way in things might be otherwise arranged that our freedom to act in the world lies. Our imagination can create visions of how future social, economic and political realities might be constructed differently. We can use our imagination to invent things. This is why, according to Cornelius Castoriadis, history cannot be analysed in a determinist way. A significant role in the historical process originates from the creative imagination of people in societies. Thus, once we surrender to the idea that “there is no alternative” (e.g. to neo-liberal economics) we have not only got a failure of the imagination but have allowed our freedom to disappear. We are, to use the concept of one of the other chapters, relinquishing our autonomy – our ability to set rules and laws for ourselves in co-operative and hopefully convivial arrangements with other people. Hence the case made by Serge Latouche in this book for the need to “decolonise” our “imaginaries” from the ideas of market economics.

Unfortunately one meaning of “imaginary” in the English language is “existing only in the imagination”. (Oxford English Dictionary) That’s why I don’t personally like the adoption of “the imaginary” as a noun. It is too ambiguous. In the context it also reads like a word that has suddenly become fashionable among intellectuals.

I can imagine that I can raise a bag of ten apples one metre into the air with one joule of energy but that is “an imaginary” that only exists in my imagination. (An apple of an average weight takes one joule to raise one metre). While some imaginaries have some connection to reality, some imaginaries, on closer inspection, appear to be too-off-the wall and rather more in the nature of fantasies. Some imaginaries are nice to look at in a surrealist painting but non functional and some imaginaries are not only crazy but criminally insane and plain dangerous. As a matter of fact “economic growth” is a mainstream “social imaginary” that is collectively suicidal. Imaginaries have to have some connection to practical possibilities and actual developments in material reality and it’s important to note that current mainstream ‘economic imaginaries’ are delusionary.

Ecological economists have given a lot of thought to this issue by seeking to ground economics in energetics and physics. Cultural critique has to check its groundings otherwise it is waffle.

La depense sociale – what is it actually?

This brings me to one of the words that do appear in this book and one in particular that the editors seem particularly keen on – that word is “dépense”. This concept is discussed more than any other by the editors particularly in their epilogue where the authors break into French slogans in their last two sentences:

“Vive la décroissance conviviale. Pour la sobriete individuelle et la dépense sociale.”

With social dépense so clearly highlighted it is obviously important to understand it. If the idea is to be ‘operationalised’ we need to know how to recognise “dépense” when we see it. In fact I’ve been left feeling that I am unclear what it means.

Part of the problem for me with understanding ‘dépense’ is that it is another word coming out of the French tradition with which I have not been familiar. When the word “dépense” is left in French and not simply translated as “expenditure” then the reader is left assuming that it has a more complex meaning which I need to make some more effort into getting a grip on. My assumption is that I have no choice but to do extra work digging back into the history of that concept to try to capture all its connotations in the intellectual background in which it was created. In this book ideas are introduced in very small chapters that are no longer than 4 pages and that is not long enough to pick up all the nuances and assumptions of the tradition. For that reason I felt compelled to do additional google searches in order to try to understand “dépense”. I also searched around to find some more about George Bataille who originated the idea. It was on my bookshelf that I found the most useful succinct description of Bataille’s ideas in an old edition of the Penguin Dictionary of Philosophy:

“For Bataille, much modern thought and many social and economic structures are modes of denial of the fundamental nature of being as a Dionysian process without stable identity or meaningful direction, an expenditure and squandering of force that is no more than its own end – compare the second law of thermodynamics….”

So this is a crucial idea for degrowth? Digging in other texts to try to understand what kind of idea this is, and what its author was about, I discovered not just an economic theory but a writer of surrealist texts, a particular angle on psychoanalysis and Marxism and a deeply disturbed and traumatised man. I write this at this point not to disqualify the dépense idea but only to point out that I am reluctant to embrace any concept with this amount of baggage before I have carefully examined it because there isn’t enough in the Degrowth book to get a grasp of the idea.

Unfortunately after a lot of work I am still not completely sure that I have understood what the word means. Nor am I sure that I have understood how the dépense chapter author, Onofrio Romano, and the editors want the word to be understood in the context of degrowth – because this is not necessarily identical to the way Bataille understood it. What follows is my attempt to convert the idea into a terminology that would make some sort of sense to me but I am not completely sure that I have got it right.

Underlying the motivational foundations for the ideology of growth is the mainstream economics idea of scarcity. If there can never be enough goods and services to meet human needs it seems to follow that the more we produce the better. Here is the simple case for growth. It would therefore be understandable if advocates of degrowth were drawn to Bataille who turned the scarcity idea on its head – the problem for the economy in his way of thinking is not how to deal with scarcity but how to deal with “excess”.

According Bataille that there is a “superabundance of energy” and more than enough to meet the basic material needs for organisms/humans. That part of work using energy to meet these basic needs which enable us to survive can be regarded as ‘servile’ serving and merely re-creating our animal existence. It is when we are deciding what to do with the surplus which is more than we need for very basic needs that we enter a realm of freedom where we are truly exercising our freedom in “forms of energy beyond the servile”.

For Romano, and for the editors here is a key concept that they want to put at the heart of “degrowth”. Scarcity, the editors assure us, “is social. Since the stone age we have had more than we need for a basic standard of living.”

The problem is that, instead of staying with our basic individual standards of living and democratically organising how we are going to “waste” the surplus together, for non servile purposes that develop our humanity, we have accumulated and invested the surplus in new technologies that expand production even more. We have thereby grown the capacity of “the economy” to produce ever more until it is threatening the eco-system. At the same time we have privatised and individualised the process of waste making of the surplus. “Given the individualisation of society, single individuals take on the burden of waste through small trade offs: from perverse sexuality to alcoholism, gambling and flashy consumption”. [5]

The alternative then is guaranteeing a modest living for all individuals and socialising “dépense”, the non productive use of society’s surplus.

This is a superficially attractive idea could perhaps alternatively be expressed like this. If we want to stop growing we must stop accumulating productive capital. (Creating more technical devices and infrastructures that convert energy while turning more throughputs into what eventually become larger waste streams). With a modest income most individuals would not have enough to save and any surplus would go to democratic institutions to dispense – though not on anything productive that would grow the economy. According to the editors:

“Our message to the frugal ecologists is that it is better to waste resources in gold decorations in a public building or drink them in a big feast, than put them to good use, accelerating even more the extraction of new resources and the degradation of the environment. It is the only way to escape Jevon’s Paradox. Accumulation drives growth, not waste. Even in a society of frugal subjects with a downscaled metabolism, there will still be a surplus that would have to be dispensed, if growth is not to be reactivated.”

I think that I get the main drift of the argument here but I am not absolutely sure I have understood it fully. This is partly because I am not sure that is meant by the word “energy” – is it the same energy that is actually becoming scarce because of peak oil or is there a looser use of the word? I am also not sure that I have understood partly because there is an implicit psychology under the analysis that I don’t get either. For example, Romano argues that “individualised dépense” does not happen on an adequate scale.

“A large amount of energy remains unused, it continues to circulate and to stress human beings. Lacking tools of deliberate and symbolic catastrophe (i.e. the ritual collective dépense) the inhabitants of growth societies begin to dream them and to desire a ‘real’ catastrophe.”

What is this supposed to mean? Is it supposed to be the same idea as “catharsis”? I don’t understand what this ‘energy’ is that is stressing people and how it is stressing them. However I have tried to guess at what the author means in a conceptual framework that makes sense to me so, once again, here goes with my attempted ‘translation’:

Is this trying to describe a situation where, while people have time on their hands and a wish to do things, they are stressed and frustrated because they don’t actually know what to do with their time and ‘energy’? Is this because they don’t have purposes to give structure and meaning to their lives and to use their personal ‘energy’ on (like the sacred)? Is this what frustrates them? Does it mean that they are frustrated because they have spare time on their hands and they are bored because they don’t have a meaningful “game” to play with their lives? Is this what it is supposed to mean? Does it mean that people need to be able to collectively express the negative feelings that arise out of their bored purposeless – feelings like anger and destructiveness? Does it mean that without collective rituals of destructiveness to which resources must be devoted that they will end up wishing for real catastrophes? Is this, for example, about angry young men (and women) needing rituals like football matches with punch-ups thrown in – because otherwise they will sign up to go and fight for causes and go to war?

What seems to be being said here is not only that dépense is a means to dissipate resources so that they are not accumulated economically but also that dépense has a function in the management of mass emotion. If I have got that right then what is being described here is what therapists call “catharsis” – the release, and therefore relief from, strong emotions which would otherwise be channelled into real destruction.

How do you administer the dépense idea? How do you operationalise it?

If I have understood these ideas correctly then what opens up for me is a huge number of questions. For example how is the social depense to be organised/administered? How is it to be decided, and by whom, what is an acceptable level of basic provision and what is to be destroyed as “excess”? How is “excess” to be identified and then “socialised” prior to its “waste” in a useless fashion? I suppose that by guaranteeing a basic income and a maximum income and then taxing all the rest away that one could say that that rest was “excess” but would the authors really want to spend this excess without any investment whatsoever? For example all buildings as well as other forms of public infrastructure would be depreciating as they always do – should provision be set aside to maintain their upkeep and replacement? “Growth” can happen because when equipment needs replacing and the replacements are “upgrades”. Where does that fit into dépense?

Further to that, what exactly is “dépense sociale”? On the last page the editors give a list of examples – collective feasts, Olympic Games, idle ecosystems, military expenditures and voyages to space and they refer to pressure on democratic and deliberative institutions choosing between these.

I will put aside at this point the question of what an “idle ecosystem” is and raise some other points instead. The implicit faith in the ability of “democratic and deliberative institutions” to be able to stand up to the military industrial complex and prevent it claiming the surplus surprises me. Given the pre-existing power structures it would be very surprising if the idea of individual sobriety and social depense did not to turn into the latest version of bread and circuses. The masses would have, at best, a very basic standard of living while the political elite would organise banquets in honour of the latest head of state, rope everyone into large scale theatrical events with everyone wearing a uniform and carrying torches while they listen to rants from their betters. Alternatively resources could be “wasted” in jolly festivals in which ‘civil people’ (who are obedient) are entertained while those who are disobedient and uncivil, and thus ‘obviously’ the cause of all the problems in society, are put in the centre of ampitheatres and torn apart by lions. This would be wonderfully effective in channelling and managing mass emotions and getting rid of the surplus too. Wouldn’t these qualify as social dépense? They appear to have done in the thinking of George Bataille for whom socialised dépense also included human sacrifices organised by the state in the Aztec empire.

http://image.slidesharecdn.com/happydegrowth1-140122071546-phpapp02/95/happy-degrowth-1-14-638.jpg?cb=1390396617

In conclusion

In conclusion, it seems important to me to know whether Degrowth is a voluntary or an involuntary process and to build that distinction into the vocabulary about it. If it is a voluntary process then certain things follow – like the need to know how it is going to be driven/motivated and administered, at what pace and in what manner, in order to respond to the climate crisis. It is also possible here that even if degrowth is involuntary, because of energy descent, that if it is not fast enough then, once again certain things follow from that about climate policy. As I have argued degrowth could be driven by climate policy by reducing the amount of fossil fuels allowed out of the ground.

To the extent that degrowth is an involuntary process then another set of issues arise – will the society and economy withstand the process without catastrophic breakdowns and what can the many kinds of projects and policies described in this book do to make energy descent a survivable process for the population? A great many people will be finding that their lifestyle packages are severely stressed and breaking apart and this will generate a great deal of fear and ‘negative’ emotions.

Notions like “dépense” are useful for drawing attention to fact that “surplus resources” can be ‘invested’ in things that have consequences for mass emotions and therefore for social stability or conflict. However, one must ask how much “surplus” or excess there will be on the way down given that energy descent is likely to take society through a variety of thresholds and tipping points and be an exceedingly bumpy ride. It is true that to “invest” resources in “capital accumulation” might in theory start the economy growing again – but only if new energy sources were found.

Growth is unlikely in a society where energy inputs are rapidly shrinking. Instead what is needed for the resources that are there is investment in the community level projects and activities which help people cope – an investment directly in the lifeboat projects as I have called them. There is a danger that the rather vague call for “socialised dépense” can be interpreted as a support for state centralisation of the remaining surplus – for the maintenance of remaining resources in the hands of the military, the state bureaucracy and privileged insiders whose claim to maintain “order” in difficult times is also buttressed by the use of resources to display their power and add theatrical embellishment to their authority. I don’t think this would be a very good idea…..

Read the response to this review by Giorgos Kallis, one of the book’s editors

Endnotes

[1] Turner, G. M. (2012). On the Cusp of Collapse. Updated Comparison of the Limits of Growth with historical data. GAIA 21/2 , 116-124.
[2] See my paper produced for Economic De-Growth for Ecological Sustainability and Social Equity, Paris, 18/19th April 2008 at http://events.it-sudparis.eu/degrowthconference/en/themes/ I did not attend this conference because, not being an academic, I could not afford to.
[3] http://www.feasta.org/wp-content/uploads/2013/07/Catastrophic-shock-pandemic2.pdf
[4] footnote on page 5
[5] Onofrio Romano p 88

Featured image: community garden in Denver, Colorado. Author: emerson12. Source: http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:2007_community_garden_DenverCO_787214962.jpg

Suicidal Growth

Off the keyboard of Ray Jason

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Published on The Sea Gypsy Philosopher on December 10, 2013

meteor_shower

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Sailing down the decades, my sweet little boat and I have witnessed some amazing meteor showers while alone at sea. During those nights I always listen to Debussy’s lyrical masterpiece “Reverie,” while lying on my back and marveling at the falling stars. And what makes it even more sublime is being the only human presence in that sector of the planet. It reminds me of how utterly tiny Homo Sapiens is in the grand scheme of things. Unfortunately, back on land the dominant perspective is just the opposite. Humanity considers itself the Grand Actor in the center of the cosmic stage, and Nature is merely the backdrop.

But my almost visceral understanding of just how miniscule our species is, inspires me to view our human project in a radically different manner. Spend as much time alone at sea as I have, and you too might find yourself transformed from being an Accepter to a Questioner. In this essay I will discuss a topic that is almost universally embraced and yet never challenged. That subject is Growth. How can somebody argue against Growth you might wonder? Well, hopefully I can do so calmly and convincingly.

*******

Even a sixth grader understands that infinite growth on a finite planet is impossible. This is not an “economic issue” to be debated. It is an ecological fact that must be addressed. Our planet has limited resources and our survival hinges upon our ability to allocate and preserve them. The two great enemies of sustainability on Earth are Runaway Population Growth and Conspicuous Consumption Growth. Together they are a recipe for biological botulism.

http://isiria.files.wordpress.com/2008/07/overpopulation.jpgPopulation overshoot has been fervently debated ever since Thomas Malthus first introduced it back in 1798. In the 1960s, Paul and Anne Ehrlich reignited the discussion with their cautionary book, THE POPULATION BOMB. The timeline of their predictions did not come true, because they had not foreseen the Green Revolution that massively expanded industrial agriculture. But now food output HAS peaked while population expansion continues to accelerate. So a significant population decrease is essential.

But there is a huge force in the world which will not allow this to happen. That obstacle is Big Religion. The major monotheistic churches want their membership to grow as enormously and rapidly as possible. But they never admit to such selfish motives. Instead, they claim that they are merely following god’s edict that birth control shall be forbidden and that the flock shall go forth and multiply.

If you doubt the truth of this indictment, consider this. If the Catholic Church injunction against birth control is not just designed to increase their enrollment, then they will not object to this suggestion: Let every other child that is born to a Catholic parent be raised as a Muslim. Observe how the church fathers respond to that recommendation, and you will quickly understand that their birth tyranny edicts are not about god’s will, but are instead about increasing their membership and their power.

Another more subtle impact of Big Religion’s dictatorial population stance is how it affects education. There is a direct link between a higher level of education and a lower birth rate. The least educated segments of society tend to be the most religious. And so women who are forbidden by the church to use birth control devices soon become birth increase devices. Since they are burdened with almost constant childbirth, they have little time for education or for the widening of their personal horizons and opportunities. They become slaves to reproduction and to Big Religion.

Besides the bishops and mullahs and rabbis, there are other factors contributing to out of control population growth, and I will deal with them thoroughly in a future essay. But one thing that I can’t emphasize enough is the fact that this issue does not even get discussed in any meaningful way. If you think that bringing up politics and religion is a sure way to derail a conversation in polite company, just interject the issue of population control and notice how almost everyone considers it a taboo subject. And yet overpopulation is a major element – if not THE major factor – in the history of every single civilization that has collapsed.

*******

The second type of growth that is so hazardous to our planet and all of its creatures is our lust for stuff. Although the USA is largely innocent when it comes to causing population problems, it is unmistakably guilty when it comes to promoting rampant consumerism. The American Way of Life is worshipped and imitated around the globe. Through its movies and television and product saturation, the American Empire spreads its own religion with missionary zeal – The Church of the Mall. The message of that gospel is that happiness is achieved by owning things. The corollary to this is that more stuff equals more fulfillment. Embracing such a vapid worldview has dire consequences for the Individual, the Society and the Planet.

For people, it means that values such as the affection of friends, the solidarity of community, the appreciation of beauty are all subordinate to the less meaningful and often endless craving for more stuff. I contend that the world is not better off with cars that talk to us or 671 types of “yogurt products” or phones so expensive that one has to take out a loan to purchase them.

http://www.photosensitive.com/imgs/native-children-happy.jpgMany of my sea gypsy years have been spent in Third World countries. I have carefully observed that there is a direct correlation between personal happiness and owning a lot of things. But it is an inverse relationship. Only 30 yards from where I am now typing, I will often marvel at Indio children playing joyously for hours with just a coconut and a stick. And yet just down the dock, first world kids will be miserable because their electronic game console is not the latest version.

http://www.tophostgames.com/wp-content/uploads/2013/09/kids-playing-violent-video-gamesdo-bad-grades---violent-video-games---violent-kids--greater-good-irfohlij.jpgAside from the damage that insatiable consumption inflicts on the individual, it also has extremely harmful consequences for the larger society. When a person fixates on buying more things and interfacing with more machines, they forget to exercise their power of critical thinking. They are so mesmerized and distracted by the latest iEverything, that they don’t even notice their slide into consumer slavery. A society with a colossal wealth discrepancy between the rich and the poor, with meaningless work that is numbing and degrading and with a tyrannical police/surveillance grid should be cause for code-red alarm. But instead, most people barely notice it because there is an enormous plasma TV in the way.

But our addiction to more and more stuff is not just harmful to individuals and to societies. It is utterly catastrophic to our one and only life-supporting planet. Our constant-growth consumerism pollutes the air, decimates the ocean fish stocks, poisons the rivers and blows away the topsoil.

*******

This combo platter of increasing population growth and unceasing consumer growth is a recipe for societal suicide. Too many people and too much stuff are ravaging all of the support systems that keep us alive. We need breathable air, clean drinkable water, fertile land, plus renewable and non-renewable resources. But we are decreasing all of these vital necessities and at the same time we are increasing all of the waste products that our excesses are generating. This cannot end well! But it CAN end horribly!

 

P.S. For excellent information on how to steadily decrease population without coercion, visit Bill Ryerson’s site www.populationmedia.org. He has nobly dedicated 40 years of his life to this unpopular cause.

 

How to Avoid Being Eaten Alive

Off the keyboard of Jason Heppenstall

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Published on 22 Billion Energy Slaves on December 4, 2013

cannibals

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This last week I have had my eyes and ears assaulted every time I suffered accidental exposure to the mainstream media. It’s easy enough to ignore radio and television, but the internet is a different kettle of fish, and it was mostly via this that I learned about two major new consumer events that we are expected to partake in. The first is Black Friday. First came the emails telling me that certain bargains could be had on this auspicious date. Then came the overheard snatches of radio, and finally, last Friday, the internet went into fever pitch talking about this ‘Black Friday’.

But what is it? Neither I nor anyone else I spoke to had heard of it before. You probably already know. It’s when Americans, stuffed to the gills with undigested turkey and various chemical pseudo foods, fight one another to buy cheap Chinese junk on credit. People are often injured and sometimes killed in the melees that ensue – and now our political and media overlords would like us to get involved in the action too – cue a million and one ‘Black Friday’ adverts.

As if that weren’t enough, people barely had time to rip through the semi-impenetrable plastic packaging on their junk before Cyber Monday was upon us! Yesterday was the day when we were being urged not to even bother getting off our backsides to fight other consumers – we could do it all online! Cue a million and one Cyber Monday adverts.

Does this all sound just a little bit desperate? If it does then I’m afraid you’re in the minority because the UK is ‘booming’ don’t you know. Personal credit has now expanded to record levels, manufacturing is ‘on track’, the stock market is thrusting through the upper atmosphere and once again people are treating their houses like giant brick boxes that defecate bundles of cash. “Greed is good,” says the mayor of London and “Greens are evil,” says the “environment minister”. It’s like the 1980s all over again but without the shoulder pads.

What’s more, the season of uber Consumption is upon us. One recent newspaper op-ed I spotted opined “Chistmas is that exciting time when everyone gets to find out which new Apple product has been sitting under the tree for the last month.” It wasn’t even said in mirth – it was a serious article.

Really?

Perhaps it’s time for a dose of reality. Here are some random unscientific off-message things I noticed recently:

  • UK personal debt is now so high that if it were £10 notes stapled together end to end they would stretch to the Moon and back 26 times 
  • The Nobel winning economist Nouriel Roubini has noticed that big scary housing bubbles are popping up in all the usual places – two years later than practically everyone else whose blogs are listed down the right hand side of this page
  • Our government is selling everything that is not nailed down. To the Chinese. Or anyone with cash, really. They just sold the 500 year-old Royal Mail postal service. Kerching! And the future of our energy supply. Kerching! Today they are selling 40% of their Eurotunnel holding. Kerching! The (amazingly good – for now) National Health Service will be next. Double kerching! They are even selling our pig semen to the Chinese. Kerching!
  • Food poverty has reached a ‘public health emergency’ level. In my area alone a woman has set up a soup kitchen and the soup is made from the leftovers of perfectly good food that has been thrown out by supermarkets
  • The Royal Bank of Scotland has become a predatory asset stripper and is forcing small companies to go bust so that it can liquidise them and sell the assets to prop up its own ailing balance sheets
  • The once-proud Cooperative Bank, admired for its ethics, has been taken over by a couple of US hedge funds. They insist they will still be ‘ethical’ and anyone who believes this is welcome to send me £20 in the (privatised) mail which I promise I will donate to good causes

Just one word floats to the top of my consciousness when I read and hear about these things on a daily basis: cannibalism. Although probably an early non-pc slur on the good character of the Carib people, cannibalism is defined as “The act or practice of other humans eating the flesh or internal organs of other humans.”

Okay, so outside the occasional gruesome story about real-life cannibalism, usually involving mild-mannered basement-owning Belgians, there probably isn’t much actual munching of human flesh going on as we speak. But elements of this human society and economy that we have constructed seem to be doing a very good impression of it. As the ability to make an honest profit out of anything recedes into the rearview mirror, how else can a profit be made? The material limits to growth have been reached and we have done our damnedest to pretend this isn’t so. We have predated upon other continents in the form of invasions and colonisations, predated upon the biosphere of the planet by way of industrialism and consumer culture and various other isms and we have predated upon the next several dozen generations by building up huge financial and ecological debts. Who else is there to predate upon?

Yes, there are still a few resources to plunder that haven’t been converted to cash and toxic waste yet. Just by raising my head I can look out over the bay and see the occasional beam trawler coming back into port after several days at sea catching and killing every life form that happens to have ended up in its nets. And there are still large portions of the rain forests not yet monetised – just as there are still oil wells to exploit and people who have yet to be enslaved by free trade deals.

But the fact of the matter remains, as the tide goes out not all boats fall equally. Those in power – let us call them the core – quite like the position they are in and have no desire to relinquish it. Nothing surprising there given our genetic lineage, you try grabbing a chunk of recently killed meat out of the hands of a wild chimp and see how he reacts. To keep our elite in the manner that they are used to means that, just like the slave traders of yore, they need to figuratively sell us down the river. Which is why the prime minister David Cameron and a bunch of his favourite corporate lobbyists are in China (again).

I don’t know about you but the sight of a bunch of grinning semi-elected toffs, who claim to represent the interests of the British people, shaking hands with Chinese billionaires and gibbering on about nuclear waste and pig spunk has put me right off my breakfast (hold the bacon). And you’d at least think the Chinese would be happy with all this free money and pork juice; maybe they are, but this is what they really think of us, according to the China Global Times:

“The UK is highly replaceable in China’s Europe diplomacy. The UK is no longer any so-called ‘big country’; it is an old European country suitable for travel and study abroad with a few good football teams.”

Ouch! The truth hurts, doesn’t it? I’m not even sure they are right about the football teams either, because they run on foreign money.

So, selling as much as we can for short term gain but very long-term misery to the currently cash-rich Chinese for a fistful of remninbi is now government policy. But the real pot boiling comes in the form of what they are doing on the three fronts that matter most: energy, food and health. This can be summarised as follows:

Backing the wrong energy horses and hobbling the right ones. The guvmint will only consider energy projects if large sums of money can be made out of them by corporations. The more technical, complex and centralised the better. Hence our ‘new nuclear century’. We will apparently need 30 new nuclear power stations in the next seven years if we are to avoid the lights going off. Of course, this is never going to happen, and given that the prime minister has said he wants to ‘get rid of the green crap’ it’s unlikely that renewable energy is going to be anything other than a punch bag.

Meanwhile, healthcare is being gutted. The NHS is a remarkable system and whenever I encounter it I am always impressed by the dedication of the doctors and nurses – but it’s also a product of the oil age. It’s already creaking and groaning like a geriatric lady who has fallen out of her hospital bed and the last thing it needs is a bunch of idealogical bovver boys putting the boot in as it writhes on the ward floor. What’s more, the NHS is infected with superbugs who suck off the system in the form of huge consultancy fees like some kind of blood sucking parasite. Given a bit more time we might indeed be returning to an earlier form of blood-sucking medicinal practice: leeches.

And food. The conquest of the supermarkets is complete and they have managed to obliterate every last high street (the few shops that survive only do so because of the diehard group of prescient people who refuse to shop in supermarkets) and given everyone the impression that the only way food can be delivered to your plate is in a vast truck that has travelled hundreds if not thousand of miles. The supermarkets are now thankfully cannibalising one another – my local (smallish) town of Penzance now has nine of the beasts. Something’s gotta give.

So what do you do if your government is selling off the state’s assets, building a future famine machine and placing explosive nuclear detonators around your homeland? One option is just to give in. Abandon modern life as a bad idea, take off all your clothes and walk back into the sea like Reginald Perrin (see picture above which Blogger refuses to place in the correct narrative spot).

Admittedly this does hold some appeal, but a far more practical action would be to stop allowing negativity to overwhelm you and get on with creating an alternative reality. I’m a believer that actions speak louder than words. Words, of course, speak louder than thoughts, and thoughts have their uses too – so an ideal approach would involve all three: actions, words and thought.

Angels and Demons

All of us have some control over our lives. Sometimes it may not feel like it, but it is, in fact, true. Here’s an exercise. Turn off the TV, radio, computer and the microchip implanted in your brain by Google and get a piece of paper and a pencil. At the centre of the piece of paper draw a circle that represents yourself (or a square, if you’re a technologist). Down one side of the page write up a list of Demons. These are the things that want to put you in their cannibal pot, broil the flesh off your bones and eat you up with a helping of barbecue sauce. They are the negative things in your life and the things that hold you back from the goal of having a positive effect on the world (a goal which also tends to make you a happy, balanced person too). You can be inventive here and your list might look something like this – although it can be as long as you like:

Demons

  • The Job Centre staff are always insulting my intelligence
  • I can’t stop smoking
  • I get migraines
  • I have negative thoughts that keep me awake at night
  • The government is trying to destroy everything and it depresses me
  • My unscrupulous landlord is like a toad squatting on my life – he stores broken down washing machines in the bathroom because he can’t be bothered to move them
When you have made a list of Demons, make a list of Angels i.e. things that you are grateful for. This can go down the other side of the page and might include:Angels
  • I love walking in the local woods
  • I’m fascinated by taking things to bits to see how they work
  • My parents are very supportive of me
  • The memory of watching the sunset in Spain with my ex-girlfriend, drinking a glass of delicious red wine eating some amazing smoked ham still inspires me

Now the crucial bit. List the things that you have control over in your life – the things that you can use to better your position and achieve the goal of happiness by integrating the patterns with your life with the natural rhythms of nature. Why integrate with the natural rhythms of nature? – because that’s all you can rely on in this life, and it’s also hugely satisfying and won’t contribute to destroying the ecosystem that surrounds you. You can voluntarily limit the parameters of your physical life to tie in with the solar energy budget that is provided free of charge to every organism on this planet. The cost is very little but the rewards are potentially unlimited.

To start with you might not have a very long list, but write down the factors and objects you have control over and draw a line from the circle at the middle of the page to each one. Here are some examples of things you might have control over:

Control

  • Your health
  • Plenty of free time (you are unemployed because your degree turned out to be worthless)
  • A battered 1986 Ford Fiesta
  • Your desire to lead a better life
  • A box of tools someone is giving away on Freecycle
  • A rented flat in a poor part of Birmingham
  • An Amazon gift voucher from your aunt

One could look upon this as a pretty sorry state of affairs, no?

Or, viewed another way, perhaps it is a chance to buy a book on washing machine mechanics, learn how to gut them of electronics and re-tool them to run on lower tech for a salvage industrial future and in the process create a niche career (with great prospects) that will no doubt launch you on a path that may well end up in 20 years’ time with you owning a piece of forest land with a straw bale-built workshop on it where you and your two grateful apprentices, who happen to be your own teenage children, fix up broken consumer era products as large spotted pigs roam around outside (quality, acorn fed smoked ham, produced in mini-smoke houses bodged from some scrap office filing cabinets is one of your several other lines of income) and a small hand-carved wind turbine sits on the roof trickle feeding a battery that you and your lovely wife (who was attracted to you because of your positive attitude to life) use for lights and music in the evenings as you both enjoy a glass of home-brewed elderberry wine and a morsel of your choicest smoked ham.

Which situation would you prefer?

The point of exercises like these are to focus the mind on what, realistically, we are able to control, and what we can do with that to achieve a better life. Anyone who begins to think in this manner stands a much better chance of weathering the substantial chaos heading our way as the financial and ecological screws tighten more and more. At its essence is the recognition that the industrial system that delivers shiny new products to us as if by magic every Black Friday is not going to continue forever. And when it winds down completely the majority of people are going to realise that they have a very long list of Demons down one side of their page, scant few Angels (except, perhaps, fond memories of Cyber Monday 2013) and very few things that they can realistically claim to have control over.

Translate thoughts into actions and take back the control before it is too late. Don’t put it off – the clock is ticking!

Black Friday Melee

Off the keyboard of Mr. Roboto

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Published on Domo Arigato, Mr. Roboto on November 30, 2013

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http://1.bp.blogspot.com/-pXSNVVVQz6Q/T2ZIV0gH9JI/AAAAAAAAWms/kxjEWjagJ3A/s1600/thereturnofthearchonshd330.jpgThere have been reports of inappropriate behavior at stores and shopping centers on Black Friday in the past, but this is the first time there has been a nationwide wave of consumer-driven violence on the day after Thanksgiving reminiscent of the Festival from the old “Star Trek” episode “The Return Of The Archons”. And if you think I’m exaggerating, keep in mind that there have been reports of shootings and stabbings attending this madness.

Now, everybody who isn’t being an ostrich with their head in the sand (and in the USA, that isn’t very many folks at all, really) knows that we’re heading toward a collapse of some kind. Exactly what form it will take and when it will happen is not for me to say. But some kind of mass-reversal of American society’s fortunes is on the horizon from environmental degradation, resource depletion, and financial over-exploitation. The form and severity of any such event will always and inevitably be shaped by the moral condition of the society in question. This Black Friday 2013 ugliness has really driven home for me that there is no hope whatsoever for our society. If anything good emerges on the other side of collapse, it will be because what’s left of society in the aftermath will renounce everything that we are as of this writing as a consequence. But before that? The big meltdown will be massively ugly. Thinking about that made it hard for me to remain asleep last night.

The new pope seems to be in agreement with me, as he recently penned an apostolic exhortation warning that the “tyranny of capitalism” is propelling all towards “disintegration and death”. Right-wing know-it-all blowhards such as Rush Limbaugh have predictably slammed Pope Francis’s critique as “pure Marxism”, but one doesn’t need the ideological shackles of Marxist doctrine to realize what is becoming increasingly apparent.

For instance, there’s the financial crisis of 2008 from which we never really recovered, and the consequences of which are merely being held at bay with unsustainable financial gimmickry such as the Zero Interest Rate Policy and everlasting Quantitative Easing. What brought this about was an orgy of greed and corruption driven both by shady financiers and consumers eager to use their houses as an ATM for fueling their out-of-control consumption. There’s the fact that the ability of the planet to sustain life is being dealt body-blow after body-blow. Everybody knows about global warming, even if they’re in denial about it. But how many people know that the oceans are dying? For pity’s sake, the oceans are where life on this planet began!

But this Black Friday ugliness really draws a big red circle around the fact that it isn’t just the big capitalists and corrupt politicians who are to blame for the mess we’re facing. It’s ordinary people who don’t know any better who are a big reason why nothing has changed despite how obvious it has been for so long that something must change if we are to avoid a very nasty collision with some very severe consequences. This Black Friday ugliness is a good example of why our collective foot is going to remain on the proverbial gas-pedal right up until this collision occurs. There’s no point in being bitter about it because being bitter has never helped anything. But I must confess to being more than a little alarmed, dismayed, and yes, downright afraid.

The Black Friday Konsumer Orgy

Off the keyboard of Michael Snyder

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Published on Economic Collapse on November 29, 2013

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Black Friday: A Shameful Orgy Of Materialism For A Morally Bankrupt Nation

Black Friday It has been called “America’s most disturbing holiday”.  Black Friday is the day when millions of average Americans wait outside retail stores in the middle of the night in the freezing cold to spend more money that they do not have for more cheap Chinese-made products that they do not need.  It is a day when the rest of the world makes fun of Americans for behaving like “rabid animals” and “zombies” as we indulge in a tsunami of greed.  It truly is a shameful orgy of materialism for a morally bankrupt nation.  It is being projected that approximately 140 million Americans will participate in this disgusting national ritual this year.  Sadly, most of them have absolutely no idea that they are actively participating in the destruction of the economic infrastructure of the United States.  If you don’t understand why this is true, please be sure to read this entire article all the way to the end.

The amount of merchandise that is purchased on Black Friday is absolutely staggering.  For example, just consider how much stuff is sold at Wal-Mart alone

Wal-Mart said it recorded more than 10 million register transactions between 6 p.m. and 10 p.m. Thursday in its stores and nearly 400 million page views that day on walmart.com. It sold 2.8 million towels, 2 million televisions, 1.4 million tablets, 300,000 bicycles and 1.9 million dolls. Big-ticket electronics like big-screen TVs and new videogame consoles were among the top sellers.

But each and every year, Black Friday also seems to bring out the worst in many people, and this year was certainly no exception.  The following are just a few of the national headlines about the rioting and the violence that we witnessed…

-“Holiday shopping season kicks off with fights, arrests

-“Violence flares as shoppers slug it out for best Black Friday deals

-“Watch Screaming Mobs Fight Over Televisions At Wal-Mart

-“Two Arrested After Stabbing Over Parking Space At Wal-Mart

-“Rialto Walmart Thanksgiving brawl sends one police officer to hospital

-“Walmart Ejects Customer For Filming Violent ‘Black Thursday’ Mobs

-“Cops: Shoplifting suspect shot after dragging officer

And sometimes the violence extends out into the parking lots and into the surrounding neighborhoods.  In Las Vegas, a man that was carrying a big-screen television home from Target was shot in the leg…

According to police, a man purchased a big-screen television from the Target store near Flamingo Rd. and Maryland Pkwy. While he was walking to a nearby apartment complex, a man approached and fired a warning shot, causing the victim to drop the television, police said.

Officers tell 8 News NOW the gunman then took the television to a nearby car that was waiting, where a second man helped the gunman load the TV into the car.

The victim approached the two men and tried to get the television back. That prompted the gunman to fire several more rounds, shooting the victim in the leg.

Every year I go over to YouTube to check out the madness that breaks out on Black Friday night all over the nation.  Posted below is the best compilation video from Black Friday that I could find.  In particular, I love how this video compares American shoppers to zombies…

And there is one more video that I wanted to share with you.  In this video, activist Mark Dice dresses up like Santa Claus and mocks Black Friday shoppers for being “parasites” and for ruining Thanksgiving…

Meanwhile, as retail stores all over America actively encourage this zombie-like behavior, police are actually cracking down on other groups of Americans that are actively trying to make this country a better place.  For example, a Christian group in Lake Worth, Florida was kicked out of a public park for trying to feed the homeless on Thanksgiving.  Of course this kind of thing happens all the time.  In fact, dozens of major cities all over the country have now passed laws that make it illegal to feed the homeless.  For much more on this, please see my previous article entitled “One Lawmaker Is Literally Smashing The Belongings Of The Homeless With A Sledgehammer“.

At the beginning of this article, I stated that those who go shopping on Black Friday “are actively participating in the destruction of the economic infrastructure of the United States”.

How could that possibly be?

Aren’t they helping the economy by spending their money?

Actually, it isn’t that simple.

Just think about it for a moment.  Where are most of the “advertised specials” that people go crazy over on Black Friday actually made?

If you guessed “China”, you would be correct.  In fact, it is very difficult to find any “Black Friday specials” that are actually made in the United States.

When you buy stuff made in China, you support workers and businesses in China.  As I mentioned in a recent article, the U.S. economy loses approximately 9,000 jobs for every 1 billion dollars of goods that are imported from overseas.

Overall, the U.S. has run a total trade deficit with the rest of the world of more than 8 trillion dollars since 1975.

So when you look around and see lots of unemployed people, it should not be a surprise to you.

Right now, the labor force participation rate is at a 35-year-low and more than 102 million working age Americans do not have a job.  That number has increased by 27 million just since the year 2000.

Because the American people are not supporting American businesses, our formerly great manufacturing cities are being transformed into rotting, festering hellholes.  Just take a look at Detroit.  At one time Detroit had the highest per capita income in the entire nation, but now it is a dying, bankrupt ghost town.

And of course this is happening to manufacturing cities all over the nation.  Since 2001, more than 56,000 manufacturing facilities in the U.S. have permanently shut down and we have lost millions upon millions of good paying manufacturing jobs.

Back in the 1980s, more than 20 percent of the jobs in the United States were manufacturing jobs.  Today, only about 9 percent of the jobs in the United States are manufacturing jobs.

Good job America.  And the following are some more facts from one of my previous articles about how our massively bloated trade deficit is absolutely killing our economy…

-There are less Americans working in manufacturing today than there was in 1950 even though the population of the country has more than doubled since then.

-Back in 1950, more than 80 percent of all men in the United States had jobs.  Today, less than 65 percent of all men in the United States have jobs.

-When NAFTA was pushed through Congress in 1993, the United States had a trade surplus with Mexico of 1.6 billion dollars.  By 2010, we had a trade deficit with Mexico of 61.6 billion dollars.

-Back in 1985, our trade deficit with China was approximately 6 million dollars (million with a little “m”) for the entire year.  In 2012, our trade deficit with China was 315 billion dollars.  That was the largest trade deficit that one nation has had with another nation in the history of the world.

-According to the Economic Policy Institute, America is losing half a million jobs to China every single year.

-According to Professor Alan Blinder of Princeton University, 40 million more U.S. jobs could be sent offshore over the next two decades if current trends continue.

Unfortunately, most Americans never stop to think about what happens when we buy stuff from China.

When we buy stuff from them, our money goes over there.

At this point, they are sitting on trillions of our dollars and they have purchased more than a trillion dollars of our debt.

Up until now, Chinese demand for our dollars has helped keep the value of the U.S. dollar artificially high.  This is one of the reasons why Wal-Mart can sell you those Chinese imports so inexpensively.

And up until now, Chinese demand for our debt has helped keep long-term interest rates artificially low.  So the U.S. government has been able to borrow money at ridiculously low interest rates and U.S. home buyers have been able to get mortgage rates that are well below the real rate of inflation.

But no irrational state of affairs ever lasts indefinitely, and the Chinese recently announced that they are going to quit stockpiling U.S. dollars.  Many analysts believe that this means that the Chinese will soon stop stockpiling U.S. debt as well.

So enjoy those super cheap “Black Friday specials” while they last.  That era is rapidly coming to an end.

Now that the Chinese have stolen tens of thousands of our businesses, millions of our jobs and trillions of our dollars, perhaps they feel that there is not much more looting to be done.  Our economic infrastructure has been essentially gutted at this point.  Moving forward, China can afford to let the value of the U.S. dollar fall and the value of their own currency rise because even Barack Obama admits that “those jobs are never coming back”.

And every single American that went shopping on Black Friday and bought Chinese-made goods actively participated in the ongoing destruction of the U.S. economy.

Good job America.  You are a nation that is utterly consumed by materialism and greed, and you don’t even realize that you are destroying yourself with your own foolishness.

Chained to the Cross

Off the keyboard of Ray Jason

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Published on The Sea Gypsy Philosopher on November 8, 2013

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AVENTURA at anchorThere is no calendar aboard AVENTURA, and I often lose track of what day it is. Actually, down here – south of many borders – the seasons are so similar to each other, that I often lose track of what month it is! But I always know when it is Sunday. That’s because a veritable armada of cayucos will stream by my boat on their way to church.

A few weeks ago one passed very close, and as always, I waved with neighborly enthusiasm. Seven or eight of the kids waved back just as vigorously. But there was one young, teen-aged girl who responded differently. Apparently she had never been so close to one of these sailing boats, and she studied it carefully. I watched her gaze drift from bow to stern and then from the waterline to the top of the mast. Then she noticed my boat’s name which is the Spanish word for “adventure.”

With the cayuco only 10 feet away, I delighted in seeing her happy smile as visions of travel, freedom and exotic elsewhere’s danced in her head. But swiftly her face changed, and I witnessed something that a man in his Middle Years never wishes to see in the eyes of someone so young. As she looked directly up at me, I watched as her youthful joy was suffocated by despair. There was surrender in that look – the realization that her dreams for a life that could cross over the borders of her birth, might never be achieved.

This experience touched me so deeply that I created this little story, which tries to depict what she is experiencing at this threshold moment in her life. And even if this tale is not accurate in the case of this young woman, it surely is for someone else her age – and probably for many, many others out there who also feel caged by the circumstances of their birth.

 

*******

 

I will name her Dolores, which is the Spanish word for “sadness.” She was the second born of 8 children. As is often the case, in an effort to keep up with her older brother, she tended to be tomboyish. If he could row the cayuco across the bay in 20 minutes, she would try to do it in 18 minutes. If he caught 4 fish she would strive for 6. But one thing that they did not compete in was sea turtles. They both loved the big creatures, and would drift for hours amongst them in their little native canoe.

http://1.bp.blogspot.com/_B12ademvvek/THbbjHJ4FPI/AAAAAAAAARE/OnD_U2rAtyo/s1600/Turtle2BabiesReturning.jpgFor her 10th birthday, her father took her on a turtle-watching trip at a remote beach. As the female labored most of the night laying her eggs and covering them in the sandy nest, the volunteers quietly explained to Dolores the entire process including how the tiny hatchlings will have to race down the beach to the safety of the sea as predator birds and animals attack them.

It was a momentous night in her young life. Besides being inquisitive about the mother turtle, Dolores asked the volunteers many questions about their lives and their dedication to these animals. She learned that a person had to be at least 18 years old and very carefully trained before they could qualify to be turtle beach monitors. She also discovered that some of them were studying marine biology with a specialty in sea turtles. Dolores felt a bit like her beloved turtles that night. She sensed that she had stuck her head out of her own shell and glimpsed her future.

At school she found a helpful teacher who encouraged her and brought her books and magazine articles about the turtles of the sea. The more she learned, the more she wanted to know. Could it be that one day she could go to university and become a marine biologist and then travel the world studying and helping these gentle animals?

 

*******

 

And now at 13 years old, her family cayuco is passing beside AVENTURA. My sweet, little boat is the perfect symbol for all that she seeks in life. But it is not just a fairy tale illusion. It is a real thing – tangible evidence that people can voyage to strange new lands, see unusual creatures and savor exotic adventures. And it lives where the turtles live – in the sea.

As her cayuco heads across the bay to the chapel, the young girl pivots and looks back at the lovely AVENTURA once more. Even from 30 yards away I can sense her longing and her sad resignation. She is headed to church, which is supposed to be a joyous and liberating experience. But Dolores is wise beyond her years, and she understands that it does not emancipate her – it enslaves and crushes her.

Yet, even though she intuitively recognizes this, she cannot possibly imagine how masterfully the church orchestrates this. For over 20 centuries they have perfected their subtle incarceration methods so brilliantly that the prisoners barely realize that they are captives. Allow me to explain how profoundly and malevolently they dominate so many lives around the world.

Here in Latin America, when a baby is born, it is extremely likely that it will be designated as a Catholic child. A few weeks later a baptismal ceremony further reinforces this status. As the little one finds its way in the world it receives loving guidance from its parents. It learns that fire and snakes and lightning are dangerous. And it is also taught that mangoes ripe from the tree and fish fresh from the sea are delicious. A bond of sublime trust is formed between parent and child. So when these adults, who have provided so much helpful knowledge about how the world works, also teach it that religion is a good thing, why would the youngster not believe the parents?

And this is further reinforced by the pageantry of the religious services. Things are different inside the church. It is quieter and solemn and reverent. The kids aren’t running around wildly, and the person at the front wears very unusual clothes. He gives some sort of fancy speech that the adults all follow carefully. Afterwards the grown-ups behave as if something important has happened.

So if the child’s parents say that religion is a good thing and if the ceremony at the church is so extraordinary, then it is natural for the kids to accept their place in the flock. And the term “flock” is appropriate here – for the church controls them as thoroughly as a shepherd dominates his sheep.

http://what-buddha-said.net/Pics/hell.n4.jpgThe keystone of the church’s indoctrination is the concept of hell. The young people are relentlessly warned that if they do certain things they will suffer grotesque agony for all of eternity. Most of the “sins” that will condemn a person to this horrible fate are irrelevant to typical kids. After all, they are not going to murder someone or worship false idols or rob the local bank. But as soon as they reach puberty, they get hammered by a Catholic edict that they barely knew even existed. Thou shalt not use birth control.

After the epiphany that Dolores experienced on the beach with the mother turtle, she realized that her desired path in life was different from most of her peers. Although there was much charm in her Indio village life, her dreams swept towards the far horizon. She wanted to venture beyond the boundaries of her birthplace, and embrace the wider world. To achieve this she would need to succeed in both high school and university.

Just when Dolores was recognizing this, she noticed that many of the girls just a few years older than her were suddenly dropping out of high school and having babies. When she asked them why they didn’t wait a little longer until they finished school, they confessed that the pleasure of sex was so extraordinary that they couldn’t restrain themselves. And since the almighty church insisted that if they used birth control they would burn in hell for a million years, they had risked unwanted pregnancies because sexual passion can be so overpowering.

Because Dolores had not yet reached puberty, she convinced herself that she could forego sexual desire in order to fulfill her dreams. But when those potent universal yearnings started to pulse through her young body, she too felt herself being swept along. She went to her mother seeking guidance. Why can’t a person enjoy the wonders of sex without having to risk bringing an unwanted child into the world? Since her mom had never questioned such things herself, her only response was, “…because the church says so, and they know what’s best.”

But with the exquisite vision of her future blurring and darkening before her eyes, that answer was not good enough for Dolores. So she asked the teacher who had been so helpful to her, if there wasn’t some other way, some other option? As an instructor in a Catholic school, the sympathetic teacher hesitated, but then decided to answer truthfully. She told her bright young student – so overflowing with curiosity about life and the world – that there was another way. She explained that there are reliable and affordable methods of birth control as close as the nearest drug store. And she added that millions and millions of people around the world use them without fear or guilt, because they have not been told that by doing so they will burn forever in hell.

And then the confused young student said, “But if the church cares about us so much, why would it destroy my dreams for the future – my simple dreams that harm no one and can help the turtles?”

The good teacher paused and looked Dolores in the eyes, “Your question is a just and sensible one, but the answer is very complicated. Anything I say will probably confuse you even more. But in only a few more years you will discover the answer for yourself. And it will be much more powerful and valuable to you because you found it on your own!”

 

*******

 

It was only a few days after that conversation with her beloved teacher that Dolores passed by AVENTURA in the family cayuco headed for church. Had I known the source of the anguish that was so clearly visible in her eyes, I might have shouted out something like this:

The church does not care about you, Dolores. It seeks only to further its own power and interests. Witness how its birth control rules crush your dreams and force you down a life path that you do not desire. Ignore the church. It is a dictatorship that wants to dominate your heart and your mind and your body. Cast it off like a scorpion on a shoe, and race out into that wide world that beckons to you so powerfully. Listen to the murmurings within you. They are the voices of our race and the echoes of the centuries. They will serve you well.”

Enslaved by Our Stuff

Off the keyboard of Ray Jason

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Published on The Sea Gypsy Philosopher on October 29, 2013

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We were still … and we were solitary. The wind had been mute for two days. Our only companions were our brethren in the sea and the sky. No other human presence disturbed this deep blue mirror, stretching to the horizon. AVENTURA and I were becalmed but content.

I rigged a shade awning and went below for a cold drink. My tiny refrigerator is powered by a solar panel. A cold young coconut was awaiting me. I opened it with my machete, inserted a straw and savored it beneath the awning. My back rested against the mast and my thoughts drifted as aimlessly and contentedly as my boat. Gradually, the word “contentment” inspired a meditation on what I consider one of the great curses of the modern world … Stuff.

 

*******

 

We have been led to believe that acquiring more stuff bequeaths us greater freedom and happiness. I heartily disagree, and to support my position I will call three wise men as witnesses. Here is Thoreau’s opinion on the subject: “A man is rich in direct proportion to the number of things that he can live without.” Mark Twain had an apt quote on the issue as well: “We have turned a thousand useless luxuries into necessities.” And Bertrand Russell was even more emphatic with this quotation: “It is our preoccupation with possessions, more than anything else that prevents us from living freely and nobly.”

http://www.mommybrainreports.com/wp-content/uploads/2011/01/walmart-renovates2.jpgIn other words, we are enslaved by our stuff! And it is more insidious and malignant than traditional slavery, because we are not forced to submit to this enslavement, we voluntarily do so. Materialism has become the true worldwide religion. If most people were told that for the rest of their lives they could only go to either the church or the mall, which would they select? They would choose the Temple of Shopping.

What makes this situation even more tragic is that our worship of stuff is not just some innocent, unavoidable human trait. Almost any anthropologist who has spent time amongst the 85 or so indigenous tribes, who still survive far from the tentacles of industrial-techno civilization, will verify that there is an amazing lack of private property amongst these (misnamed) primitives. They possess very little stuff, and much of what they do have is communally shared. So, the greed for things, which consumes modern humanity, is not intrinsic to our nature, it is manipulated into us.

And the exploiters who condemn us to the treadmill of “more, more and still more,” do not do this benevolently. Their motive is to further enrich themselves and to increase their control over us. Does the concept of “planned obsolescence” profit the makers of the products or does it benefit the consumers of these items? After you have answered that obvious question, step back a bit further and ponder how we have allowed ourselves to be reduced to the status of “consumers.”

Our culture programs us so thoroughly and yet so subtly that we do not even perceive our captivity. Just as the fish is unaware of the water that it is immersed in, humanity is unmindful of the severity of its enslavement. Certainly the desperately poor in the world realize that they are captives to the daily struggle for survival, but the more well-to-do have also lost much of their freedom. Consider this downward human trajectory:

http://3.bp.blogspot.com/-R43PIRYz4x4/Tww5KnStd_I/AAAAAAAAAlE/5E07QmoFlc4/s1600/human-evolution-go-back.jpgOur hunter/gatherer ancestors survived independently for over a hundred thousand years using their amazing physical and mental powers in a fairly hostile world. When they encountered a mirror-like pond, they could look at their reflection and see a strong, lithe, smart, human animal that could fend for itself and protect its tribe.

But with the advent of agriculture came the ascension of rulers and priests. These ruthless manipulators swiftly recognized that in order to exploit the human animal, they would need to domesticate it. A person that could feed, clothe, shelter and protect herself or himself, would not consent to subjugation. So the rulers imposed dependency through division of labor. The hide tanner relied on the barley grower who needed the well digger who depended on the tool-maker. Life became compartmentalized and the subtle slavery began.

Shortly after that came a further diminishing of the wondrous, free, and empowered human animal. This arrived with the imposition of political boundaries. People were now designated as Assyrians or Egyptians or Babylonians. Next, came the religious divisions which further reduced human autonomy. So the wild, independent, almost feral, human animal had now been domesticated so thoroughly that they had morphed into a citizen and a churchgoer. What a sad and pathetic degradation.

And as the human caravan continues down the centuries, rulers and priests still dominate us. They constantly rein in our independence as they transform us into serfs or slaves or soldiers or salesmen. And now, without even realizing it, we are suffocating beneath the ultimate indignation. We have been degraded so profoundly that we don’t even cringe when we are called consumers. Step out of the cultural programming bubble and contemplate that. On the one luxuriant planet amongst millions of dead ones, we are the most highly-evolved species, and yet we spend our brief time here … SHOPPING. This is insanely tragic and repellant. It is also why the few dozen hunter/gatherer tribes still in existence, feel sorry for us. And why they do not wish to adopt our “civilized” ways.

 

*******

 

The mandate to “buy, buy and buy some more” is so all-pervasive in our society that it is difficult to even notice it much less escape it. But emancipation IS possible. Through the help of Thoreau, Twain and Russell, I managed to liberate myself. Perhaps, as homage to these wise ones, I can help a few of you to unshackle yourselves. Settle in for a few minutes and let me acquaint you with some of the Evils of Materialism that the consumer culture cheerleaders never mention:

  • WE ARE NOT OUR STUFF – People who wish to get rich by selling us things that we do not need, try to convince us that unless we purchase the hot new item we will be conspicuously inferior to our peers. They are trying to manipulate us into the belief that a person’s character corresponds to the size of their stuff-pile. Things become status symbols. Because my car is pricier than yours, then I am a better person. But only an advertizing-addled fool believes that. For the most successful accumulators of stuff are usually the most ambitious, immoral and ruthless members of society. Almost everyone knows in their heart of hearts that the qualities that are the true measure of a person’s worth have nothing to do with stuff. Character traits like wisdom, compassion, serenity, humor and subtlety of mind will always surpass garish mansions and shiny cars.
  • STUFF-LESS HAPPINESS – I have fewer things than almost anybody I know, and yet on a day-to-day basis, I am happier than almost anybody I know. In fact when people visit my boat for the first time there is often an awkward silence as their eyes glance around the cabin. Then they will sheepishly ask, “Ray, where’s all your stuff?” My honest answer is that indeed, I am poor in stuff, but I am rich in time, friendship, health, adventure, freedom, relaxation, travel, etc. This perspective is reinforced as I watch the nearby Indio kids play joyously with just a stick and a coconut, while the ex-pat kids are cursing at their electronic games because their batteries are low.
  • CONSUMERS VERSUS THINKERS – Those who have gained control of any society do not want the vast majority of the people to engage in critical thinking. If the population did so, they would no longer tolerate the obscene wealth disparity or the ever-growing police/surveillance grid or a reverse Robin Hood economy that robs the poor to give to the Wall Street rich. So the citizenry must be distracted and placated. Stuff is the opiate that the Elites use to defuse any rebellious tendencies. Give them gigantic plasma TVs and iEverythings and the latest violent video game, and they can control them like two-legged sheep.
  • STUFF STRANGLES INTEGRITY – When I was in Vietnam I often tried to unravel the mystery of how anyone could invent Napalm and still live with himself. It took me decades to realize that even that horrendous depravity was connected to our worship of stuff. The thinking runs like this: Since everyone else has nice houses and new cars and the latest HDTVs, then I need those things too, in order to maintain my self-respect. Therefore, if the job pays enough, I will just ignore the consequences of what I am inventing. So even though this high tech weapon causes grotesque tomato-sized tumors on innocent children, I will rationalize that away with the delusion that I am spreading democracy. But if stuff wasn’t so godlike, more people would refuse to accept despicable jobs just because they pay well.
  • CONSUMERISM IS CONSUMING THE PLANET – By worshipping stuff and embracing an extravagant, constant- growth lifestyle we are poisoning the air, fouling the rivers, sweeping away the topsoil, decimating the ocean fisheries and generally wreaking havoc on our biosphere. Those 85 indigenous tribes are not doing this. It is our shop til you drop mindset that is fueling this human engine of destruction.

 

*******

I lost track of time as I pondered these things, and was momentarily startled when my thoughts returned from the real world to this, my preferred world. AVENTURA and I were still becalmed, but as she knows even better than me, the sea is never truly still. The undulating movement is so miniscule and yet so monumental that it seems like the pulse of the planet. It comforts me deeply, because it feels like Gaia is breathing.

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The New Abnormal

Off the keyboard of James Howard Kuntsler

Published on Clusterfuck Nation on May 20, 2013

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Discuss this article at the Favorite Dishes Smorgasbord inside the Diner

The collective state of mind in the USA these days may be even more peculiar than what went on in Germany in the early 1930s, when the Nazis were freely elected to lead the country and reconstructed the battered national psyche into a superman cult that soon beat a path to mass death and ruin. America has its own way of going crazy. We don’t goose-step to tragedy; we coalesce into an insane clown posse and stumble into it by pratfall — juggaloes dancing backwards off the cliff edge.

     We’ve been softened up and made extra-stupid on a 60-year-long diet of TV and kreme-filled donuts.  Instead of a “master race,” our political fantasies revolve around a master wish – to get something for nothing. Want to feel good about yourself? Smoke some crank. Want to become economically secure? Buy a Powerball ticket or drive to the local casino. Want political esteem? Plug a flag pin into your lapel. Want status? Borrow free money from the Federal Reserve at zero interest and arbitrage it into massive earnings for your primary dealer bank. All these behaviors are the consequence of a culture that elevated advertising to such a high social good, it ended up drowning in its own manufactured bullshit.
Atlantic cover.png
    A subset of our master wish has been on vivid display in recent months, namely the idea that God has blessed the USA with a limitless supply of new oil that will allow us to keep driving to WalMart forever. This propaganda from an oil industry desperate for capital investment has been swallowed whole by people in authority who ought to know better, just as that same class of people in Germany of 1934 should have known better about what they were bargaining for in economic well-being with the Nazi agenda. In our case, the propaganda drumbeat is being led by formerly respectable news organizations. The New York Times, National Public Radio, Bloomberg News, Forbes, and The Atlantic Magazine are media giants that have lately spread the “good news” that America will soon be 1) “energy independent,” 2) the world’s leading oil exporter (greater than Saudi Arabia is now!), and the “go-to nation” for cheap manufacturing.
     All of these claims are false, by the way. The American way-of-life was designed to run on $20-a-barrel oil, not $90-a-barrel oil, and “new technology” has not changed that. The unfortunate and, to some extent, mendacious memes about the wonders of “new technology” have only snookered the public into a false sense of security about a future that will disappoint them badly and probably provoke an extreme political reaction as the reality of our predicament sweeps through daily life.
     Most of the current “endless oil” fantasy revolves around shale oil. Just to get a visual idea of what this amounts to, consider this map. It depicts the two major shale oil production regions of the USA: the Bakken in North Dakota and the Eagle Ford “play” in Texas. Bakken production is confined almost entirely to four counties in North Dakota (Williams, Mountrail, McKenzie, Dunn). The Eagle Ford region touches perhaps ten Texas counties. Now, realize that the oil fields all over the rest of the USA (including Alaska) are in decline. Here’s where the “bonanza” of new oil all comes from:
Shale.jpg
The oil coming out of these places is high cost and low flow-rate oil. This is exactly the opposite of what US oil production used to be (low cost and high flow-rate) when we were busy building all the freeways, strip malls, housing subdivisions, suburban office parks and all of the other stranded assets that now make up the infrastructure of daily life in this country. Those were the days when you could pound a single pipe vertically 1000 feet down (not much deeper than many home water wells) into the temperate wheatfields of Oklahoma (drive to work in shirtsleeve weather!) and after that modest investment in drilling you could kick back and depend on a great flow rate (5,000 barrels-a-day, not unusual) of sweet light petroleum for years.
Horizontal drilling (often more than 10,000 feet down + many “laterals” an additional 10,000 feet horizontally) and then fracturing “tight” rock for shale oil is not only a way larger capital expense (lots of steel!) but the flow rates per well (82 barrels-a-day average) are laughable compared to the halcyon days of conventional oil — little better than “stripper” wells. Consider also that shale oil well flow-rates decline greater than 60 percent in the first year (rapidly thereafter, too) and you can see easily that there will be no “kicking back” to run the pump-jacks like cash registers, as in the old days. In fact, the rapid depletion only prompts more frantic drilling and re-drilling to keep the production at its current rate – the “Red Queen Syndrome” (“I’m running as fast as I can to stay where I am”), which means fantastic capital expenditure to keep drilling and fracking more wells (even more steel!). Consider also, that the small “sweet spots” in the shale oil regions were the ones drilled first (in earnest after 2003), for the simple reason that they were the most promising. This was the “low hanging fruit” — easy to pick. Outside these sweet spots the oil may be too meager or difficult or costly to bother drilling for.
      This is a picture of a boomlet that may run a few more years — if the banking system doesn’t implode and the massive stream of capital doesn’t quit flowing to the shale counties. The excitement will all be over before 2020, but I suspect that troubles in finance and banking will put the schnitz on the shale gas mania long before that date. What will happen when the American public discovers that they were lied to about yet another important matter? The discovery will coincide with very severe changes in daily life that won’t be avoidable. Everyone will be affected. Many will be impoverished and suffer real hardship. That’s when the public goes apeshit and starts tearing down the house.
     Apart from the issue of sheer economic suffering and all the damage that will ensue, consider that it will be generations before anyone believes the “authorities” again — though, like the oil age itself, the era of giant national media will probably prove to be a one-shot deal, too. Future generations — if they are lucky — may read the news on one-page circulating broadsides, printed laboriously in hand-set type by letterpress. Or maybe they’ll be reduced to just parsing out rumors.

__

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