Systems

To Disobey and Get Away

Off the keyboard of td0s

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Published on Pray for Calamity on November 29, 2013

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Part 1 of a Conversation with td0s


For those unaware of my biases going into this piece, I would like to lay them bare.  For one, I believe human industrial activity is destructive to life globally, through the addition of toxins to ecosystems and organisms, to deforestation, climate change, etc.  I believe that unless human industrial activity is halted, the mass extinction that this activity has already set underway, will cause ecosystem collapse and likely human extinction as well.

I also believe that human political systems and economic systems have been designed to contain within them no “legal” means of dismantling them.  This is to say for instance, that the U.S. government as it is laid out does not contain a legal and accessible path for the so-called citizens of the United States to unmake the U.S. government.  The only power “citizens” of the United States have is to vote (so long as they have not been convicted of a felony, are not in prison, have a valid address, and are above the age of eighteen) for politicians and to ask these politicians to act in a certain manner.  One cannot vote to end the U.S. government.  One cannot vote to abolish the congress or the presidency, etc.  This is the bind most people find themselves in around the globe.  National governments are allied in purpose and practice with capitalist business enterprises which all seek to exploit the natural world and the labor of the masses for profit.

If the premises I laid out are true — that human industrial activity is destructive to life on Earth, and that this activity is supported and promoted by governments which cannot by any “legitimate” methods be unmade — then people who struggle against this system must break the law; that, or acquiesce to the fate laid out for them.  My personal preference is the struggle, and this has been a topic of discussion lately in more and more mainstream circles.  Even actor Matt Damon, reading a speech by deceased historian Howard Zinn on civil disobedience, recently aired this conclusion.

In radical anti-capitalist circles, the system at large which combines state and private wealth, force, and power is often referred to as “the machine.”  It is an apropos description in that interworking human organizations are a technology of sorts, and that as in a machine, no one part is responsible for the machine’s total behavior, yet each part is necessary for it to function.

If the situation we find ourselves in which I described above is accurate, where then in this machine should those who resist it, strike?  Which “gear” as it were, would be the most vulnerable to pressure, allowing those who would fight to save the living planet and human dignity even a remote chance at success?

Often, in conversation at various levels, the “consumer” is blamed for the ills of the world.  It is the “consumer” who drives demand for petroleum products.  It is the “consumer” who purchases sweat shop labor products from low wage paying big box retailers.  This is the argument put forth by those who sit in the upper echelons of the social hierarchy, blaming those in the classes beneath them for “demanding” that corporations set out to drill new deep water wells in the ocean or blow up the mountaintops that sit above coal deposits.

It’s not surprising that those who are rewarded handsomely for sitting in a controlling position at a corporation that is responsible for massive ecological damage would shift the responsibility from themselves to those who ultimately buy their products.  It’s more disheartening when those who are themselves a part of the underclasses of society accept this blame and hand it out horizontally.

What this myth of consumer responsibility actually accomplishes is not only to create a self-chastizing public that refuses to apportion responsibility to those who actively decided to engage in destructive practice, but it also generates a motive to seek products that are supposedly less harmful in their creation.  This is the force behind “green capitalism.”  With this mode of thinking in place, capitalism is safe to continue on it’s way, and the masses who are concerned with the continually growing pace at which ecosystems are destroyed will be convinced that the solution is not in resistance to capitalism, but is in fact on a store shelf waiting to be purchased.  This is of course, ludicrous.

Capitalism has as it’s founding motivation, profit.  Profit requires growth.  As all production is sourced in the natural world, growth necessarily requires larger and larger swathes of the natural world be destroyed so they can be made into commodities to be sold for profit.  It doesn’t matter at all if the cars coming off of assembly lines are hybrids, they still require vast mining operations to access the raw materials from which they are made, they still require energy drawn from fossil fuels to be assembled and distributed, they still require for construction a vast workforce fed by mono-crop petroleum based agriculture, and they still require a large quantity of purchasers who acquire the currency for said purchase through labor in the growth based paradigm.

The argument placing the bulk of the responsibility for the destruction of capitalist enterprise on the “consumer” (in quotes because I do not find it wise to condense people to beings whose sole function is to consume) is absurd for a multitude of other reasons.  The most glaring, is that not purchasing a product will not necessarily make it disappear.  Vegans and vegetarians could easily contest to the fact that their refusal to purchase meat hasn’t actually shut down a single slaughterhouse or feedlot.  Their choice to abstain from purchasing product from an industry they despise may make them feel better, but it is not harming that industry.  Also, certain industries are backed financially by the state.  As airlines have found themselves less and less financially stable over the past decade, the U.S. government has stepped in to keep them afloat.  The arms industry is another great example of this.  Consumers do not buy depleted uranium munitions, fighter jets, or nuclear missiles, yet they exist in great numbers.  The corporations that produce them reap billions and never once have to concern themselves with public perception.  The same is true with petroleum companies who receive billions of dollars in subsidies from the U.S. government.  If a massive boycott were to commence against oil companies, the U.S. government would deem them “too big to fail,” and would step in and support them financially, as the U.S. government itself is dependent upon a petroleum driven military apparatus and economy.

Less obvious, is that the organization of society itself requires that people utilize certain products in order to survive, primarily, petroleum.  Using the U.S. as a template, before petroleum the physical layout of towns and cities was far different than it is today.  Mostly due to the age of oil, the creation of the highway system, and with the implementation of zoning concepts, people’s lives and the necessities of life became more and more spread out geographically.  The homes were built in one place, the food was grown in another place, and the jobs where people could labor to acquire currency were in another place.  A reliance on cars and semi-trucks (a reliance intentionally manufactured by for profit entities such as Standard Oil, General Motors, and Firestone Tire with the aid of government) has built in a requirement for people to depend on the internal combustion engine.  Even living in an urban area, where one may predominantly ride a bicycle (ignoring for a moment where that bicycle came from) the food people eat is grown an average of fifteen-hundred miles away from them on petroleum dependent farms, and trucked about the country until it reaches their nearest grocery store.  This is true for the clothing they wear, the water they drink, the medicines they take; it all comes from somewhere else and becomes accessible to them via a hydrocarbon.  This was a system designed for maximum profit, and no “consumer” can un-design it.  To abstain from it would mean death, or at least destitution.  The destitute fall victim to the police.

Even if we pushed on our “consumer” and barked, “Go live in the woods if you want to stop the machine of industrial capitalism!  Stop supporting it!”  Where would they go? Capitalism has sliced and diced all the land and sold it to those with access to capital, or the state has taken it for their own, so they can slowly sell it to industry.  There is no place one can legally, permanently settle without first acquiring capital, which requires participation in the system.  Not to mention, the surface water is now all poisoned with agricultural run off, mercury from coal fired power plants, etc. so even attempting to live in national parks, hiding from the park staff becomes mostly untenable, and leaves one prey for the state.

It is extremely common for people who have come to recognize the many political, economic, and cultural calamities we face to believe solutions will come from the top of the social hierarchy.  The status quo meme is that by pressuring those with political and economic power, the masses can influence the decisions made in governments and businesses for the better.  While this may occasionally be true on small issues, these issues are usually symptomatic of the greater malaise of industrial capitalism, and thus they are band aid measures only.  If we are talking about actually taking apart the power structures that are rapidly bringing us closer and closer to our demise (and simultaneously existing on a foundation of human misery) then appealing to those in power is pointless.  If they had any conscience to appeal to, they likely wouldn’t be actively making unconscionable choices to begin with.  Beyond that, even from within the system the system cannot be demolished.  The President does not have the power to unmake the executive branch of government.  The congress cannot — and would not — abolish capitalism.  It’s silly to even pontificate on how the rich and powerful would decide that they should no longer be rich and powerful, let alone go through the process of making this delusion a reality.

So where does this leave us?  If the individual’s lifestyle choices have no ability to dismantle industrial capitalism, and if even the people who hold high offices in either state or capital cannot (and absolutely would not) dismantle industrial capitalism, then are we to believe that there is absolutely no method by which this destructive system can be dismantled?  That does not seem possible.  Systems of human organization are constructs that exist in human minds only.  These constructs are made to seem real by the violence perpetuated against those who violate the edicts of the system, but they are indisputably imaginary.  We cannot accept that the systems humans invented are permanent and fixed and we are resigned to allow them to play out to their cataclysmic conclusions.

The police, I would like to offer, are one of (if not the) largest obstacles to dismantling the overarching systems of state, capital, and culture which we must remove and replace if we are to survive, and to survive with dignity.  I suggest this because without the police the system of capital could not stand.  As it exists now, the world is extremely stratified as far as wealth and access to resources are concerned.  Obviously, the wealth gap between the west and the global poor is enormous to the point of being disgusting.  Even within the west, the wealth gap is quite significant we all know.  This wealth gap is maintained they will say, by law, and law is maintained by the force of police and the penal system.  I may be belaboring this point, but for a very specific reason, namely that my stated premise at the outset of this essay is that there is no legal method of dismantling the political or economical systems.  At the very bottom of our understanding we must embrace the conclusion that the law must be broken, and that the police are the primary hurdle to strategic law breaking.

During the height of the Occupy Wall Street movement, multiple attempts were made across the United States to occupy not only parks, but buildings.  in other words, to move the struggle from public space (which was still met with violence) to “private property.”  The most notable attempt to occupy “private property” was arguably Occupy Oakland’s attempt to occupy a vacant convention center with the intent to create a community center to house the homeless, among other goals.  The police in Oakland, working on behalf of the local government in one regard, but working on behalf of the entire system of capitalism and “private property” in another, used swift and brutal violence to beat back would be occupiers.

It seems obvious to me that the point of fracture that must be exploited is at the level of the police.  Look at any resistance movement, whether a direct resistance to the claims of the owner class, a resistance to the ecological destruction and genocide of fossil fuel extraction, or even the small and constant unarticulated resistance of life in poverty (whether squatting, stealing to survive, being evicted, selling drugs, breaking zoning laws to garden, etc.) and you will find in every instance, the police are called in to exert violence against the so called “perpetrators.”  People have been throwing their bodies into the gears of the machine for generations.  Whether striking coal miners and autoworkers in the early part of the twentieth century, or environmental activists who defend forests from the canopies or who set bulldozers on fire, the will to resist capitalism’s immiseration of themselves and their communities has always been and is still real and present.

What there isn’t, at least at this time, is a willingness to overwhelm the police with a greater violence than they mete out, at least not in the comfortable west.  Perhaps at this time, this unwillingness to go on the attack against the police is wise.  After all, the consequences of failure are severe.  In time, the consequences of not going on the attack against the police may become more readily severe and thus change this attitude, but right now, other strategies to sap the police of their power should be employed.

It’s common parlance when speaking of revolution to reference the pillars of power – the ideological and social foundations which hold up any system of power – and how successful revolutions must knock out these supports.  In a popular web video called “Revolution, an Instruction Manual,” that was recently released, these pillars are referenced:

“There are three stages of revolution. They are sequential, and they correlate directly with the three pillars of power.  The first is the ideological revolution. This is where we undermine the belief systems which support their control, this is where we systematically erode at their illusion of legitimacy, their aura of power. We expose these criminals for the scoundrels that they are and we inspire discontent among those who the state depends on for its functioning. If you’re new to this, welcome to the party. It’s already in full swing, and guess what we’re winning. The powers that be have lost control of the dialogue, and they know it.  The second phase is of the revolution is strategic non-compliance or more accurately defiance. This can take many forms, and multiple approaches can be used at the same time. The goal of strategic non-compliance is to interrupt the chain of obedience for as long as possible as many times as possible, to publicize that interruption on as large a scale as possible, to document the police and or military brutality that follows and to distribute that footage far and wide. The purpose of this is to damage the ruling party’s image, because power is all about image. It’s all smoke and mirrors.”

There have been many instances in history where leaders have been overthrown.  There have been very few, if any, in which a total revolution has occurred.  Rulers and politicians have been ousted, new constitutions written, but almost all political revolutions have left some form of capitalism in their wakes, including the communist revolutions which never dissolved their states, and ultimately turned to state capitalism.  It should be stated though, that in the instances where governments have been toppled, it has often been the case that the police and security forces have eventually capitulated to the will of the masses, in essence, ceasing to fight them and either fighting alongside them, or stepping aside altogether.  This was the case in East Germany before the collapse of Soviet Communism and it was the case in Egypt before the ouster of Mubarak.  It should be noted that in the latter case, anti-Mubarak demonstrators did burn police stations, free prisoners, and take the weaponry abandoned there.

According to Mohamed Gamal Bashir, who participated in the revolution:

“Let’s not forget what happened in the days between 25 January and 28 January, this glossed over part of history,” he says. “There were constant clashes in Omraneya for example, and there were people in Talbiya trying to get to the Foreign Ministry. The fighting continued long after the political elite were tear-gassed out of the square on 25 January.” Bashir speaks of the “harafish,” whom he defines as youth with no prospects who often skirt the edge of the law. He claims that their actions led to the revolution’s success. He says that they burnt police stations in their neighborhoods in response to decades of oppression by police against the poor. “The power of this revolution came from these harafish burning police stations and from the collapse of the Interior Ministry. That was utilized by the political elites who centralized the struggle in Tahrir Square. Without this confrontation, the revolution wouldn’t have been possible, and every police station was burnt to the ground because people have been dying inside them for years.”

Delegitimizing the police sounds like a monumental task, especially in countries of privilege and propaganda such as the US.  In the US, Hollywood has carried water, so to speak, for the police for the better part of a century.  TV shows and films have consistently presented the police as selfless heroes, who even when they break the law only ever do so for the greater good of the innocent.  Reality television shows such as “C.O.P.S.” present a narrative of law breakers never getting away from the police, which not only adds to the mystification of the role of police, but makes law breaking seem impossible to get away with.  Media outlets, pundit talk shows and the like, always present police and law as sacrosanct and unquestionable, shouting down anyone who suggests that police are violent or unnecessary.  Even in cases of blatant abuse and brutality, media outlets run straight faced and supposedly “level-headed” statements about investigations into said abuse, asking the public for patience while the facts of the case are brought to light.  Usually, after such statements in which police higher ups defend actions of brutality as “justified,”  the case is swept from public view and the offending officer is returned to station.

Again, confronting the police then in the US and similar states not only means confronting their truncheons, but confronting their image.  Cop watching is an amazing tool in this regard, as more and more people post to the internet videos of police acting out violently.  But this is not enough.  It’s not enough to witness abuse of power if it is not contextualized.  The media, doing the work of the social hierarchy, will always blanket the police and their actions no matter how egregious under the context which preserves the system.  Derrick Jensen describes this very well in EndGame with his fourth premise:

“Civilization is based on a clearly defined and widely accepted yet often unarticulated hierarchy. Violence done by those higher on the hierarchy to those lower is nearly always invisible, that is, unnoticed. When it is noticed, it is fully rationalized. Violence done by those lower on the hierarchy to those higher is unthinkable, and when it does occur is regarded with shock, horror, and the fetishization of the victims.”

The long and short of this premise is, “Cop hits you, he gets away with it.  You hit cop, you do time.”  There may be no immediate way to eliminate the legal consequences of defending oneself against a police officer, but the social context which surrounds this premise can change with concerted effort.

We must also acknowledge that it is not enough to decry the police for perceived misuses of their power, because this allows the police as an institution to remain valid in the eyes of the public.  Police in general must be delegitimized.  The very idea that a small group of primarily white males can use violence against anyone else, and that no one is allowed to defend themselves against this violence must be shown for the grotesque perversion that it is.  Unfortunately, the status quo perception of society requires police to maintain it, so delegitimizing the police as an institution often first requires delegitimizing society itself.  This is a difficult Mobius strip of reasoning to have to impart.  Humans left free to associate and organize as they please do not require police to maintain their social structures unless these social structures create social strata of “haves” and “have nots.”  I think it’s reasonable to assert that no person will voluntarily arrange themselves as a “have not,” and would instead leave a social organism that would make them “lesser” than others, ultimately meaning such social organisms would not exist, or would not exist for very long.  Er go, truly liberated societies axiomatically are societies which do not need police and could not have them.  Societies that require police to maintain themselves are not free societies, and are thus bound by violence.

This point is succinctly made by Earth First! Journal editor Panagioti in his essay, “The Ecology of a Police State.

He starts off by stating, “Imagine being an environmental activist in a world where police can get away with killing young people for vandalizing a fast food joint; where a government’s local law enforcers are collaborating with giant energy corporations to stifle opposition; where a sheriff demands funding for a program urging neighbors to snitch on anyone who says they hate said government.  Sadly it doesn’t take much imagination, does it? In case you weren’t inspired to click the embedded links above, they reference recent stories of these things occurring in the US.  In light of this reality, it’s crystal clear that global ecology will never be stabilized as long as the police have anything to do with it.

Further into his essay Panagioti references practical methods and attempts at weakening local police forces:

I know, many of you are nauseous just reading the words “vote” and “election,” but I’m not saying you shouldn’t be sick to your stomach. I’m saying suck it up and learn what’s going on around you. If you avoided every bathroom that smelled like shit, you’d be in a lot of pain and doing possible damage to your excretory system. Likewise, if you ignore what your enemies are doing because its unsavory to your senses… maybe you’re more of a liberal yuppie than you realized.  So hold your nose and try going to some City or County Commission meetings for starters. If you live in the New England area, local budgets might actually be something people are already organizing around. If you live anywhere else, it will probably be you and a few other Libertarian Party wingnuts in the crowd. Try and make friends with them, even if they’re drooling on themselves or foaming at the mouth. Chances are they can explain to you in simple terms how the budget works and who the players are. Oh, and try to look half-way decent. Most of these things are televised, and, for better or worse, its likely that someone will approach you in a local bar and say they saw you on the TV.

What this boils down to is finding ways to make the police less effective.  Whether through sticker and wheat paste campaigns using humor as the Otpor! movement in Serbia did, or through local referendums concerning police budgets, or sabotaging police equipment, the time to whittle away at police power is in between flare ups of massive social anger and action, so when it is crucial, police are weaker in the streets, and fewer and further between in the rural areas where devastating infrastructure usually is built.

Which tactic is best employed at which time is a decision to be made by individuals, the larger take away here being that the police and the penal system are the thin blue line between the will to move beyond capitalism, and the ability to do so.  While frightening, is there any other conclusion when one recognizes the need for disobedience?  When it becomes an accepted reality that laws must be broken for our continued survival, is it not cognitive dissonance to think attacking the law enforcement structure is unnecessary?

We won’t shop our way to a livable planet.  We won’t vote our way to a livable planet.  We won’t garden our way to a livable planet.  We will not maintain a livable planet hiding in our homes, waiting for those with power and wealth to make it so.  We will not survive if we are obedient to those who run the machine.  To be sure, even outright attacking the industries that kill the living planet may not be enough.  There is no reason to hope, only a roll of the dice that is heavily weighted against us.  But we have allies.  Hurricanes and droughts and wildfires and all of the other natural forces of destruction will grow in frequency as human civilization further destabilizes the climate.  We can let the juggernaut of calamity bowl over us, primarily the least among us, or we can act strategically to save habitat, to save life, and maybe, just maybe, have something make it to the other side of the bottleneck.

Complications

Off the keyboard of John Ward

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Published on The Slog on December 26, 2014

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We live in complicated times. And complicated is almost always a very bad thing.

I have the world’s most complicated boiler, and so later I added the world’s most complicated programmer to try and understand it. They’re no longer on speaking terms. One or the other fails a couple of times a week at least.

I was asking my younger daughter over Christmas how her new relationship was going. “It’s complicated,” she said. So I asked her to explain, and do you know what? She wasn’t wrong.

I’m also the owner of the world’s most complicated TV channel-changer, and I don’t have a single app that doesn’t make the task I want to perform more complicated than it was before. I have a car clock so complicated to change, it’s still on Greek time from the summer before last, and a kitchen stable door so complicated to separate, the instructions in 5-point type take up one whole pane of the bloody thing.

The nature of oil market geopolitics is so complicated, I have so far counted nine separate motivations in play. Add the complicated politics of Ukraine and stir in the spin being perpetrated by four different regional interests, and you get complications that complicate things so much it requires a complicated computer model to sort out the relative hierarchy of complication.

Did you know that the average mobile phone user employs seven functions regularly, but 3G phones usually have in excess of sixty? And with age, that seven drops quickly to any three-from-four: calls, text, mail, photos. The order for me is photos, calls, texts. I don’t do mobile mail: if I did, the phone would ping on average seventy times a day. The other reason is that the process for aligning mail pickup was so complicated, it’s only a matter of time before Aston University offers a PhD in Complication Studies with Specific Reference to Sony Xperias.

Not only has the once simple lotech process of doing stuff been replaced by self-indulgent, infantile complexity: the hitech stuff we were just getting used to is regularly ‘updated’ every six months at least in order to render it more complicated.

For instance, the process of paying for your parking at Bordeaux Airport, fitting a child seat in the back of a Peugeot 308 SW, programming a Candy dishwasher, transferring mobile phone shots to a laptop, downloading a pdf, sending money by electronic transfer and dealing with landline phone messages are things that – just in the last three months – have become less functionally efficient and more complicated. And the three key words there – less functionally efficient – are central to my fearful frustration with a world that is being created by every psychographic type from neoliberal sociopath to political schemer.

The first line of defence for those defending complexity is to say that their equipment is ‘sophisticated’. This is like saying that a washing line is aboriginal. It’s bollocks: a washing line needs no programming, and on a windy day above 12 degrees centigrade will dry clothes more efficiently (with easier ironing) than any tumble-dryer in existence….free. The Pennsylvanian Amish Community rose to be the richest per head in America on that principle. Think on it.

The second line is ‘user error’. “You’re just a dopey old bloke with grey hair I mean for God’s sake look at you, you’re past it, you hate progress”. Funny how being a senior citizen leaves you open to the kind of baseless insult you could be driven from the stockade for levelling at a woman or an ethnic minority.

And the third is, surprise surprise, “we must all embrace change”. I love that one, it’s a belter. Ripple dissolve to Heimy the Deli owner just off the Kurfürstendamm in Autumn 1934. Heimy is constantly being advised to calm down, and embrace change: the Nazis are all talk, he is told. “Talk, schmalk,” he answers grumpily, “let me tell you, this Hitler is a schlemiel. No good will come of it.”

The idea that all change is for the better is the sort of crap New Labour and Camerlot idiots have been trying to tell us about everything from privatisation and deregulation to fractional reserve banking and globalism since the turn of the century. Yet the truth is that every one of those four changes has made life more complicated….but not one of them has been of the slightest benefit to those on average to poor incomes. Do you really know what QE is and how it works? Do you really know why Zirp was necessary? Do you really understand the rational for financial Big Bang? No, you don’t – any more than I do: you see, it’s complicated.

Far too often, complication is really obfuscation…a smoke-screen if you will. Equally often, it is just one more way to extract more telecoms money from us, justify ovens that cost $7000, and “explain” why we need a new thing just because the old things build quality was complicated aka shoddy. Some complication is the direct result of fluffy social ideas and moral relativism. But all of it comes at an unacceptably high price.

For once, the medical profession is right. When they use the plural noun “complications” it means “bad shit just happened”. My late father – an enthusiastic exponent of technology – used to say “If you can’t explain something in one simple sentence, it’s a bad idea”. Dad developed a high temperature one afternoon at the age of 91 – and then complications. He died the following morning.

Either the Profits Go, or We Go

Off the keyboard of George Mobus
Graphics added by RE

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Published on Question Everything on August 20, 2013

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Well, Actually Too Late!

What do you do when something you always thought was a good thing starts to look like the root cause of our demise? You start asking questions. And you start thinking about the evidence. That is what I’ve been doing for the past many years after seeing the evidence of failures of some of America’s most treasured institutions.

I have to be blunt. Capitalism, corporatism, and profit taking are killing the planet, or large and growing swaths of it. Politics, governance, and the education system are acting as willing accomplices to assist. Of course, it is really the people who work within these institutions who are at fault, both for shaping them to their current embodiments, and for promoting them as good and worthwhile. Ultimately we humans are at fault for being just too ignorant and unwise to see what incredible damage we are doing to the Earth and even ourselves.

I won’t recapitulate what all of the various problems are that we are causing or even entertain a conversation about them since the evidence for them is so abundant, and a little simple connecting of the dots will lead to the understanding of how they are all interconnected and will collectively exacerbate our predicament. When the planet is significantly altered beyond recognition there is a very high likelihood that the vast majority of humanity will suffer the same fate. I and many aware writers have covered this before. Only, to what avail?

After watching this drama unfold for the last one and a half decades (and noting the accelerated pace with which it is doing so) I have drawn the conclusion that absolutely nothing can be done at this juncture to mitigate these problems. And even if it could no one with the ability to make a difference will endeavor to do so. I have given up completely on the political and business leadership in the developed world. I’ve given up on the scientific prowess of the US. I’ve given up on our education system. Put simply, there is, in my opinion, no institution or group of people who (have the power/effectiveness and) can or would make the effort to change anything that might make even a modicum of difference. There are many people who do see and do try to help, but just like me, have no influence that could conceivably reach the scale needed, at least, to lessen the pain about to be inflicted. There are many, like Bill McKibben, who have relatively high public visibility but cannot seem to move the conversation, let alone action, fast enough to have any bearing on the ultimate outcome.

At least that is what I think will be the case until it is so obvious that we are taking a leap from the high dive into an empty pool. Then, I imagine, everyone will start doing something, in panic, of course. Lots of finger pointing and rending of loin cloths, but it will be too late. Most unfortunate. This is pessimism at its worst, I admit, as well as cynicism. But I come by these attitudes honestly by having opened my eyes to what is happening and seeing what is not happening that should. And it always comes back to the same baseline. Homo sapiens should be called Homo calidus, “man the clever” and definitely not “man the wise.”

The Profit Picture

The two things that are killing us are actually variations on a single theme. They appear as biological and individual economic profit taking. The former translates into exponentially rising biomass concentrated in a single species, us. The latter translates into consumption for the sake of consumption and at whatever speed we can obtain. Both have their roots in the biology of individual organisms. Every organism that ever existed has attempted to maximize its biological profit (excess material and energy over and above that needed to maintain) in order to reproduce as much as possible. Thus we human individuals are effectively programmed to always seek to maximize our resource consumption. However, for us, due to our technological ability to consume exosomatic energies and aggregate material goods above and beyond our mere biomass, we are acting like a catalyst for a runaway process of extraction. And, extraction at rates substantially higher than nature can replenish. Worse still, at the end of consumption, the output waste streams, are coming out at rates greater than the environment can absorb. Ergo, depletion on the input end and poisoning on the output end.

Previous biological entities were always held in check to one degree or another. Most species evolved to be relatively specialized for econiches and when climates changed or invasive species came into the picture, the populations of natives were stressed, as often as not to extinction. All species have had to compete with other species, and individuals generally have had to compete with conspecifics, for scarce resources. This competition led to maintaining relatively steady-state levels of population so that the profit taking behaviors never could cause the species to expand beyond the carrying capacity of the environment. There have been a few notable exceptions and those have been the causes of significant evolutionary events, massive die-offs. The Great Oxygen Catastrophe thought to be caused by the rise of photosynthesis in Cyanobacteria was the first significant time when living systems caused the demise of most other living systems. If you are an oxygen breathing creature you probably don’t think that that event was such a bad deal. But if all the other anoxic bacteria alive at the time had been conscious they probably would have thought it was terrible!

The point is that the rule for life on Earth has been an elaborate set of checks and balances that help maintain the biosphere in a sometimes wildly fluctuating, but generally stationary steady-state. Humans have seemingly ruined the balance. I say seemingly because we won’t really know what the outcome will be until it comes out! One thing is almost certainly true — we have become the cause of the next great die-off for the biosphere and that may include us.

 

What is Profit?

http://thesecularjurist.files.wordpress.com/2012/10/cartoon-capitalism-is-not-working.jpgI have argued repeatedly that economic profit is nothing more than biological profit gone out of control. Biological profit is just that excess above maintenance and repair requirements that go to reproduction. In nature reproduction is a messy affair with the majority of offspring dying before reaching sexual maturity themselves. Thus evolution has selected for individuals who are compelled to maximize their profit taking behaviors because in most cases the profits will turn to losses with only a tiny proportion making it into the next generation.

Economics is nothing more than an extension into the exosomatic domain of physiology. In “Our Energy Cocoon” I showed how each of us is surrounded by an exosomatic cocoon or wrappers of energy and, by extension, material goods. All of it doing nothing more than providing convenience, speed, and relative security but nothing that isn’t part of our normal physiological makeup. However, this cocoon has altered our psychical makeup considerably. We’ve gotten spoiled. Worse, we actually have come to feel entitled to these cocoons and fully expect them to remain in place forever. Judging by watching people on the streets and public places, even in their cars while driving, texting and talking on their smart phones, these cocoons, provided by technology, are the only “real” world they know.

So economic profit is just the expansion of biological profit amplified through the energy cocoon. And because of our incredible cleverness we have essentially buffered ourselves from the ordinary biological stresses that would keep our exploitations in check. Homo calidus, the only symbol-processing, tool-making hominid that evolution launched on Earth, is both blessed and cursed. Blessed by an ability to attend to the effort and time needed to accomplish biological profit taking and to then imagine ways that he might be able to take shortcuts. Our capacity for affordance, the ability to see how to use existing things in new ways, plus our capacity to combine elements in our minds gives us the ability to create new tools that solve the problems we wanted to solve.

We are cursed because while evolution produced our level of cleverness it was just getting started to select for sapience, the basis of gaining wisdom, in any meaningful way. We are smart and creative enough to know how to solve immediate, local problems but not wise enough to consider what the long-term consequences will be by doing so.

And consider the nature of what we might call problems. Our original biological problems, the same ones shared with all other life, were 1) how do we get enough food, shelter, etc; and 2) how do we keep from being eaten. And we share the same motivation as all living systems, doing this with the least effort necessary. Thus humans started early to find ways to get the most with the least effort and given our ability to make tools that translates into busting out of the biological boundaries. Economic problems are extensions of the biological ones but can be phrased differently. How can I do less work to achieve the same end? How can I get this done faster? How can I get more done in the same or less amount of time? And as soon as our symbol-processing language formulates those kinds of questions our tool making cleverness kicks into high gear.

http://i-bites.com/wp-content/uploads/2011/11/polyp_cartoon_Wealth_Junkie.jpgBut look at what happened. Our biological problems are based on true needs, those of survival and fitness. But our economic problems start to be based not on needs but on wants. And wants are controlled by the limbic system, not the prefrontal cortex, which for most people is used just to fulfill those wants. Are our wants legitimate? Do they fulfill a higher purpose in humans then mere existence? Should we not want to be profitable?

And consider this. Why would you not use a sharpened long stick to kill game instead of chasing them down and clunking them on the head with a rock — if you could make such a stick? Tools give us leverage, mechanical advantage. They save time and effort. They can increase our insurance of succeeding. They can increase our access to exosomatic energy. Why would we not use them?

Of course we would and we did. By doing so we gained greater fitness than any species ever. And biology being what it is, and us with very poorly developed sapience we did what nature intended (metaphorically of course). We made economic profits and were damned glad to do so. We didn’t ask, as I presume a truly wise person would, “Should we keep making even more profits?” We didn’t think, “Once we have enough shouldn’t we stop?” And we didn’t ever ask, “What is enough anyway?” Those questions would have taken too much wisdom for creatures who were just starting to gain experience in an economic life. Besides, the world was so empty then. How could killing a mammoth for a bit of meat, leaving the rest to scavengers, be a bad idea? In our drive to make economic profits we succumbed to what is now called the Jevons paradox.

Biological profit taking requires controls from outside the system to prevent excesses. And humans figured out how to break out of that situation over one hundred and fifty thousand years ago. Economic profit took over. And it felt really good. By the time agriculture was well underway as a new lifestyle, profit taking became the acquisition and hoarding of grains and other food stuffs and the acquisition of material wealth by those who controlled the land.

How to Make Economic Profits

It all starts with real estate. Capture and control access to land. Extract a raw resource from that land (like food, game, minerals, water, etc.). Process it into something somebody thinks is usable/desirable. Sell it for more than what it cost you to process it. Since you paid nothing to nature for the extracted resource, you don’t consider that cost. And then, with the profit, you can reinvest in more real estate (later it would be capital) so you can make even more profit. There is seemingly no end, except maybe the availability of land. But back in the day that didn’t really seem to be a problem. Profits could grow indefinitely it seemed.

One of the most ‘clever’ profit-taking schemes has been the banking system. Banks and rapidly traded equities can appear to make money out of nothing and then record profits from fees on the transactions. Now that has got to be the ultimate in economic profit taking. No real product, doesn’t even need real estate or capital to back it up (these days). Just create money and pay yourself handsomely for getting away with it.

Here is the kicker. In a consumerist market economy you can charge whatever the buyers are willing to pay. Income minus recognized costs equals profit. And thanks to our old biological mandate we try to maximize profits in the short run. Then we tell ourselves how good we feel about the virtuous nature of greed! You made somebody happy and you contributed to the GDP. Moreover you now have more wealth; you can be a hedonist consumer and further boost the GDP. What could be a better system?

Resources are mostly finite, or renewable on such long time scales as to be effectively finite relative to the rate of extraction. Over the course of human history we have cycled through all of the viable substitutes so the idea that when a finite resource becomes too expensive we will simply move on to the next resource is no longer valid. What, honestly, fully replaces fossil fuels? What can replace fresh, drinkable water?

The idea of profit taking at a maximum rate is now so deeply engrained in our cultures that it can hardly be questioned. Indeed, high profit taking has been a major factor in investing in even greater technologies. And they indirectly funded research and education. So, can we say that they were really all that bad? It depends on pace and extent. We long ago passed too fast and too much. Our profit taking has now far exceeded the planet’s ability to cope except in the sense of having a tizzy fit. We now have a whole new set of interrelated problems that will not likely be solved by inventing something new. In fact they won’t be solved at all in the sense of us coming out happy. And all of those economic profits we’ve been so proud of, kiss them goodbye.

Back to Biological Profit Taking

http://www.toonpool.com/user/856/files/capitalism_512445.jpgThe only way forward now is the way backward. Humanity will have to take a time out from its energy cocoon-based life. It is time to go back to biological profit taking and far fewer individuals living on the planet if there is ever going to be some kind of settling down. The planet will take care of imposing the punishment. We are witnessing the on-set of a population bottleneck scenario and the pruning process will be chaotic and definitely not pretty.

When the dust settles, if there are humans left standing, then life will be very different from what we have come to believe is normal. The human animals will once again be constrained to just the biological profits needed to maintain life and reproduce. I do expect that the few remaining will try to retain some semblance of an energy cocoon to the extent of Neolithic or early Bronze Age lifestyles augmented with knowledge of permaculture and a few more modern tools that can be manufactured with minimal energy inputs. For a very long time thereafter human beings will once again have to adapt to environments with very limited resources. And they will have to evolve beyond the limited capacities they have for sapience.

Possibilities

Sapience and eusociality go hand-in-hand in human beings, unlike the mechanisms in eusocial insects, for example. Eusociality is based on cooperative motivations, that is the desire to work with others for the common good. It is the essence of socialism! Cooperation is not the same as altruism, even so-called “reciprocal altruism.” Altruism is defined as a form of sacrifice in which the altruist lowers his or her reproductive fitness in order increase that of the recipient. reciprocal altruism is considered a mutual benefiting behavior over time, similar to the tit-for-tat strategy in the iterated prisoner’s dilemma game.

Cooperation does not carry the weight of up or down changes in fitness of individuals, as is the case for altruism, and can include groups of people rather than just one-on-one. Cooperation on work tasks generally improves the fitness of the whole group rather than select individuals (who may still compete for internal resources in other circumstances). The question is what underlies the motivation to cooperate if it is not expectation of a payoff?

I come at this from a different approach than just psychology (except for the psychology of wisdom). The components of sapience provide some clues as to why people have some subconscious motivation to be cooperative with their fellows. From my previous work I claim that sapience is composed of four basic cognitive loci. One locus is what I have called moral sentiment, which includes the motivational aspects of all that we do. Another locus is that of higher order judgment that is our subconscious master model of how the world works that influences our intelligence decision making apparatus through intuition. This is the wisdom part. A model of how the world works is simply too complex and large for us to work on consciously. Our conscious minds (working memory available to conscious examination) have limits of attention and so most of what we know of the world is stored in tacit knowledge and only surfaces through subconscious processing as judgments.

The other two loci provide more specific, yet generally subconsciously processed, cognitive capacities, and these are what more directly affect cooperative behavior as the default mode (aggression and selfishness are now thought to be triggered by specific situations or as due to brain defects). The first is systems perspective/thinking. This facility, if sufficiently operative, is what helps shape perceptions and guides integration of new information into our tacit knowledge base. It is also responsible for making us look at the larger picture, or attempting to put instances into whole contexts. Systems thinking allows the mind to encompass the whole group and situate the group in the larger environment (which includes other groups).

The second is strategic perspective/thinking, which is the ability to model the world (along with the self) and, in essence, run simulations far out it time and space. It is the ability to use your systems knowledge to see what the likely scenarios for the future look like taking into account all of the model veracity that your judgment and systems thinking can bring to bear.

The combined action of these four loci (which is cooperation!) produces an automatic subconscious motivation and action toward cooperation with fellow beings. Anyone who has been an observer of the world for very long and has built up a veridical model of how it works can feel the long term consequences for whole groups of cooperation being for everyone’s good. Moral sentiments include desires to make others happy and to not make them inadvertently unhappy. But it also includes desires to see those who do not cooperate (so-called “cheaters” in game-theoretic treatments of social and evolutionary psychology) punished for not doing so. This is experienced as emotional responses, joy at seeing someone smile at you or anger/disgust at someone’s selfish behavior.

Those emotional responses are built into our limbic brains and are frequently our downfall as a species. But sapience depends on a relatively new kind of mediation of the limbic areas responsible for generating emotional responses. Von Economo neurons, also called spindle cells, connect the prefrontal cortex (PFC), with those areas of the limbic brain, with high-speed transmission. It is now thought (with building evidence) that these cells allow the PFC to down modulate the emotion-producing responses so that the PFC has time to evaluate the whole picture and decide if a strong emotional response is appropriate. Wise people have the capacity to throttle their emotions, such as anger or hatred, to an extent not generally seen in ordinary people. I contend that higher sapience means even greater ability to manage the emotions. For example, a wise person may feel an urge to exact retribution on a cheater, but may find ways to deal with the person short of physical punishment.

So my argument is that there is a possibility that humans may evolve even greater sapience capacity as a result of a future stressful environment that will require cooperation among members of groups and not necessarily mean competition between groups per se. Some new research in early Homo evolution is suggesting that we were already finding ways for groups to cooperate more than compete. Group selection requires that there is some competition between groups in order to provide selective pressure on greater cooperation within the groups. But then it also depends on how one perceives who the WE are and who the THEM are. Our capacity to belong to many orthogonal groups might also allow us to consider a hierarchy of groups (like tribes in a region belonging to a single nation).

I contend that humans were in the process of evolving greater sapience before the advent of agriculture. After the demise of civilization the same situation will emerge but with new and more challenging selection forces. Hominids have speciated many times over the last, roughly, eight million years. There is a growing body of evidence that it was usually tied to climate changes and a need to maximize adaptability. The mitochondrial and Y-chromosome DNA evidence also points to a bottleneck event in human prehistory about 70-80 thousand years ago in Southern Africa. So this story has been told before.

No one can possibly want what is about to happen (actually is already happening) to us. But I take some comfort in the idea that a very long-term good may yet evolve from our travails. The species may go extinct, but the genus will survive.

And What of Profits?

Biology isn’t only about unchecked expansion. There have been many instances of biological systems learning to self-regulate their own growth for the good of the group. Eukaryotic cells, and individual multicellular forms are composed of heterogeneous components that have learned to cooperate and to manage (generally) their individual mandate to take a profit (grow or reproduce). So unconstrained growth is not the absolute rule. Cooperation, communications, and a hierarchical self-regulation system can allow a system to achieve a mature status and then enter a steady-state condition until senescence sets in.

http://www.minerva.unito.it/E/Images/Cartoons/climate-change-cartoon-IDS.jpgTruly sapient humans can use their high intelligence to understand this phenomena and use it to self-regulate their biological profit taking to be in balance with the rest of the Ecos. Rather than depend on outside forces to do the regulating, strategic and systems thinking humans with the motivation for balance and harmony and the superior understanding of how the world works can make judgments to not enter into the trap of economic profit taking. They can be both smarter and wiser than what we witness today. Most members of the current species are definitely not wise enough and, though smart enough to know better, are not sufficiently knowledgeable to be able to reason through the evidence. Most are willfully ignorant because they are not wise enough to think through what the evidence is telling them. I just read an article about Senator Jim Inhofe (R-OK) who continues to assert that global warming is a hoax perpetrated by liberals in order to justify a global socialist government! What a f***ing idiot (excuse my colloquialism)! How does he do this? He was smart enough to get elected (I’m guessing by an equally ignorant electorate). But he simply ignores the evidence and uses conservative talking points (all based on untruths) as if they were evidence.

Sapience, even at its modest average level in our species, keeps most of us able to not be so stupid. But, unfortunately that level is still not sufficient to make all of us alert to what we are doing to the world by insisting on taking economic profits as our god-given right. So when people like Inhofe and most politicians, CEOs, bankers, economists, and even scientists and educators keep telling us that greed is good the vast majority of us buy it and keep on trying to get raises or pay the least we can for goods (so that manufacturers have to seek cheaper labor markets in other parts of the world). We’ve shot ourselves in both feet (all of our feet combined) multiple times and we can no longer stand, as a civilization or even as a species.

Say goodbye to profits and the institutions that promote them.

Podcast: David Korowicz Part 3- On the Cusp of Collapse

Off the Microphones of David Korowicz, RE & Monsta

Aired on the Doomstead Diner on July 27, 2013

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Discuss at the Podcast Table inside the Diner

On the Cusp of Collapse

Complexity, Energy, and the Globalised Economy

On the Cusp of Collapse

The systems on which we rely for our financial transactions, food, fuel and livelihoods are so inter-dependent that they are better regarded as facets of a single global system. Maintaining and operating this global system requires a lot of energy and, because the fixed costs of operating it are high, it is only cost-effective if it is run at near full capacity. As a result, if its throughput falls because less energy is available, it does not contract in a gentle, controllable manner. Instead it is subject to catastrophic collapse.

Fragments from a globalised economy

• The eruption of the EyjafjallajÖkull volcano in Iceland led to the shut- down of three BMW production lines in Germany, the cancellation of surgery in Dublin, job losses in Kenya, air passengers stranded worldwide and dire warnings about the effects the dislocations would have on some already strained economies.

• During the fuel depot blockades in the UK in 2000, the supermarkets’ just-in-time supply-chains broke down as shelves emptied and inventories vanished. Anxiety about the consequences rose to such an extent that the Home Secretary, Jack Straw, accused the blockading truckers of “threatening the lives of others and trying to put the whole of our economy and society at risk”.

• The collapse of Lehman Brothers helped precipitate a brief freeze in the financing of world trade as banks became afraid to accept other banks’ letters of credit. [1]

Download the full paper at DavidKorowicz.com

 

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