The Elysium Delusion

Matt Damon in Elysium

If the futurist projections of my childhood had come true, by 2013 we should have all been living in a spinning subdivision in earth orbit by now. But space colonization is a concept that’s always bugged me. It strikes me an irresponsible escape: rather than fix things on earth, let’s all get the hell out–it’s the ultimate form of suburban flight.

NASA's 1970s era version of Elysium

NASA’s 1970s era version of Elysium

The heyday of space colonization futurism was the 1970s. But space station fantasies have reappeared in popular culture recently. At the end of the recently released movie Elysium [spoiler alert] the evil French speaking space colonists (who look like Armani clad Santa Barbarans) have their computer reset by Matt Damon who, with a few keystrokes,  gives the miserable residents of Earth (represented as a third world, distopian Los Angeles!) both universal health care and citizenship.

But, the movie Elysium, while on the surface a struggle between the haves and the have-nots, still takes it as gospel that our salvation comes in the form of an orbiting space colony. The final scene shows the teaming masses of Angelinos saved from above by the miraculous intervention of nurse robots from the space colony Elysium (which, incidentally, looks both like a rotating Mercedes logo, and the cross within a the circle symbol which Carl Jung associated with wholeness).

1970s space farming.

1970s space farming.

Coincidentally, physicist Stephen Hawking, descended from his own Euro-Elysium recently to speak to a group of nurses and doctors here in Los Angeles. In his speech, according to Associated Press, he argued for getting off earth, “The 71-year-old Hawking said he did not think humans would survive another 1,000 years “without escaping beyond our fragile planet.” The same article noted his previous advice to “Look up at the stars and not down at your feet.”

A scene from Elysium

A scene from Elysium

These fantasies permeate our culture. Take also the new reality show offering participants a one way trip to Mars, as well as the ongoing efforts of Richard Branson to hurtle rich people into low earth orbit.

In answer to Hawking, Hollywood’s imaginings, Richard Branson and those unfortunate Mars reality show participants, I say we haven’t been spending enough time looking down at our feet. The fact is that earth is a paradise, space is a vacuum and Mars is a hell.

We have to work with what we have. In my cranky opinion, the future is in down-to-earth appropriate technology, not space stations.We need to plant gardens here on earth not in the vacuum of space. I’ll note that the farms in these space colonies look an awful lot like the dystopian factory farms we have down on earth.

And we should recognize the space station fantasy for what it is: a materialistic version of a heavenly afterlife, with scientists such as Hawking acting as the priests of what John Michael Greer calls the “religion of progress,” the unspoken faith that our salvation lies in an ever greater progression of shiny technological objects.

I get that we need myths. Jung recognized rockets and UFOs as sort of a machine age manifestation of archetypes of heaven and transcendence. But it’s well past time to switch out our outdated, mechanistic symbols. Perhaps we can look to the fevered imaginings of permaculture for a healthier alternative to space station futurism. Or maybe we just need to get our hands dirty, planting gardens, building swales, working to improve what we have–in other words, look at our feet not the stars and work towards a hands-on integration of the physical and the transcendent.

Filter Fail: How to Cure Internet Addiction

You say to yourself, “I’m just going to check my email and get back to doing the dishes.” Two hours later you’ve “liked” a dozen posts on Facebook, watched a hillbilly dance with a raccoon, checked BoingBoing, Twitter, LinkedIn and Root Simple (of course).  Not to mention ,

This used to be called “information overload,” but I prefer the phrase “filter fail” that Douglas Rushkoff introduces in his book Present Shock: When Everything Happens Now (Rushokoff borrows this idea from the writer Clay Shirky). The problem is not that there’s too much information out there. The problem is that we’ve failed to screen out what is irrelevant.

It happens to me everyday and I’m not alone. This year, according to the research firm eMarketer, internet use will surpass TV viewing. The average American will spend five hours and nine minutes online (much of that time using mobile devices) and four hours and 31 minutes watching television.

I want to be careful not to come off as being anti-technology. The internet is an incredibly useful research tool and a great way to reach out to the urban homesteading community. That being said, I just can’t seem to stop watching those dancing raccoons. We may be well past the point where the distraction potential of the internet is beginning to adversely effect its usefulness.

Preventing filter fail
So what can be done on a personal level to prevent “filter fail?”

Only two things have worked for me in the past:

  • Checking email only twice a day, though this is getting difficult. I find myself falling behind.
  • Putting distance between myself and the computer by getting out of the house in the evening and going to the YMCA or fencing.

I need to do more to prevent filter fail such as getting back to my evening exercise schedule. It’s just too easy to fall into raccoon video holes. I’m even having trouble reading books and not being distracted by looking stuff up on Google.

I’d like to hear from you–do you think you have a problem? What strategies have you used to reduce filter fail?

Update on Los Angeles’ Backwards Parkway Regulations

It looks like Councilman Wesson has temporarily suspended enforcement of parkway planting rules. This is in response to Steve Lopez’s LA Times column that profiled two parkway vegetable gardens that the city busted.

A tip of the hat to Mr. Lopez for his good deed. We will all need to keep our eyes on the council and the Bureau of Street Services to make sure that the changes they make reflect common sense.

And at the risk of tooting my own horn, I pointed out the foolishness of LA’s parkway regs back in 2010.

The Society for the Diffusion of Useful Ignorance

Henry David Thoreau

I’m turning over the blog today to Henry David Thoreau, who has kindly taken a break from running his pencil factory to blog for free:

We have heard of a Society for the Diffusion of Useful Knowledge. It is said that Knowledge is power; and the like. Methinks there is equal need of a Society for the Diffusion of Useful Ignorance, what we will call Beautiful Knowledge, a knowledge useful in a higher sense; for what is most of our boasted so — called knowledge but a conceit that we know something, which robs us of the advantage of our actual ignorance? What we call knowledge is often our positive ignorance; ignorance our negative knowledge. By long years of patient industry and reading of the newspapers, — for what are the libraries of science but files of newspapers? — a man accumulates a myriad facts, lays them up in his memory, and then when in some spring of his life he saunters abroad into the great Fields of thought, he as it were goes to grass like a horse, and leaves all his harness behind in the stable. I would say to the Society for the Diffusion of Useful Knowledge, sometimes — Go to grass. You have eaten hay long enough. The Spring has come with its green crop. The very cows are driven to their country pastures before the end of May; though I have heard of one unnatural farmer who kept his cow in the barn and fed her on hay all the year round. So, frequently the Society for the Diffusion of Useful Knowledge treats its cattle.

A man’s ignorance sometimes is not only useful, but beautiful, while his knowledge, so called, is oftentimes worse than useless beside being ugly. Which is the best man to deal with, he who knows nothing about a subject, and what is extremely rare, knows that he knows nothing, — or he who really knows something about it, but thinks that he knows all?

My desire for knowledge is intermittent; but my desire to bathe my head in atmospheres unknown to my feet is perennial and constant. The highest that we can attain to is not Knowledge, but Sympathy with Intelligence. I do not know that this higher knowledge amounts to anything more definite than a novel and grand surprise on a sudden revelation of the insufficiency of all that we called Knowledge before — a discovery that there are more things in heaven and earth than are dreamed of in our philosophy. It is the lighting up of the mist by the sun. Man cannot know in any higher sense than this, any more than he can look serenely and with impunity in the face of the sun: “You will not perceive that as perceiving a particular thing,” say the Chaldean Oracles

–From Walking, written in 1862. Read the rest here.

Planetwalker John Francis

Planetwalker John Francis

Check out this interview in Grist with Dr. John Francis, the man who not only did not own a car, but opted to not ride in motorized vehicles at all for twenty-two years–and spent seventeen of those years in silence. He crossed America on foot, completed two college degrees in silence, and became an ambassador for the U.N.

You may have heard of him already–his story made the rounds years ago–but if you haven’t heard the details, haven’t heard him describe why he made the choices he did in his own words, you’re missing out. The man is wise, and he speaks from his heart.


Bonus: You can watch him talk at TED.

And find out what’s in his backpack.

And he’s got a book, Planetwalker: 22 Years of Walking. 17 Years of Silence.

My New Drug Dealer Phone

TRA_PAC_12_G_155_LG440G

I’m not a fan of cell phones. I don’t like being interrupted when I’m away from home. But good luck finding a pay phone. For that reason cell phones have become somewhat of a necessity in modern life. A few years ago a reader suggested picking up a prepaid phone. We had one for a long time and it worked great, as long as you don’t use it that much. We lost it and I  had to replace it recently. For $20 I picked up the Tracfone 440. It bears a striking resemblance to:

star-trek1

Pay as you go flip phones are used only by old dudes, drug dealers, terrorists and old dude sustainability bloggers.

For the young folks out there let me explain how the flip phone works. Say I’m at Home Depot looking for just the right drip irrigation fitting but forgot to write down how many I need. I “flip” it open and place a call to Kelly:

imagecache.w00t.com

At home she picks up the signal on our “land line”:

uhuraearpeice

There’s one hitch. The only way this type of phone works economically, is if you don’t use it much. No idle chatter. Just, “I’m in a knife fight with a bipedal lizard and got tangled up in the drip line I’m working on. Please send help:”

gorn

The payment plan puts you into the awkward position of telling friends and loved ones that their idle chatter is costing $$$. You have to train people to not call unless they are sending help or are themselves in the middle of a lizard knife fight.

“Texting” on the Tracfone 440 keypad is challenging:

morse

A group of mostly old dudes sending and receiving text messages.

How many of you have embraced a drug dealer phone? How has it worked out for you?

Climate Change and Personal Responsibility

stop waste poster

Erik and I make it a general policy not to engage in politics on this blog. Homesteading is about local and personal change foremost, after all, and it’s a big enough movement to embrace many beliefs. Also, talking politics brings out the trolls, and that’s no fun for anyone.

But.  I’ve got to bring this up. And I hope you’ll go along with me and not see this as sort of support or condemnation of any political party, nor an invitation to bash specific politicians. It is an observation about American culture as a whole.  This observation spins off of President Obama’s recent speech on climate change, and climate change is bigger than political parties, bigger than nation states.

grow-food

While I’m happy to see that we are (finally!) speaking about climate change on a national level, I noticed one striking omission from the President’s speech. He did not make any suggestion that individual Americans might want to pitch in and help mitigate this global crisis through changing their personal habits.

This despite the fact that Americans, per capita, have double the carbon footprint of our comparably well-off neighbors in Europe. Despite the fact that, according to the World Watch Institute, “The United States, with less than 5 % of the global population, uses about a quarter of the world’s fossil fuel resources—burning up nearly 25 % of the coal, 26 % of the oil, and 27 % of the world’s natural gas.”

All our President asks of us, toward the end, is that we add our voices to political discourse on the subject.

Understand this is not just a job for politicians. So I’m going to need all of you to educate your classmates, your colleagues, your parents, your friends. Tell them what’s at stake. Speak up at town halls, church groups, PTA meetings. Push back on misinformation. Speak up for the facts. Broaden the circle of those who are willing to stand up for our future.

Convince those in power to reduce our carbon pollution. Push your own communities to adopt smarter practices. Invest. Divest. Remind folks there’s no contradiction between a sound environment and strong economic growth. And remind everyone who represents you at every level of government that sheltering future generations against the ravages of climate change is a prerequisite for your vote. Make yourself heard on this issue.

Political action is all well and good, but as we’re always saying, change starts at home. We’re all in this together, and it’s important that we, as individuals, acknowledge the cost of our lifestyle and, if it seems appropriate to us after reflection, take action to alter that lifestyle.

Leaving personal responsibility out of the equation has a two-fold effect. First, it makes the issue abstract. It becomes someone else’s problem and someone else’s fault. Then the blame game begins. Second, it makes us feel disempowered: if the problem is all about politics and industry, it’s too big for any one person to tackle. So why try at all? And this leads to a strange brew of free-floating anxiety and denial.

canning poster

Dear readers, you know all of this. You are taking action. I shouldn’t harangue you. I’m just frustrated.

The last time that I can remember any president asking us to do something other than shop ’til we drop was Jimmy Carter, way back in 1977 when I was just a sprout:

We must face the fact that the energy shortage is permanent. There is no way we can solve it quickly. But if we all cooperate and make modest sacrifices, if we learn to live thriftily and remember the importance of helping our neighbors, then we can find ways to adjust and to make our society more efficient and our own lives more enjoyable and productive. Utility companies must promote conservation and not consumption. Oil and natural gas companies must be honest with all of us about their reserves and profits. We will find out the difference between real shortages and artificial ones. We will ask private companies to sacrifice, just as private citizens must do.

Oh Jimmy, if we’d only started conserving 40 years ago, think how much better off we’d be today.

Ah well. We should have adopted the metric system back then, too, for that matter. When did we become such pampered children? When did sacrifice become a dirty word?

world-war-2-posters-112

I’ve heard it said more than once in the climate change community that the only real chance we have of pulling our collective bacon out of the fire, i.e. limiting global temperature increase to 2 degrees Celsius (we’re up 1 degree as of now), will be through an international mobilization effort requiring personal sacrifice the likes of which has not been seen since WWII.

Invariably the commenters go on to say that such action is obviously impossible. Politically unfeasible. Unrealistic. And that means we’re inevitably headed for a far more dangerous–really terribly unthinkable–3 or 4 degree rise.

What I want to know is why the possibility of positive change is so easily and cynically dismissed. What’s more scary?:

 Global Catastrophe which will Curse All Life on the Planet Permanently

vs.

Riding the Bus

(or committing to local food or flying less or setting your thermostat low or buying used clothing or whatever equally scary measure you’d like to propose)

It really doesn’t seem like such a hard choice to make.

It may indeed be politically unfeasible. I’ve long stopped looking to the national level for meaningful action or leadership. But we can do a lot on a personal level. We can start a people’s revolution. A Revolution of Reasonableness.

It’s already happening. There’s been so much positive change on this front, even just in the last few years. Urban homesteading, slow food, organics, bikes, car share, DIY, all of it — it’s blossoming. It’s very hopeful.  I’m going to put the next part in italics because it’s so important: The pleasure and satisfaction that we all receive from living this way is the positive counterspell to the dark enchantment of consumer culture.

When we live this way, we become positive examples to others–and though it may not always be obvious, we do influence them. And even if the changes we make in our lifestyle are small, the accumulation of small lifestyle changes by millions of people can have a big impact on both our culture and the environment. Everybody, no matter what their means, can do something to pitch in.

vacation-at-home

What I’ve been pondering lately is how to take it to the next level, how to up the rate of change. Is it possible to engage the famously lazy, self-centered American consumer in this revolution?

Well, I think it is, because “the American consumer” is another unhelpful abstraction, if not a convenient scapegoat. Who is this selfish creature of legend? I’m an American consumer. As are all my family and neighbors. There is no us and them in this fight. We can all do more.

So what do you think? Would you be willing to mobilize and sacrifice on a World War type scale if you knew it would do real good?

I’ve been looking at WWII propaganda posters from the U.S. and Britain, noting that a lot of what they needed to do, we need to do, too.

Any artists out there want to make a new breed of propaganda posters for this cause? I think that would be a swell thing.

And remember:

ride alone

Film Industry Comprimises Safety of Cyclists

Spring-Press-Ride-11Nov21-2386

Photo: LA Streetsblog.

On Tuesday the Los Angeles City Council, under heavy pressure from the film industry, voted to remove most of the green paint from bike lanes on Spring Street. The lanes had been installed two years ago as part of a pilot project to test this type of highly visible bike lane used in other cities such as New York and Chicago. Film industry groups complained from the very beginning, claiming that the lanes screwed up their shots. The lanes, however, were popular with local businesses, the Downtown Neighborhood Council and residents. And a bike count conducted by the Los Angeles County Bicycle Coalition showed an overall 52% increase in bike traffic on Spring Street. There was a 100% increase in women cyclists on weekdays and a 650% increase in women cyclists on the weekend.

I was a part of a group of cycling advocates who attended the City Council meeting. Before the bike lane issue came up on the agenda, we all had to endure a two hour self-congratulatory tribute to an outgoing, term-limited councilman. When the bike lane agenda item finally came up, councilman Huizar announced that the Council and film industry had reached a “compromise” and that there would be no public comment. So much for democracy.

The “compromise” consists of removing most of the green paint. Here’s the before and after:

la-me-bike-lane-paint-20130619-g

Source: LA Times.

As a pilot project, theses lanes were under evaluation by LA Department of Transportation engineers. The council, essentially, interfered with this experiment at the behest of moneyed interests. It would have been nice to see if these lanes increased safety. Now we won’t know.

After the council approved the compromise, without public comment, Councilman Tom LaBonge came up to me and asked me what I thought. I told him that I thought the council was compromising safety. He told me that the film industry is important here. I asked him if he thought a film is worth a human life. He said, “we’ll have to agree to disagree.”

Stoicism as a Toolkit for Modern Life

bust of Seneca

Lucius Annaeus Seneca ca. 4 BC – AD 65.

This is the first in a series of posts focusing on positive techniques for keeping our heads screwed on straight in troubled times. Growing food, doing stuff with your hands, drinking homebrew with friends–all these kinds of things help keep us grounded and hopeful. But sometimes you need a little more help. Maybe we’ll call these posts “When chickens aren’t enough.”

Whether the world is ending or not, it’s important to have a tool kit for dealing with stress and anxiety. Stoicism, an ancient form of philosophy which has not been too popular of late, but which did have a profound influence on Western thought, and which is refreshingly practical and straightforward, is an excellent addition to your own personal tool kit. I like it so much, I’m calling for a revival!

You might remember this Stoic flowchart below from an earlier post of ours. It’s an oversimplification, of course, but it gives you the gist:

flowchart

Wish we could credit this properly, but we got it off of Boing Boing.

I was introduced to stoicism by Nassim Taleb in his book The Black Swan (nothing to do with the movie!). Taleb says, “My idea of the modern stoic sage is someone who transforms fear into prudence, pain into information, mistakes into initiation, and desire into undertaking.” The stoic learns from mistakes and practices tranquility of mind in the face of chaos.

Stoicism originates with the Greek philosopher Zeno around 308 B.C., but its two most readable proponents are Romans: Seneca and Marcus Aurelius. While most contemporary academic philosophers churn out impenetrable, naval gazing prose, the stoics, in contrast, are eminently approachable. Seneca, in particular, is a great read. His Letters From a Stoic and Moral Essays Volumes I and II, are eloquent and practical guides to how to live a rewarding life. And they are a great comfort in times of distress or uncertainty.

Stoicism is often misunderstood as being a cold or glum. This is far from the case. Taleb says,

Recall that epic heroes were judged by their actions, not by the results. No matter how sophisticated our choices, how good we are at dominating the odds, randomness will have the last word…..There is nothing wrong and undignified with emotions—we are cut to have them. What is wrong is not following the heroic or, at least, the dignified path. That is what stoicism truly means. It is the attempt by man to get even with probability…..stoicism has rather little to do with the stiff-upper-lip notion that we believe it means…..The stoic is a person who combines the qualities of wisdom, upright dealing, and courage. The stoic will thus be immune from life’s gyrations as he will be superior to the wounds from some of life’s dirty tricks.

Stoicism is a philosophy not a religion and is, in my opinion, compatible with all faiths (Seneca, in particular, influenced early Christian thought) as well as being suitable for atheists and agnostics. And in some ways stoicism resembles a Western form of Buddhism.

Let’s give the last word on stoicism to Seneca himself. Whether we face a long emergency, sudden collapse or many more years of prosperity, I can think of no better guidance than the wisdom of the stoics. Seneca says,

True happiness is to enjoy the present, without anxious dependence upon the future, not to amuse ourselves with either hopes or fears but to rest satisfied with what we have, which is sufficient, for he that is so wants nothing. The greatest blessings of mankind are within us and within our reach. A wise man is content with his lot, whatever it may be, without wishing for what he has not.

In this age of me-centric Facebook updates, we we have a lot to learn from Seneca’s wisdom.

If you live in harmony with nature you will never be poor, if you live according  what others think, you will never be rich.

Suggested Reading
I recommend beginning with Seneca’s Letters From a Stoic--short concise essays that offer a great introduction to stoicism All of Seneca and Marcus Aurelius are available online for free, but I’m partial to the Loeb Classical Library editions. They are beautiful little books which feature the original Latin on one side and English on the other. I also recommend Seneca’s Moral Essays Volumes I and II.

Philosophy professor William Irvine’s A Guide to the Good Life: The Ancient Art of Stoic Joy is also a nice introduction to the practical application of stoicism to modern life.

Age of Apocalypse

Camping is easy. Returning to civilization is what’s challenging. You spend a weekend camping in a pristine wilderness area, lulled to sleep at night by the sound of a gently flowing river, awakened by bird songs echoing through a deep canyon. But all good things come to an end and the time comes to get back to work, to monitor all those tweets, Facebook updates and text messages.

The return to civilization from this weekend’s Age of Limits conference, held in a pristine wilderness area in Pennsylvania was especially jarring. One moment we were in wilderness, the next we were queuing up for the TSA’s carefully stage managed Security Theater show at Dulles airport. Thanks to the TSA, fear has never been so slick and high tech, especially the humiliating hands-above-the-head , existential surrender to group fear-think that is a trip through the TSA’s elevated, glass cube “porno-scanner.”

Then there was Virgin America’s individualized entertainment programming. Satellite TV! Shop Ebay at 30,000 feet! I shut the TV off and picked up a book, but I kept getting distracted by the screen I could see in the row in front of me. It was displaying a nonstop parade of gruesome images–mangled corpses, gunshot wounds–what passes for “entertainment” on mainstream television.

Which brings me back to the Age of Limits conference. In Kelly’s blog post yesterday, I wanted to interject to say that I noticed a depressive tendency amongst some speakers and attendees at the conference. I wasn’t alone. A family therapist who joined an impromptu fireside chat outside the main tent said that she was having a hard time taking her therapist hat off, implying that she was noticing signs of mental distress amongst the speakers and attendees.

What was she observing? There was a sadness in the air, a sense of resignation and deep regret. There was much talk of the grieving process, and the relief in being around others who felt the same as you did.  There was also, in my opinion, among some in the conference, a dark fascination with the possible destruction of the world and humanity.

(To be fair, there was a diversity of opinion among the attendees, though none, as far as I could tell, were skeptics. This conference was less about conversion and more about community. It could be compared to a church retreat camp, where people go to strengthen their faith, not to question it.)

I believe we were picking up on was what Greer calls the “apocalypse meme” within the doomer community. Greer has written extensively about this impulse, most notably in his book, Apocalypse Not, which surveys the long, long line of apocalyptic predictions which somehow never came to pass, from ancient prophecy to our most recent 2012 hoopla. As soon as one fails to materialize, a new one returns to take its place.

Apocalyptic memes appear in both religious and secular contexts. The standard meme states that the world will end soon and Armageddon will sweep away all the bad/sinful folks except for a plucky band of righteous survivors. Greer says:

The key to understanding the apocalypse meme–the set of ideas and emotional drives that cluster around the idea of a sudden stop to history — is to notice what supposedly follows the end. It’s never just an end without a sequel, and the sequel always bears a very close resemblance to whatever the fondest daydreams of the believers happen to be. After everybody else dies — and of course it’s always everybody else who dies–the believers get whatever kind of world they think they want. That’s the bait of the apocalypse meme: history stops, the world we know with all its imperfections and irritations goes away, and then — at least in theory — you get whatever kind of world you most desire. Of course it never actually works that way, but that’s the theory.1

A key characteristic of an apocalypse meme should be noted: the insistence that this point in time, this convergence of signs, portents and  factors is unique in all of human history. That while sure, other apocalypses haven’t worked out, this time it’s different.

One of the apocalypse memes at the conference varied from the classic “chosen survivors” variant, and it is reflect in the writings of Guy McPherson, the speaker who caused the most buzz. In his worldview, catastrophic climate change trumps all. Oil and the economy are irrelevant now, because he believes positive feedback loops will accelerate global warming far more rapidly than anticipated, causing widespread catastrophe on both land and sea. Not only will the entire human race perish as a result, but all life on earth as well. And this will happen around 2030.

Kelly interjects: Seeing Guy’s thesis written down in short form like this makes it look like pure CrazySauce, but believe me, Guy is an intelligent, compelling speaker backed by scary research. Listening to him, it is very easy to find yourself believing this could be true, and at the same time, of course, wanting him to be wrong. There’s a certain thrill in that dynamic, like riding a really scary roller coaster.

I’m perversely okay with humans going extinct, because face it, we’re nothing but trouble, However, it is incredibly painful to even contemplate a complete collapse of all ecosystems.

It seems to me that this idea that we could destroy everything on the planet is a novel form of apocalyptic thinking, perhaps born of the Cold War. Older forms of doom are based in religion: basically, some angry god will smite you or your enemies over various infractions. Our secular society doesn’t give that much power to deities anymore, but it is well capable of thinking itself omnipotent. Anyone my age or older grew up with the fear of nuclear inhalation. Apparently, kids these days are only afraid of terrorist attacks. (Terrorist attacks! Humph! In my day, whippersnapper, we had Mutually Assured Destruction. And we walked to school, dagnabit.)

Anyway, it seems reasonable to me that our darkest nightmares are now about our own power, and because our power has no conscience, no soul, we know that, unlike an angry god, it will not bother to stock an ark before the flood.

My own instinct is that we may not be as powerful as we think, that Mother Earth may have some tricks up her sleeve, that while she may let her upstart techno-apes trash the house, she won’t let them burn it to the ground. Maybe that’s over optimistic, but the other side of the coin is that it’s pretty darn arrogant to think otherwise.

Apologies to Erik for this long interruption of his post. He was saying:

This newest meme is known as Near Term Extinction. It has an acronym, NTE. You’ll be seeing it around if you haven’t already.

None of this is to say there aren’t alarming trends both in terms of resource limits and climate science. Of course there are. But I began to feel that what was being discussed at the conference was really more a set of responses to the deep pathology of modern life than it was about actually navigating a future of resource limits or climate change.  The therapist was right to keep her professional hat on.

Douglas Rushkoff in his new book Present Shock: When Everything Happens Now, talks about both the dangers and the seductions of apocalyptic thinking, and how its rises out of an overly complex culture:

For many, it’s easier, or at least more comforting, to approach these problems as intractable. They’re just too complex and would involve levels of agreement, cooperation, and coordination that seems beyond the capacity of humans at this stage in our cultural evolution, anyway. So in lieu of doing the actual hard work of fixing these problems in the present, we fantasize instead about life afterward. The crisis of global warming morphs into the fantasy of living off the grid. The treat of a terrorist attack on our office tower leads us to purchase an emergency personal parachute for easy egress, and to wonder how far up the org chart we might be promoted once everyone else is gone. The collapse of civilization due to nuclear accident, peak oil, or SARS epidemic finally ends the ever-present barrage of media, tax forms, toxic spills, and mortgage payments, opening the way to a simpler life of farming, maintaining shelter, and maybe defending one’s family . . . This is why the return to simplicity offered by the most extreme scenarios is providing so alluring to so many of us.

The apocalypse meme also recalls Freud’s observation the the fear of death paradoxically results in a condition of pathological inaction that mimics death. It’s an impulse, in my opinion, that is best resisted. This impulse has long been recognized. Seneca said, “One must avoid that emotion which has seized many people — the lust for dying.”2

But as both Greer and Rushkoff have pointed out, the biggest problem with the apocalypse meme is that it functions as an escape from doing the hard work of fixing your own life or making the world a better place. Why bother doing anything at all if the world is ending? This sort of paralysis is very dangerous, because when the apocalypse you were waiting for fails to arrive, you are in even worse shape for navigating the world as it exists than you were before you were swept up in the meme.

On the last morning, to close the conference, Carolyn Baker led a group meditation. She started by reading a poem by Mary Oliver. She then made an offhand remark that I had a visceral, perhaps irrational reaction to. Waving her hand, she said something along the lines of, “Let us appreciate the things (people? nature? I’m not sure exactly what she meant by “things”) around us that may not be here in a few years.”

I felt, by that comment, that she was feeding the death impulse in the group. I swiveled around and walked away, furious. Kelly intercepted me on my way back to our tent and rightfully reprimanded me for my hotheadedness.*

I’m not a fan of newly invented or ad-hoc rituals, to be honest. So I was uncomfortable to start with. Perhaps I’m in denial about the seriousness of what we all face and my anger is from defensiveness. But I believe that we never know what the future holds, that there is always the possibility of death and destruction in this life (which would be nothing new in the course of human history) but that we must be thankful for what we have in the present and work always for a better future. And most of all, we must do everything within our power to not fall into the trap of the apocalypse meme.

* A final note from Kelly:  I couldn’t figure out how he’d managed to get so mad, so fast, during a groovy farewell ceremony! I didn’t exactly reprimand him, I called “Question your anger!” to his back he stomped back down the path. But to tell the truth, when I reached the stone circle  and heard the drumming begin, I chickened out and skulked off to get some tea instead, because I don’t do well with caring and sharing, and have yet to make my peace with drumming. Therefore both Erik and I missed all the final photography which took place after the ceremony, and so are not in the group photos posted on Dimitri Orlov’s website. Neither is our friend John, because he was busy deconstructing the fire ring at our campsite in a full-fledged Eagle Scout frenzy.