I have been suffering from a bad writer’s block, perhaps for the first time in my life. But there is an interesting discussion unfolding at Collapse of Industrial Civilization: part of it harkens to one of the favorite claims of the Doomer community: it’s not money, it’s cheap energy, stupid!

The highlighted analysis of the Greek predicament has much to recommend it. So is the author’s claim that money is not the deepest problem, but energy is. Except, where it is not the deepest deep problem. I maintain that both the money problem and the energy problem can be solved provided we solve the power problem.

The problem of power in a nutshell is this: those in power have most of the money, most of the oil, and most of everything else on this planet. How then do we solve any problem that runs into this wall? The problem of money will not be solved as long as this elite does not want it solved. And there is plenty of energy on this planet, oil-based and otherwise, provided we stop the waste, profligacy, and that giant vacuum that sucks up most of the wealth in the direction of the pathocracy.

Easter Island went down because they did not solve the problem of power. Tikopia solved its power problem and went on to thrive. Somehow — I have not heard of any legends that remember how — the Tikopians leveled their society. They retained chiefs, but humble ones, living only one notch above everyone else. And put in place many checks and balances in addition.

Having leveled their society, they could successfully address overpopulation, universal access to land (e.g. energy), as well as the bitter, murderous conflict that wracked their society before. They also tackled the pig problem and managed to eliminate every last one, despite the powerful lure of delicious bacon, because the pigs were not only ruining their gardens, but also fed the lust for power, wealth and status via elite-sponsored feasting.

Am I just another kollapsnik who thinks that “their” deepest problem is the one? Perhaps. You tell me. But you better put up a damn good argument. And how do we solve the problem of power? I have a feeling that this problem cannot be solved in the public eye, top down, in full visibility. It can be only solved in the grassroots, below the radar. I plan to make a few hints, though, for all who may be working it out. After all, the roving Eye cannot see everything, and understands far less than it sees.

elitist

 

The house stands. Green food is here. I give, you give, all must give.
— from a Kepele spell

Many years ago, I was fortunate to discover Pascal’s Wager, and applied it to my own life. Now, in its original form, the bet is tainted by Monsieur Pascal’s own belief that God — the Creative Force — set things up so that humans who do not believe are tormented for eternity in a place called hell. A booby trap.  Suffice it to say that I never was one to paint God in vengeful dictator colors.

pascal's wager

But I was intrigued by the logic. What if, I thought, I make the bet my own? If I believe, and I am wrong, nothing happens after death, no gain. If, on the other hand, I believe, and this turning changes my life for the better, and possibly enables me to make connections to unseen forces and mysteries of the universe, I come out ahead.

Correspondingly, if I remain an unbeliever, and God does not exist, no loss in the next world. But, on the other hand, I miss out on a life that turns me away from the path of arid materialism and, possibly, cynical “nothing matters in the long run” orientation. This was a time when the strictly scientific, rationalist vision of the universe began to grate on my nerves, and I discovered I much prefer my world enchanted. Pascal helped me see that when it comes to beliefs which, at present, have no way of being proven one way or another, my intuitive preference could be a starting point for turning my life around. Decades later, I can confirm that the wager has more than paid off, though of course that rational escape hatch inspired by Pascal was only one element of my younger self’s transformation.

Nevertheless, it was with great amazement I came recently to understand that such a bet was commonly taken by our tribal forebears, who understood our needs and our psychology far better than the modernists who have been predicting the demise of religion for more than a hundred years now. My new insight was triggered by two books: Shamans, sorcerers and saints: a prehistory of religion, and Historical vines: Enga networks of exchange, ritual, and warfare in Papua New Guinea. Though the tomes are dense and slow reading, they are well worth the effort as they trace the deep history of religious/spiritual currents and practices. I will be referring to them in the future; they illuminate the problem of power and the paths away from Babylon.

Tribal people did not have ‘religion’ as we commonly understand it; they had cults. I searched for a better name since the word ‘cult’ has unpleasant connotations, but there are no other options. Perhaps it’s time to rescue it. The dictionary tells me that a cult is “a group having a sacred ideology and a set of rites centering around their sacred symbols,” or “a system of religious veneration and devotion.” And that is exactly what tribes had. Their cults were always evolving and responding to the social needs of the present; they could do so because the cult’s direction and adaptation was fully in the hands of the local “users.” Indeed, it’s been said that cults were for them a powerful social technology that addressed ecological and other problems the tribe was facing in its cultural evolution. For example, in Papua New Guinea they used egalitarian, altruistic, unifying cults to balance the tribe’s induction into the increasingly inequitable and competitive “cult of MORE” which originated long before the coming of the whites.

Cults were concerned not with the afterlife but rather with effectiveness in this life. First, they were utilized to help assure the thriving of family, clan and tribe by “doing right” by the unseen forces and tribal ideals. Second, they provided a tool for dealing with problems in the here and now. In effect, the power these ceremonies unleashed enabled people to embody certain values and behaviors that were helpful in alleviating a crisis. For example, when a smouldering feud burst into flame and angry, vindictive feelings ran high, a Kepele cult ceremony might be organized that entailed building a ritual house by common effort, storytelling (related to cosmology, tribal origins, and legends), specific rituals, a feast, dancing, and a boys’ initiation ceremony. These shared, hallowed activities defused the tension and helped turn the tide of violence.  Cross-clan and cross-tribe cults like the Kepele opened up local clans to innovation from abroad and fostered amiable relations with distant neighbors while creating possibilities of new alliances for marriage and trade. And lifting people’s spirits and resetting their orientation in the world was a big part of the magic.

If I needed more persuasion to consider seriously the value of spiritual practices at this point, Brian Hayden’s argument from our biological heritage would be the next best thing. I quote at length below. But I confess that for the very first time, I appreciate fully the power of shared ritual, and mourn the magnitude of what we lost when religion was either hijacked by power brokers, or abandoned altogether.

We can look at our ancient human biological heritage in a new way — the aspects of our human emotional makeup that instinctively resonate within us. These include our natural reactions to rhythm, dance, song, drama, ritual, and all the myriad factors that tend to produce altered states of consciousness in us. These are not simply behaviors that we have learned because cultural traditions have taught us to enact them, with our minds serving as a blank canvas. I contend that these are all evolutionarily structured basic behavioral penchants, similar to the proclivity that human infants exhibit for learning and structuring language. All these factors — language, play, family closeness, kinship, ritual, rhythm, dance — probably played important adaptive roles in the early evolution of the human race. Cultural traditions may model the styles and the details, but the basic penchants undoubtedly stem from ecological adaptations. Not everyone may feel the pull of each factor equally strongly. Some people seem more sensitive to music, others to ritual, others to masks and drama. However, there are probably very few people who do not naturally feel some reaction to at least one of these factors. Recognizing these aspects of our human nature and our human heritage and valorizing them as the essence of what it means to be human is an important step in coming to terms with our contemporary religious experience.

Politicians, philosophers, scholars, scientists, and others have often expressed dismay that in this age of science and enlightenment, such large proportions of even the most modern populations continue to hold irrational, unverified superstitions or beliefs about the existence of a supernatural world, gods, ghosts, or spirits. For such people, science and modern social or political life should have eliminated the need for supernatural beliefs and ritual practices. But they have missed the point. Religion satisfies an inner craving for meaning, a feeling of wholeness or union with greater forces, and an inner satisfaction that comes only from ritual life, just as music and rhythms satisfy an inner emotional craving deep within our souls and minds for the trances, the ecstasies, and the profound experiences only they can produce. These are fundamental adaptations of our biological heritage. To argue that advances in science or politics have eliminated the need for religion is tantamount to arguing that science and politics have eliminated the need for music….

Rational thought on its own becomes pathologically self-serving and destructive of life. Einstein purportedly expressed a similar sentiment when he said that the intuitive mind is a sacred gift and the rational mind is a faithful servant; we have created a society that honors the servant and has forgotten the gift.

ritual

Once aggrandizers are given an inch of leeway under favorable resource conditions, they quickly stretch that inch into a mile and keep on going.
— Brian Hayden

Once upon a time, there lived the ancestral apes that gave rise to humans, chimpanzees and bonobos.
Figure 1
In all likelihood, they lived in bands dominated by the strongest, most aggressive individuals — the male alphas. This tends to produce a rather disagreeable state of affairs where anyone can be humiliated or brutalized at any moment, and the best food and most mates go to just a few. Even baboons would rather opt out when the opportunity arises! In addition, our growing brains demanded the fats found only in scarce meat which the alphas commandeered.

Evolution snaked forward. The chimps pretty much put up with the true and tried. Bonobos evolved out of this unpleasant arrangement into an alliance of females, cemented by mutual sexual pleasuring. Humans likewise evolved out and into an alliance of betas, cemented by unprecedented, increasingly more subtle communication abilities, eventually including laughter and speech.

In conjunction with weapons-at-a-distance that equalized brawn and brains, power came to be shared, and so was the meat. The resulting egalitarian bands, a durable and satisfying arrangement, saw humans through the harshness of repeated ice ages and other natural calamities. During this time, humans became survivors par excellence on the planetary stage. The egalitarian strategy of “vigilant sharing” had proven itself a winner.

When did our first egalitarian revolution occur? Nobody knows, as yet. Some experts posit it could be as far back as when we came down from the trees, others place it into our sapiens timeline. The oldest known wooden, fire-hardened spears come from about 300-400,000 years ago.

This agreeable social arrangement began to slightly unravel in areas of plenty in the late European Paleolithic, and gradually wound down among the so-called “complex hunter-gatherers” after 15,000 years ago. Complex or transegalitarian foragers were people who forged new pathways into competition, accumulation, increasingly violent conflict, and ratcheting economic growth. Individuals known in the literature as Big Men or aggrandizers led this “elitist revolution,” becoming quite the experts on getting people to crank out work and surpluses, by hook or by crook.

In the beginning, these hardworking, enterprising, and generous leaders couched their projects in the language of altruism and community. But being “triple-A” (aggressive, acquisitive, ambitious) personalities, they were also surreptitiously looking out for number one. As more and more wealth of the tribe flowed through their hands, they learned to skim a little, then a bit more, for themselves. They finessed a plethora of strategies that created social imbalances among the people of the tribe. At first, only a few families were left behind, and most did well in the aftermath of Big Men’s projects. But in time, poverty spread apace with increasing social stratification. And after a few millennia of these increasingly manipulative and coercive tactics, the very individuals who early on worked the hardest and kept the least became those who worked the least and kept the most.

As the ratchet picked up speed, wealth and power inequalities grew to such an extent that a genetic bottleneck shows up around 8,000 years ago [reports just off the press, here and here] in various communities of the mid to late Neolithic. Just like in the days of our apish ancestors, the most aggressive alphas grabbed the best food and most of the mates. H. sapiens went baboon.

More work meant more food meant more people. Aggressive, accumulative, highly competitive societies gained a short-term advantage and were pushing out those who stayed with the old relaxed, egalitarian lifestyle. The needs of power came to trump the needs of life on the “Parable of the Tribes” planet. Elite-run societies are very good at producing goods; they nevertheless have a variety of disadvantages. The key one being this: aggrandizers have a problem with brakes. In the long run, they drive their societies off a cliff.

And here we are. Time, once again, for a crash. Except, this time, it’s global. Except, this time, it’s affecting the entire web of life our own lives depend on. The planetary ecosystems are devastated; some are dying. Our fellow creatures are disappearing forever. The soils that feed us are blowing away and turning into desert. There are invisible poisons everywhere, in the air we breathe, in the food we eat, in mothers’ milk. Clean water has become a rare commodity. Oceans are chock-full of garbage. Pathetically enough, the aggrandizers are losing their touch: jobs are vanishing at a time when people depend on them for their entire livelihoods. A stain of misery seeps across the anguished blue planet.

Our leading aggrandizers, of course, are not paying attention. It is one of elite privileges, not having to listen to the peons. Not having to listen to bad news. Not having to face feedback that is simply inconvenient to their plans and schemes, inconvenient to getting even richer and more powerful. One of the cherished perks of being rich and powerful is ignoring anyone who isn’t. Why not continue to live in a bubble and pretend that the bubble that’s lasted so long is permanently impervious to reality?

The Earth is running out — out of minerals, out of peoples and places to exploit, out of space for waste, out of patience. And the teetering tower of complexity, having reached the point of diminishing returns, stirs deep memories of quite another lifeway. Our species knows how to handle hardship and austerity — this knowledge is part of our genetic endowment. When resource conditions worsen to the point that aggrandizing behaviors again pose a threat to community and survival, humans set down tight limits on greed and narrow self-interest. I reckon we are about there. Time for the second egalitarian revolution, don’t you think?

equal

We’re not trying to live like our ancestors, but to do something totally new: to preserve the most helpful complex technologies, while shifting to a political and economic system where power is fully shared.
— Ran Prieur

It seems like ages ago when I wrote about the logic of power. To sum up that post, I argued that it is not possible to fix domination by seizing power. When a group outdominates the current dominators, they become the new dominators. This really ought to be clear by now to anyone looking to “change the world.” It has nothing to do with faulty characters of the revolutionaries. It has to do with the logic of power. Boggles the mind, though; people still try again and again to grab power from their “oppressors.” And they are equally frequently admonishing fellow revolutionary spirits to “dismantle” power as though it were scaffolding.

dismantle power

What is power, anyway? It seems to me that power in its most basic sense is potency. Ability to do, to accomplish. We are all given power along with life, and all adults have, fundamentally, more or less the same amount. In the personal sense, of course, individuals vary somewhat, depending on their levels of energy, their vitality, strength and perseverance, and their specific talents. Their power also waxes and wanes depending on state of health, age, and other factors. But in the “state of nature” personal power fluctuates within a relatively narrow range.

So this type of power is often spoken of as “power-to.” Looking at the uses of power specifically within social settings, however, there appear to be two other kinds of power: power-over, the ability to force others to do one’s bidding against their will, and power-with, the use of power together with others in a variety of voluntary, collaborative ways. Much of the malfunction of “this civilization” has to do with its heavyhanded reliance on power-over.

Power is a form of energy, then. And as other forms of energy can be temporarily gathered up and stored, so can human power. Temporary power acquisition by individuals can be beneficial. The leader of the hunt is given the power to direct the day’s maneuvers. Back in the village, though, he gives that power back. He does not hoard it, bossing people around. And if he does try, tribal folk have in their repertoire a variety of tactics to put him back in his place, and will be less likely to grant him power next time around.

Even in our culture, such ad hoc power acquisition can be a force for good. The fire brigade captain alone directs the action during a fire, and the team is better off. It can be argued that temporary concentration of power in an individual or group is one of the ways healthy power can be used. It is when someone begins to accumulate power the way an alcoholic hoards booze that things go awry.

Power, like water, needs to flow to stay healthy. When it is hoarded and congealed, it goes stale and eventually poisonous. And when it turns toxic, we find ourselves in a grim fairy tale: the person who hoards it will be sickened by the power he wields, and anyone who tries to grab that toxic power away from him will be poisoned and corrupted in turn. Once you touch that poison, its evil magic will turn you into yet another marionette goose-stepping in the domination death march.

How then do we deal with power gone toxic? How can we change the world without touching that poison, without trying to “dismantle” it, without any involvement with it at all?

Congealed power is an attractor. You cannot seize or dismantle an attractor any more than you can seize or dismantle a whirlpool in a river. When the river no longer feeds energy to that particular whirlpool, the eddy will weaken and disappear. Attractors are ‘dissipative dynamic structures.’ They need constant input of energy to keep going, just like a lightbulb needs a constant flow of electricity to keep emitting light. Once the flow stops, the light goes dark. There is no need to seize the lightbulb, nor to dismantle it, right? If we want another type of light, that’s where we direct power and attention.

If we want our power to flow and stay healthy, we pass it from hand to hand; we share it. We pay it forward.

flow

The Neolithic revolution was neither Neolithic, nor a revolution.
— Colin Tudge

Human beings of the race that calls itself Homo sapiens lived in relative equality, in small foraging bands all its existence from the time they emerged about 200,000 years ago. Then, around 30,000 years ago, during a bit more clement time within the last ice age, glimmerings of inequality arose at sites known in Europe — in places that were unusually plentiful in game.

sungir

One of the Sungir burials

Tools grew more elaborate, trade widened, grave goods accompanied certain burials, jewelry and other prestige items became notable, and evidence of control over significant labor was in evidence (viz, for example, the stupendous numbers of sewn-on ivory beads in the Sungir graves).

It has been hypothesized that at some locations, the fabled painted caves in France and Spain turned into places where elite children underwent their initiations. But when game grew sparse, humans went back to tight egalitarian cooperation.

Significant inequality kicked off around 15,000 years ago, after the end of the ice age, during the Magdalenian culture. By now, the dog, horse, and possibly the reindeer had been tamed by these stone-age foragers, thousands of years before the domestication of plants. The delicious pig was bred, also by foragers, in Anatolia about 13,000 years ago, while their Syrian neighbors may have tinkered with rye. A couple of millennia later, foragers built the impressive ceremonial center of Göbekli Tepe which shows the command of vast labor pools, not only to build the center, but eventually to bury it under a hill of gravel.

GobekliTepe2

Part of Göbekli Tepe; click to enlarge; copyright National Geographic

While most of the tribes roaming the Earth continued in the age-old foraging and sharing patterns, a few cultures blessed with particularly fecund landbase began to amass wild surpluses, captured or tamed animals to use in ceremonies, processions and sacrificial rites, threw elaborate feasts, forged far-reaching alliances and trade, and started the engine of ratcheting economic growth, which then — very slowly and haltingly at first — began its world conquest.

feast

preparing a tribal feast

The “feasting model theory” for the origin or agriculture was proposed by archeologist Bryan Hayden. It posits that intensive agriculture was the necessary result of ostentatious displays of power. To regularly throw feasts as a means of exerting dominance, large quantities of food had to be assembled. The enterprising Big Men came to be admired and encouraged for their charisma and skill in wheeling and dealing as they organized these ever larger, more sumptuous and more competitive affairs.

As feasts and ceremonies got more lavish and impressive, the economic treadmill speeded up. People were propelled to get inventive. Foragers had tended wild plants since time immemorial; now they began to cultivate more. Not to feed themselves day-to-day, you understand: for that, they had the plentiful wild food all around them that had always fed them. But the aggrandizive feasts demanded delicacies and amazing new foods to impress the guests. The animals, of course, were the first coup. The dog, whose genome began to diverge from wolves 100,000 years ago, was already domesticated 36,000 years ago. How impressive it must have seemed to have a tame wolf at one’s side who could keep the wild wolves at bay! And so, later, much more effort was put into making a steady supply of animals available for processions, ritual sacrifice, and feasting.

The first domesticated plants were a curiosity. Cultivated rice was proudly presented by the elites at feasts and glorified in myth. But the plant itself was fickle, produced little, and required a lot of work. For real food, people relied on manioc and wild staples, but to impress guests or to trade for desired items, they used rice. And of course, rice and the other grains produced alcohol, another coveted item at feast-time.

The picture I see is not of late Paleolithic and early Neolithic people planting fields of grains and vegetables. I see them growing small experimental plots of plants that could be leveraged into prestige and wealth. In our age, people of modest means tinker in their garages and dream of making it big. The foragers tinkered in their small garden plots. Once an experiment seemed promising, it was given a bit more land, and began to be displayed at the table of a few chosen people, not unlike Wes Jackson showcases his latest, most promising perennial grains at the Land Institute’s yearly festival, and gives small amounts to his friends and allies to try out.

It took many centuries, perhaps millennia, of such small-scale experimentation for grains, lentils, and other cultivars to achieve some reasonable production standard. Only then did they make sense as staples. What were once luxury foods became common fare. And once the old luxury foods were no longer scarce, new prestigious luxury foods had to be found for the insatiable elites. What are some of those early luxury foods? Chiles, vanilla, avocados, gourds, chocolate, alcohol, pork. The grains rice, rye, wheat, barley and maize were all accorded special respect and sometimes even divinity. A big coup was scored when the enormous and dangerous aurochsen were turned into smaller docile cattle.

And so the engine set to crank more and more nifty foods began to crank more people, and the Food Race kicked off in earnest. Tractable animals and improved plants were only some of the items the elites and their socio-economic treadmill pressed for. The others were metals, better tools and containers, more elaborate houses, monuments, ornaments and rare items from faraway places, bridewealth, and other cultural artifacts that validated the new extractive unequal economy. Thus began the endless stream of innovation and profusion of goods whose tail end we are experiencing now, supported by the geysers of fossilized fluids from the bowels of the earth.
SEATED GODDESS
Wild foods were the staples at Çatal Hüyük, the first town. It was wild grains that were venerated and interred in the statuette of the Seated Goddess. Wild aurochs bucrania adorned the walls. And the people ranged for miles to gather and hunt, rounding up wild goats and sheep into adjacent corrals. But I wager they had tiny garden plots nearby on the rich alluvial and regularly flooding soil surrounding their hillock, plots where they experimented with small amounts of exotic foodstuffs emerging from their patient manipulation. It would be thousands of years for the results of some of these trials to become widespread. Tinkering was so uncertain and laborious! The plentiful foraging grounds that surrounded them made such leisurely experimentation possible.

When their later descendants tried to grow the much improved crops in ever larger quantities, they ran into a problem: they damaged the soil they were forcing past endurance, and eventually caused crashes all around the Levant and Mesopotamia. These crashes were not really caused by ignorance — our clever and observant ancestors were savvy to the ways of the land — but the inexorable treadmill pushed and pushed them so they pushed and pushed the land, until it collapsed. Then they starved or migrated, taking their destructive system with them.

This ratchet, friends, is the socio-economic origin of agriculture. It is also the origin of destructive mining and metallurgy, of despotism, loss of leisure and increasingly debilitating work, increasingly violent conflict, population explosion, and slavery. In other words, agriculture turned destructive not because of some intrinsic flaw within larger-scale, more sophisticated cultivation. It turned destructive for the same reason mining, conflict, grazing, or governance turned destructive. Stay tuned.

ratchet002

The only way for us to win is not to play.

At the core of the Machine is a whirlwind of human and planetary energy sucked into a global positive feedback loop that’s formed a funnel of destruction and death, mowing down everything in its path. An out-of-control vicious circle is very difficult to stop; there is no point underestimating the daunting nature of this task. Such a system has a huge investment in ignoring warning counter-signals. This, coupled with the addictive nature of power, makes for a very persistent system, which, indeed, has persisted very well for some 6,000 years. The heavy investment of the rulers in power-enhancing technologies also makes a big difference. And yet, and yet… a well-aimed negative feedback will stop a runaway loop cold.

History, so far, shows only two ways such Machines of domination were stopped. The first is a system-wide crash: the Machine ran out of — ruined — “nature services” that provided the resources human labor could gather and amplify, with resulting starvation, flight and desolation. This is the option accompanied by the infamous Horsemen: Famine, Pestilence, War and cannibalism (this shadowy horseman is rarely mentioned but rides along with the others as sure as Death). The second is a slower collapse with a silver lining: the workforce vanishes into the underbrush, merging with tribes and rebels off the radar, scavenging for real value, and leaving the Machine to grind to a halt. In other words, either warning signals are heeded and human energy redirects itself away from the Machine, or nature pulls the plug. I hardly need to emphasize that it would be much to our advantage not to wait for Mother Nature’s solution. Will it work? It’s the only thing that ever has. All it takes is a critical number of people quietly ducking out.

When the Czechs and Slovaks withdrew from public life into private and family affairs after the 1968 Soviet invasion, I was grievously disappointed. I envied the Poles their active and celebrated opposition. Now I see it as the sanest response they could have mounted. They withdrew from the system. They laughed at it in a million clever jokes. They worked as little as possible, they taught their own kids to look under the surface and see the lies, they believed nothing official but found their own sources of news, they created connected networks of craftspeople and others with useful skills to trade and get things done privately. And they put most of their energy into living. The system weakened; how could it not? The power structure, artificially propped up by Moscow, collapsed overnight when the Soviets could no longer ride in with the big stick. My old countrymen and women paddled with the current, while the power elites struggled against it, trying hard to control the situation. To no avail. It is a lot easier to harass a few dissidents than to go after millions of people who are most notable by… doing as little for the system as they can get away with, just minding their everyday lives, and not believing anything you say.

So it works in the modern world, just as it worked long ago for lowland Maya, or the Hohokam, or Norte Chico. It’s our last great hope: passing over the swamp that waters Babylon, we rain our energy onto the watershed that feeds the river of Life.

river

 We can refuse to participate in a dead society gone shopping.
— Joe Bageant

Once we understand what feeds it, it becomes possible to think of stopping the Machine. I puzzled over this one for a long time, only to suddenly grok the obvious: the fodder for the Machine is our precious life energy!

Eeww… eewww

So then. Deny it its coveted fuel: your effort, your attention and interest, your money, your loyalty, your goodwill and your good ideas. Deny it your streams of energy, one by one. Direct them instead to the Lifeworld. And don’t shout it from the rooftops! Just blend discreetly into one of the various subcultures experimenting nowadays with a saner way of life; the minions and guardians of the Machine will never even notice you.

This is the crux. Any machine can withstand tinkering, but no machine can run without fuel. Like an old mill on a dry riverbed, it will become a relic of a past that’s done with, a useless hunk of debris. Our radical withdrawal will be the end of the Machine.

Here are some of the ways of seceding from Babylon:

  • Down-work, un-work

More work is the source of evils like resource depletion and stress and pointlessly complicated lives; the Earth needs us to stop working so hard! The less we work, the less we feed the Machine. Our work aids the plunder, our de-working slows and stops it, one person at a time. This is why Babylon has always reinforced the message that work is virtuous and important even as it was inventing pointless busywork, harmful work, useless work. Let’s celebrate “Freedom from Labor” Day! Working more is not the way to leisure. Leisure is the way to leisure. Find it before the Machine uses you up and spits you out.

Working less will give the earth a break and repatriate you from ratdom back to humanity. There is plenty of work out there for those who want to do real things, useful things that matter. Once we shed debts and provide ourselves with paid-for basics, money is a small part of the picture. Well-being is what matters, not cranking out a pittance while the planet is plundered more and more. What we need is a “less work ethic”! Less work, less planet being used, more life.

  • Unschool

Unschooling does not mean turning the parent into a traditional teacher, and stuffing the kids full of the same nonsense that the official curricula dictate. No! Let children learn as they did between that ages of birth and 5 or 6, when they acquired prodigious quantities of knowledge, all by their own efforts. Just help them along, and they will be far ahead of their institutionalized peers. Best learning happens in context, by learners who are busily exploring their environment. Spend time with your children sharing with them what you know and what you love. Create neighborhood co-op schools. Get tutors (elders in particular): kind, child-cherishing experts who can take the kids down paths you do not know. And make it possible for children to learn real things: basic medical care, care for animals, food growing and cooking, conversation, geography of travel, building. All those abstractions schools “teach” will either be learned in the course of their exploration, or will never be needed anyways. Honest: when was the last time you needed algebra?

  • Dis-identify with the hologram 

Exit the theater of the audience-nation! As Joe Bageant once ranted so well: “All Americans, regardless of caste, live in a culture woven of self-referential illusions. Like a holographic simulation, each part refers exclusively back to the whole, and the whole refers exclusively back to the parts. All else is excluded by this simulated reality, a simulated republic of eagles and big box stores, a good place to live so long as we never stray outside the hologram. The corporate simulacrum of life has penetrated us so deeply it now dominates the mind’s interior landscape with its celebrities and commercial images. Within the hologram sparkles the culture-generating industry, spinning out our unreality like cotton candy.”

The hologram and its spin meisters have been having themselves a veritable orgy of lies and propaganda dealing with the wreck that is Ukraine. This has been one part of the world I have followed with some alacrity over the last year. Nothing, nothing, nothing reported in the MSM was close to the reality on the ground. When the fated Malaysian plane was shot down, a relentless stream of deception sloshed out like long-stored toxic sludge that burst its containment. As Ilargi has recently pointed out on Automatic Earth, 2014 was the year when the bargeload of lies heading our way was no longer even disguised. It may be time for me to pull back even from the little “Babylon-watching” that I still do. Their self-referential faux-reality does not deserve the gift of anyone’s attention. My heart goes to all those trapped in Babylon’s perpetual wars, and my blessings.

  • Unplug from the Spectacle

Toss the damn stupid boob box. Why are you still watching all those hundreds of channels with nothing on? It sucks away your hours like a vampire. Give those hours to something that will give you joy. After all, your supply of lifetime hours is very limited. News? You will learn about the important events from other people. It is quite possible to stop reading the papers – skimming the headlines is more than enough. And you will spare yourself the crassness of commercials, ads, infomercials and disinformation. Computer news can be used far more selectively, and can supply news directly from other people like us, unfiltered by official channels. Find what works for you. Waking from the trance takes time and new habits.

But that’s not nearly enough. I have been amongst the TV-unplugged for 15 years now, and yet I too get sucked into the vortex of disastrous news. In the fall of 2008 I gaped with horror and disbelief as the evidence of stupendous plunder unfolded. I spent inordinate amount of my time trying to fathom it. But what good has it done me or my neighbors? All those fear-mongering stories – the true and the false – are just stories, repetitive and debilitating messages of scarcity and doom, bringing about a festering sense of anxiety, failure and helplessness so that people become ripe pickings for demagogues and con-men. We can choose not to play this game. We can tell stories that are of use, and disseminate them via our own channels. And while the thugs and thieves will keep on with their business, we can and will find a way to secede from their Kingdom of Spin, leaving them to their slime, moving on.

  • Un-shop

Buy only what you must. Economize. Go frugal. Share. Grow and make your own. Join a community that knows how. Support local merchants. Let the uglification of box stores mercifully fall into the understory of history. A healthy economy does not depend on buying up an avalanche of crap and working in pointless jobs to be able to afford it. It depends on people being genuinely productive and economical. It also depends on a healthy planet to feed us, and on social systems not based on theft so that we don’t have to run just to stay in one place, while others fatten themselves at our expense.

  • Un-debt

Get a debit card if you must, or do a cash economy. Pay off the debts. Do what it takes. Get out of the yoke too demeaning even for oxen.

  • Delegitimize

Judiciously unvote. The choices are really between really bad and “keep fingers crossed” less bad. Is that good enough? For how long? Let Babylon’s politics languish on the periphery of your attention. Ignore the inanities of the election races. Stop chasing after the liars. Refuse the system your loyalty and your goodwill.

  • Break the spell of Thingness

We’ve been taught for endless generations that it is stuff that really matters. Stuff is primary. Stuff gives security and happiness. After all, we are the descendants of the Neolithic cult of MORE. But material stuff is just a fraction of what really matters here on Earth, and we already have more than enough of it. Let us return to a larger vision: humans who break their addition to material wealth for the greater good. Humans as intelligent beings who cherish– not ruin — creation, humans as those who are wise enough to enlarge the chances of Life.

  • Down-specialize

Back off from single-minded pursuits and become a generalist. Every biochemist should know how to fix what breaks in the home. Every engineer should know how to start a fire. Every office worker should know how to do basic healing. Every one of us should know how to grow food. We all together hold the potential to be able to do most anything that really matters and our local communities require. Let’s look at the priorities, and put specialization in its valuable, but much smaller place.

  • Undomesticate

Domestication, like slavery, rebounds on the perpetrator. We must return to thinking of our fellow animals and plants as symbionts, and more, as devoted friends. Some of these friends feed us; they give the gift of their lives so that we may live on. Others maintain the atmosphere, the ecosphere, the soil. Why don’t we treat them accordingly? In return, we will reap a restoration of our own wild spirit now crushed under the weight of misery-spreading dependency, under the burden of everyday brutality that exists because of our own complicity. Babylon sweeps it under the rug, and then abuses the rebels who refuse to look the other way.

Dare I say it? Let’s rewild!

  • Repudiate usury

Babylon would like us to forget that usury, historically and biblically speaking, did not mean charging high interest. It meant not charging interest at all. Medieval economies flourished without interest. And it was interest that pushed the cancerous expansion of Western civilization. Interest is one of the most powerful ratcheting forces behind the vicious circle of “endless growth” and accompanying plunder. There are other ways to conceive of money and lending. Send some of your energy to the financial rebels who are disseminating them.

  • Disencumber

Remember those storage sheds full of crap you will never use again, the closets chock-full of stuff you haven’t seen in years? Time to “shed it” for good. Most places have second-hand stores happy to take some of it. Try craigslist or freecycle websites. Some communities have Free Stores or book kiosks too, or need to. I have had good luck with half.com and amazon for passing on books that I cared about but that I would never read again. Every time something, no matter how small, is passed on to the next user, life opens up new possibilities.

  • Divest

We cannot expect to shrink Babylon or leave it while giving it our money. These money systems are the dark heart of Babylon, and they are the ones that transform our living energy into the stuff that flows out. It is laughable to think that Babylon will allow significant reform so that community banking and money issuance could take hold. But thousands of hidden, small experiments growing like mushrooms everywhere? At a time of ongoing high-level crises Babylon must deal with first – that indeed would be a formidable challenge. Divesting deflated South Africa’s balloon. It will deflate Babylon’s zeppelin too. Let’s find ways to invest our money in the service of Life.

  • Phase out economic dependencies

Learning to supply one’s basic needs without the dependence on Babylon is the key to freedom. Follow the paths of food to learn how ridiculous, wasteful, unsafe, and downright revolting our system is. Find local sources for the basics from food and soap to pottery and clothes. Become one of the local sources for something. Be part of the local economy. Cook from scratch. Relearn frugality and old-time skills and teach others. Restore the free and the abundant. Earn local money into existence.

  • Lighten the overhead

Stop feeding the chiseling bridge-trolls. Go direct for all the goods that you cannot buy locally. Look where the skimming goes on in an economic transaction, and find ways to circumvent the middlemen. The maintenance of elites is a luxury the planet can ill afford. As soon as we refuse to produce the skim-surplus that finances them, they will vanish like mist over a morning swamp.

  • Decontaminate one’s self

There are plenty of noxious ideas and patterns of thinking out there, the sort that keep us tied to Babylon’s strings forever. We must become shrewd and discerning. As we disencumber materially, it makes sense to do spring cleaning inside our heads as well. Community is more important than “multiculturalism” or “cosmopolitanism.” Anomie is not something we must accept along with stainless steel and velcro. And good medical care need not be based on an overly high-tech, top-heavy, impersonal model. Dare to imagine — and come to visit — the lovely world outside Babylon’s box.

  • Un-victimize

We must learn to defend ourselves and our communities. A time may come when it becomes imperative. In any case, the police are expensive, and not really needed in communities run well by their citizens. The Amish have no need of the police.

And we must learn to ease off the grid, to rethink our vulnerabilities to centralized solutions from electricity to emergency services. There are many ways a small community can provide its own, and become far less vulnerable to sudden problems. Remember the hard winter 2008 out east and its long lapses in utility provision along with a run on generators and attendant theft?  None of that is necessary among people who have made reasonable provisions for unusual situations.

And finally, we must again play a key role in keeping our food supply safe. Becoming part of a network of trustworthy farmers, food processors and artisans is where it begins.

  • Down-compete

Competition, like fire, is a good servant but a terrible master. It works best when it’s contained within a larger collaborative world. Unfettered competition fails to promote common good, and often leads a race to the bottom. When the emphasis on competition makes people less cooperative, selfishness and free riding are promoted, contributions to public good are reduced, heavy stress takes a toll on health, and we all end up worse off. Take a good look around you at this world out of kilter. One Harvard professor did, and he began to penalize students for lack of teamwork, even at exams. What do American schools call such teamwork? Cheating! Cheat Babylon by playing fair: cooperate.

  • Un-waste

Waste too is part of the grid in Babylon. The system encourages it in a myriad ways, from free dumps to curbside unlimited pick up, from its hidden network of sewers to water treatment plants (which are free at a glance, and very expensive and poorly designed if you really look) and toxic dumping. Eeww indeed! Yet the solutions are already out there, from composting to grey water systems and water-purifying wetlands, from reusing to making do. Waste comes from feeding human and planetary energy to the maw of the Machine. Food into waste, life into death. Let us reverse the transformation and reestablish natural cycles.

  • Dis management

Letting go of the controlling, managerial paradigm and meddlesome interventionism will be key in regaining our sanity. Interventionism breeds more interventionism and has costs that Babylon hides by “cooking the books.” Remember… when it comes to the universe, we did not cause it, we cannot cure it, and we cannot control it. Let it run itself – it knows how. Ran Prieur once said, “I swear, if we had infinite technological power, at our present emotional level, we would destroy all the clouds, replace them with holograms of clouds, and have fleets of airships drop water, instead of just letting it rain.” Isn’t that modern mis-managerial hubris in a nutshell!? Enough already…

  • Down-tech

Individuals and communities can scrutinize technology and pick and choose carefully. Must you really have another kitchen gizmo? Do you want to spend your days staring at a smart-phone, with the Eye following you wherever you go? Do you really need electricity 24/7? Each new artifact has its price, and impacts the well-being of human communities and the natural world. Heed the wise Akela’s call: “Look well, look well, oh wolves. As befits a Free People.”

  • Detoxify

Detoxify relationships, that is. Have you noticed? Anti-bully programs in schools are all the rage now, but nobody ever points out that schools exist, in part, to inure kids to being bullied (by teachers, administrators, and curriculum planners), so that when they get absorbed into the workforce, they think it’s normal, just put up and shut up. Domination is the poison in the wellspring of Babylon. Don’t drink from it.

Easier said than done. Bossism in all its forms has contaminated almost everything. Domination is a dirty trick, and we are all tainted. We all play the domination/submission game. But another game is afoot. The partnership game. The more you learn to play it, the less beholden you will be to the con-games of Babylon.

See? You don’t have to leave the country to leave the culture.
 

unplug

The other day, I penned a small diatribe against utopians who — having power at their disposal — severely damaged our world. The essay echoed around the internet and found some surprising opposition among peer-to-peer systems proponents. When my riposte met with silence, I decided to piggyback onto that thread here.

Perhaps the rant came off my keyboard too hastily: I was fuming against all those people who, certain of their “vision” and having obtained access to the corridors of power, then proceed to impose it on us all, regardless of objections, regardless of feedback, regardless, indeed, of the reality they *actually* create.

I am all for literary utopias where speculation runs rampant and new vistas open up to human imagination. What I am against is taking that speculation and trying to hoist it upon the hapless humans that happen to be within the utopian’s power orbit. Often this takes the form of policies and laws forced upon people to change their behavior. It’s been called “social engineering” in some circles, and aptly so, since it essentially pushes and manipulates people in the direction the utopian wants them to go, and through top-down methods no less. That, my friends, is not autonomy. That’s not freedom, nor is it respect. That’s not the right algorithm for getting there.

How, then, do you grow a future that works? Christopher Alexander happens to have a few things to say about it in his Process of Creating Life.

The essence of successful unfolding is that form develops step by step, and that the building as a whole then emerges, coherent, organized. The success if this process depends, always, on sequence. A building design can unfold successfully only when its features “crystallize out” in a proper order.

Instead of using plans, design, and so on, I shall argue that we must instead use generative processes. Generative processes tell us what to do, what actions to take, step by step, to make buildings and building designs unfold beautifully, rather than detailed drawings which tell us what the end-result is supposed to be.

The step-by-step approach works. The all-or-nothing approach does not work. This is the secret of biological evolution. During the course of evolution, the adaptation of the thousands and millions of variables that must occur to make one successful organism happens step-by-step, essentially one gene at a time. That is what makes evolution possible. It would be impossible for nature to “design” a system as complex as any organism all at once.

What steps do you take, in what order? The most basic instruction I can give you as a guide for a living process, is that you move with certainty. That means, you take small steps, one at a time, deciding only what you know. You try never to take a step which is a guess or a “why don’t we try this?” Large scale trial-and-error, shots in the dark, simply do not work. Rather, you move by slow, small decisions, deciding one thing, getting sure about it, and then moving on.

The crux of every design process lies in finding the generative sequence for that design, and making sure that sequence is the right one for the job.

Generative sequences emerge from the doing. When I discovered them in Alexander’s writing, I thought he was referring to some template to follow, because he mentioned a song some Oceanic culture uses to pass on the sequence for building a canoe. It begins, “First, find the right tree,” and ends, “Carve the prow in the shape of a woman.”

Not so. Generative sequences emerge from the doing, when we begin where we are, and move organically from there. Sometimes, the generative sequence that emerges is of common use, when, for example, people often make canoes. Such a generative code (which might be turned into a song or a rhyme) becomes a cultural treasure, worth passing on to successive generations. Creating a sound agricultural terrace is another example. Or placing the windows in a room being built. But in unique or novel situations, the sequence itself emerges step by step.

Here’s the actual emergence of a generative sequence for household composting. When I came to the house where I lived for a number of years, I of course had an elaborate vision in my head of a large square compost heap, preferably made of nice wooden slats that were removable on one side. You’ve seen the pictures. So I chose a spot for it, and tried to figure out if I could build it. It seemed beyond me at that time. I considered using cinder blocks, but that would have made it too big and too ugly. Buying a nice wooden structure would have meant spending a lot of money ordering by mail, since local gardening shops had nothing like it. I was reluctant to turn this project into a shopping expedition. I also developed doubts about the location of the heap. I simply began to throw weeds and rotting refuse onto the spot. But it turned out too out of the way. At that point, I more or less gave up. Much later, I hit upon a generative sequence. It went like this:

  1. Need (“felt vision”): to stop throwing food bits into the garbage; to return them to the cycle of life. To walk my walk.
  2. So. If I don’t throw them away, where do I put them (as I am holding the potato peels)?
  3. Ah. Grab a plastic container, place by the sink, put peels in it.
  4. Next morning… ok, now, what do I do with these rotting peels? I have a big old plastic flower pot way back in the garden where I throw a bit of grass refuse and weeds; why don’t I throw the peels there? Done.
  5. Ick. I don’t like going way back there in bad weather. I need a place where I can empty the container if it snows, if I am barefoot or wearing only undies. I grab the flower pot and move it by the back door. Voila!
  6. Oops, we have a problem. I keep tossing the bits in the garbage anyway… keep forgetting. I need a way to change a lifelong habit. How about making a big squiggle on the side of the garbage bin with a sharpie pen? Yes, it works.
  7. Spring comes, and the pot is beginning to stink. What now? Toss some sawdust on it? Time to experiment.
  8. A bit of soil and warmer temps cure the problem.

And so it went. I did not spend a penny on the system. And since I evolved it stepwise from need to need, it is not surprising that it actually served my needs! One of these days, I will spring for a nice porcelain container with a lid to place by the sink. Now I know exactly the size and shape I need. And by the way, that spot I had originally picked for the heap? It would have been completely wrong on several counts. If I had used a plan, I would only have found out after implementation. Too late.

The emergence of new structures in nature is brought about, always, by a sequence of transformations which act on the whole, and in which each step emerges as a discernible and continuous result from the immediately preceding whole. New form comes into being. Morphogenesis occurs. New form that is, in almost every case, unpredictable from the initial state, appears smoothly via a sequence of tiny continuous changes. The sequences are not merely smooth. We have a sequence in which new structure grows organically, holistically, from the structure which is there already. One whole gives rise to another.

plant_embryogenesis

how nature generates a plant

 

You are lost in a the middle of a dark primeval forest. A moonless night breathes all around you; soft rain is falling. You long to be somewhere safe, warm, and dry. A tiny keychain flashlight illuminates the immediate space — the rest is near-impenetrable blackness. Bogs, logs and wild hogs wait to trip you up. How do you find your way?

Your senses on edge, you look, listen, sniff the breezes. A faint gurgling of a nearby brook gives you initial direction. You take a step, then examine what’s around and ahead. You take another step. It occurs to you to follow the creek downstream. The next few steps reveal an impassable steep bank. A detour leads into a huge rocky scree. “How do I get back to the water?” You peer into the darkness for the flicker of a fire or a lit window…

We too are lost in the universe. And more ominously, we are lost in a human world collectively bent on omnicide. Apart from death, we have no sure destinations. Some of us cling to the illusion of control — they think they know where we must go, and how to get there. But more and more of us have taken a good look at the disastrous centuries of ending up in the wrong places, and we finally call the quest for control a big fat lie. We gather ourselves up and resolve to abandon the control-freak led stampede to the edge of the cliff. Now we need a way to move ahead that is anchored both in the honest admission that we are not in control, and in the pattern all other creatures use as they walk the paths of their lives.

Control insists on linearity, but life is complex. Do we dare to surrender to a visionary co-adaptive journey where each step is an evolutionary state that takes its shape from steps taken before? The process I see in my mind’s eye is a dynamic dance continually responding to itself. Each step illuminates the next step. At each moment in time, new circumstances emerge. Every step brings new insights, surprises, and unforeseen consequences. Each step is part of the ongoing cycles of mutual responsiveness; it accepts feedback from the current whole and passes on feedback in its turn. One state flows into another.

Unplanning is a spiral, dynamic, unpredictable process that begins with a hunch, and evolves from there. Dreaming, doing and becoming form one seamless flow. The initial inkling of a vision does not remain static, but glows a bit stronger with each step taken. The tentative first steps merely begin the process; they do not determine it. Modifications and adjustments are made at any point, as the need becomes apparent. And each new experience undergone changes us as we come to embody the life of the path.

The unplanning process requires of us that we gradually become the kind of people who know how to inhabit this unfolding future, who are able to reach a desired place, where-ever it turns out to be. Visioning, walking, and self-changing go hand in hand; behold, a pilgrimage. Wisdom is in flux, mutually situated and actively embodied. We come to be more and more the people whose path harmonizes with that which we hope for, and that which we hope for evolves right along with our continuous becoming.

The process itself changes people — as all experiential, experimental journeys do — and people come to gradually embody that which draws them on. We don’t know where we’ll end up, trusting the process to emerge each particular end-state as a surprise.

No imaginary picture of the future controls our conception of what must be done. What must be done arises from the needs, problems and possibilities of the living present. The direction emerges gradually from the felt vision, the doing, the becoming, step by step by step.

In our profession of architecture there is no conception, yet, of process itself as a budding, as a flowering, as an unpredictable, unquenchable unfolding through which the future grows from the present in a way that is dominated by the goodness of the moment.
— C. Alexander, The Nature of Order: the process of creating life

evolve1

Dogs diverged genetically from wolves more than 100,000 years ago, during the previous warm interglacial. Did humans have anything to do with it? The oldest known dog skeletons are from 36 and 33,000 years ago, found in Belgium and Siberia. A child was exploring the Chauvet cave, using a torch to look at the artwork while a dog followed… 26,000 years ago, well before the Ice Age Maximum.

When the cold began to let up, some 17,000 years ago, the people of the Pyrenees living at the Isteritz cave took such good care of a reindeer with a broken leg, it survived for two years (viz Paul Bahn: Pre-neolithic control of animals, 1984, and his response to ongoing controversy). By 15,000 years ago, pictures of horses with rope halters appear in the Magdalenian cave art of SW France.

darudyhorse

Foragers created the first magnificent art. They built the first temples and the first high-density towns with thousands of inhabitants. They invented ovens and kilns, cookworthy pottery, wine and beer. They clearly domesticated the dog and probably tamed reindeer and horses.

So perhaps it’s not such a stretch to believe that they also domesticated the pigs, sheep and goats and a whole slew of plants, from grains to squash, gourds, and legumes, to delicacies like chocolate, vanilla, and chili peppers. Even more amazingly, it was rock-shelter dwelling, semi-nomadic foragers who spent hundreds of years patiently experimenting with the unpromising teosinte to bring about maize. Then they spent thousands of years more improving the new tiny-cobbed plant before settling down to grow it as a staple.

If a group of foragers plants a plot of squash near their favorite cave, then comes back in late summer to harvest their bounty, can they legitimately be called farmers? If another group of foragers raises some pigs while living off wild foods (and eating no cereals), can they be called farmers? If Egyptian foragers throw a bunch of traded domesticated wheat down into the rich alluvial mud on the banks of the Nile, perhaps to brew some beer, but otherwise live the hunting-fishing-gathering lifestyle, how are they any different from the Californian native foragers or the Aborigines who spread some favorite seeds and flooded them by diverting a creek’s spring runoff? Perhaps we need a new term, one that would reflect the foragers’ sophisticated plant manipulation skills that nevertheless did not, by themselves, lead to the predominantly farming life.

Archeologists have been, in my opinion, far too eager to brand cultures as farmers on flimsy evidence. It appears that farming is much younger than previously claimed. The first farming village was found in Egypt, dated to only 7,000 years ago. As Melinda A. Zeder, an archeobiologist, states:

This broad middle ground between wild and domestic, foraging and farming, hunting and herding makes it hard to draw clean lines of demarcation between any of these states. Perhaps this is the greatest change in our understanding of agricultural origins since 1995. The finer-resolution picture we are now able to draw of this process in the Near East (and, as seen in the other contributions to this volume, in other world areas) not only makes it impossible to identify any threshold moments when wild became domestic or hunting and gathering became agriculture but also shows that drawing such distinctions actually impedes rather than improves our understanding of this process. Instead of continuing to try to pigeonhole these concepts into tidy definitional categories, a more productive approach would be to embrace the ambiguity of this middle ground and continue to develop tools that allow us to watch unfolding developments within this neither-nor territory.

 

hunter-gatherers

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