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.

Initial Thoughts on the Age of Limits 2013 Conference

apocalypse city

This is actually free desktop wallpaper. Who says we’re not looking forward to the apocalypse?

Over Memorial Day weekend, Erik and I and our buddy John Zapf, attended a conference called The Age of Limits: Conversations on the Collapse of the Global Industrial Model. This conference brings together different luminaries from the “doomosphere” to discuss the impact and implications of the three-headed hydra of peak oil, climate change and economic collapse.

Now, Erik and I are aware that our lifestyle–what with the chickens and the canned goods and the funny relationship with urine–puts us somewhat on the fringe of American culture. Although, in our heads, we think our lifestyle is perfectly normal, and it is in fact getting more normal all the time.  I mean, since the advent of Portlandia we are at least a part of an identifiable subculture.

But this weekend, at the Age of Limits, we ventured into the deep fringe. We’ll get to some details for you later, but suffice it to say it was an intense four days, and since we returned late Monday night we’ve been trying to process a vast quantity of information and impressions. The hardest part of this process has been deciding how to share this experience with our readers. Where to begin?

Well, first, we are not journalists and were not equipped to deliver detailed reporting from the event. Here are links to the speakers so you can check them out, if you’re curious:

  •  John Michael Greer is the author of approximately a billion books, including The Long Descent: A User’s Guide to the End of the Industrial Age, The Ecotechnic Future: Exploring a Post-Peak World, The Wealth of Nature: Economics As If Survival Mattered and Apocalypse Not.  He blogs at The Archdruid Report
  • Carolyn Baker, a psychotherapist and the grief councilor of the event, author of  Sacred Demise: Walking The Spiritual Path of Industrial Civilization’s Collapse, among others. Her website.
  • Dmitry Orlov is the author of The Five Stages of Collapse: A Survivor’s Toolkit and Reinventing Collapse: The Soviet Experience and American Prospects. Blog: ClubOrlav
  • Gail Tverberg is a professional actuary and mathematician, global limits analyst and writer. Her blog is Our Finite World.
  • Guy McPherson is Professor Emeritus of Natural Resources and Ecology & Evolutionary Biology at the University of Arizona, author of Walking Away from Empire.  His blog: Nature Bats Last.
  • Albert Bates is one of the board of directors of The Farm, a co-founder of the Global Eco Village Network and the author of The Biochar Solution: Carbon Farming and Climate Change, The Post Petroleum Survival Guide and Cookbook. He blogs at The Great Change.

In the wake of the conference, what we find ourselves most interested in thinking about and talking about with others is not the validity of the concepts of peak oil, climate change and economic collapse, or the gritty details of it, but the culturally loaded ideas that spin off in response to these threats–what you might call the meta-narratives of collapse. Those are the topics we’ll cover in a series of posts in coming days.

In the spirit of full disclosure we should state where we stand on these ideas, and the truth is we disagree to some extent.

Kelly’s statement: I believe oil is a finite resource and that it will eventually cost more to extract it than it’s worth, that the record high CO2 levels in our atmosphere are changing climate and acidifying the oceans right this moment, and that our national and global financial systems are in a bad way.

Erik’s statement:  As Lao Tzu says, ”Those who have knowledge, don’t predict. Those who predict, don’t have knowledge.” Nassim Taleb has made a career of pointing out the failures of prognosticators. Taleb says, “What is surprising is not the magnitude of our forecast errors, but our absence of awareness of it.” We simply don’t know what the future holds. We do know that whatever happens, good or bad it’s in our interest to build community, grow gardens and eat healthy food.

Back to Kelly: As Erik says, we’re both agnostics in terms of outcomes. We know it looks bad, but we won’t make bets on when, where or how the badness, or the various badnesses, will manifest. It seems a poor bet to try to predict the behavior of any enormously complex system.

But just because we don’t know exactly what’s going to happen doesn’t mean that we’re not going to do anything in response. In fact, the more time I spent in that conference, the more I became certain that my response to these predicaments, to this Triple Melange of Misery, is a combination of individual action and moral philosophy.

1) Individual action: Erik and I have always preached that change starts at home. It actually starts with the self. All we can really control is our own actions and choices, and if we’re lucky, we can talk some of our immediate family into joining us.

You readers know what I’m saying. You’re walking your talk. You’re learning new things, working with your hands and your hearts, connecting with community and nature and doing your best to live lightly on the land. You know that to advocate change without first changing yourself is hypocrisy. And refusing to change just because others aren’t doing so (e.g. the China argument) is just excuse making.

What is the value of individual action? Can it save us? I don’t know. If enough people did it, it might, and that would be cool. But at the very least, you can hold your head up, look the last dolphin in the eye through the thick glass of your respirator helmet and say, I tried, bro. I did my best. 

2) Moral philosophy: We’re going to have more to say on the moral/ethical dimensions of end time thinking in a another post. But I can say here that my own personal philosophy calls me to live well–not in terms of material things, but to try to live in gratitude and practice something like what Buddhists call right action, and do that every day. Even if the oceans are turning red and the zombies are crawling the streets, I’m still going to be composting and working in my garden and trying to share what I know with whoever wants to learn and doing whatever I can to help my neighbors because that’s how I want to live, and I don’t intend to let a little thing like an apocalypse turn me into an #$#%#*&.

In the coming days we’re going to be looking at the following concepts:

  • The apocalypse meme
  • The paralysis of doom
  • Gender roles, sexism and importance of high heels in coming dark ages
  • Kill Thy Neighbor: dubious strategies and overflexed ethics during troubled times

We’ll also discuss if we are going to change our location or otherwise up the ante on our lifestyle in response to the information we learned there, and we’re going to reveal the best positive action suggestion from the conference.

Stay tuned!

p.s.  If you’d like a reasoned, detailed overview of the problems arising around the intersection of peak oil and climate change, and a contemplation of possible outcomes, check out David Holgrem’s Future Scenarios website. (Holgrem is one of the founders of Permaculture.)

Tree Rings Turned Into Music

Artist Bartholomäus Traubeck’s “Years” plays the rings of a tree like a record.

It is mapped to a scale which is again defined by the overall appearance of the wood (ranging from dark to light and from strong texture to light texture). The foundation for the music is certainly found in the defined ruleset of programming and hardware setup, but the data acquired from every tree interprets this ruleset very differently.

Link via BoingBoing.

Age of Limits Conference

limits-to-growth-forecast_sml

Those of you who read this blog in a blog reader may have noticed that we said we were going to the Age of Limits conference at the Four Quarters Interfaith sanctuary in Pennsylvania this past weekend. In this interest of privacy, we decided not to let the entire world know we were leaving our house for the weekend, but somehow the announcement ended up on the blog temporarily. Apologies to those who tried to comment on a non-existent blog post.

We did, in fact, go to the conference which featured John Michael Greer, Dr. Carolyn Baker, Dmitry Orlov, Gail Tverberg, Guy McPherson and Albert Bates.

Both Kelly and I are exhausted and still processing the information. We’ll get around to writing about it soon.

Video Tour of the Root Simple Compound

Johnny Sanphillippo from Faircompanies.com shot a nice video tour of our house. Excuses for the audio–it was shot during a very windy day. And I really need to get around to painting the garage!

You’ll see our chicken coop. The video also features our rocket stove, horno and emergency potty plus a spin around the pantry. But the real star of this video is our 1920 bungalow. I wish they still build houses like this (sorry Dwell).

Thank you Ben Loescher and Kurt Gardella for building our horno and thanks to John Zapf for designing our chicken run!

Why are the pockets on women’s clothing so lame?

trout sewing

Trout likes himself a sewing project. Especially one he can lay on. Or gnaw on.

What is with women’s clothing? Why are all of the pockets sized somewhere between tiny and non-existent?

There seems to be some misguided belief that women inherently carry lots of stuff, therefore must carry bags, therefore do not need pockets. This is false. Women carry bags because we have inadequate pockets, and we figure we may as well carry extra stuff–because why not? We have to carry the !&^%$  bag anyway. It’s a terrible cycle.

Another belief seems to be women don’t want pockets because they will bulk up the sleek lines of our fashions, making us look chunky through the hips. And it is true that form-fitting clothing does not leave room for bulky pockets. There are indeed occasions and outfits that call for a handbag. For instance, I am happy to carry a clutch when I shimmy into my black latex sheath for a special night in the dungeon, believe you me.

But what about jeans with fake back pockets and front pockets only as deep as your first knuckles?  Or what about business trousers with pockets too shallow to hold a phone? Or suit jackets sans any pockets at all. True confession: I have inner breast pocket envy. The inner breast pocket is the one of the most secure, useful pockets ever created, and yet they are scarce as hens teeth in women’s clothing. Whence this tyranny??

Or case in point: what about a casual jacket with motorcycle/military styling which promises a plenitude of pockets, only to disappoint?

jacket full

I found this jacket at a thrift store recently. I’d been wanting a light summer jacket, and was so excited to find one that fit that I bought it without checking the pockets for size and…genuineness. Is that a word? (FYI gentlemen readers: fake pockets run rife in women’s clothing.) I was lucky that all the pockets on this jacket are at least real.

But I was disappointed to discover that the lower pockets, with their promising, practical zipper closures, were only 3″ deep, rendering them impractical for carrying anything bigger than a tube of lip balm or maybe a little cash wrapped around a drivers license.

sad pockets

Ya call these pockets? Hang your head in shame, Ann Taylor LOFT.

I want to wear this jacket, so I decided to expand the pockets into usefulness.

Now, I’m no sewing maven. I hesitated even to post this because I am absolutely unqualified to teach anyone to sew. Rather than admitting I’m pretty much incompetent, I prefer to think of myself as a primitive or naive sewer. Sort of paleo. It’s all about the bone awls for me. Basically I can hem and mend things. I sew by hand because I can’t remember how to thread our old sewing machine.

I suspect the proper way to enlarge pockets is just to replace them entirely, but the stitchery and zipper closures on this particular pair of pockets intimidated me, so I decided to enbiggen them by simply adding fabric to the bottom of the existing pockets.

I should add here that any alterations shop (like the sort attached to dry cleaners) would replace pockets for you, and probably wouldn’t charge you all that much. But here it the Casa de Tightwad, any money is too much money.  This is what I decided to do. Imitate at your own peril.

Continue reading…

Start Your Urban Homestead for One Dollar

The Lyth Cottage in Buffalo, purchased for $1. Photo: Buffalo Rising.

The Lyth Cottage in Buffalo, purchased for $1. Photo: Buffalo Rising.

Want to move to Buffalo, New York? If so the city has an Urban Homestead Program where you can get a house for a $1 plus closing costs. The rules–you’ve got to:

  • Fix code violations.
  • Live in the house for at least three years.
  • Have $5,000 in the bank for repairs.

Too cold a climate for me, but you can read more about the program and see some success stories at Buffalo Rising.

Power to the Peoplemover, a Zine About Riding the Bus

The cover of issue 2.0 of Power to the Peoplemover

The cover of issue 2.0 of Power to the Peoplemover

Many hours spent on the bus in the past two months, thanks to the dude who totaled our car, has reminded me of the conceptual ancestor of this blog, a zine about bus riding I edited in the early 1990s with Canadian artist Michael Waterman called Power to the Peoplemover (PPM).

For the kids out there zines were, essentially, xeroxed blogs. We didn’t have the interwebs, but we did have something called Factsheet Five, a kind of telephone directory of zines. You listed your zine in Factsheet Five and people would send you self addressed envelopes to secure a copy of your zine. It makes me feel very old to describe this process, incidentally.

Detail from PPM issue 2.0

Detail from PPM issue 2.0

In addition to Factsheet Five, PPM had a second and unique distribution method. It was designed to look like a San Diego bus schedule (where Mike and I lived at the time). We would sneak copies on to buses we rode and put them on the racks that held the official schedules.

Power to the Peoplemover bus bench on Park Avenue in San Diego.

Power to the Peoplemover bus bench on Park Avenue in San Diego.

We also collaborated on this PPM bus bench that was part of a UCSD Art Department show. The bus bench contained stories and cartoons related to riding the bus–in effect, it was another issue of PPM. I used to wait at this bus stop myself and, during the month it was up, I watched people read and discuss the bench. It seemed to be popular, at least more so than the adjoining casino ad.

PPM Bus Bench detail

PPM Bus Bench detail.

There were three print issues of PPM and the bench. I’ve finally gotten around to posting PPM issue 1.0 and issue 2.0 on archive.org. Issue 3.0 has gone missing. I should note that PPM is potty-mouthed and has an oh so 1990s editorial tone (an era that has not yet had its ironic revival).

I predict we may see a zine revival. Perhaps staring at all those glowing screens is getting old . . .

The Vermont Sail Freight Project

Vermont farmer and baker Erik Andrus not only uses draft horses on his farm and to deliver baked goods, but also plans on reviving the lost art of shipping freight under sail power. Andrus has a Kickstarter going to fund the the consturction of a 39 foot sailing vesel, the “Ceres” which will carry 12 tons of rice and other shelf-stable goods from Ferrisburgh, Vermont to New York City.

vermontboat

The Ceres is already under construction and is due to start sailing by this fall. You can follow progress on the project at: http://vermontsailfreightproject.wordpress.com/

And James Howard Kunstler interviewed Andrus on his podcast.

Someone revive the west coast version . . .