CYNICISM

11 10 2014

This is the fourth chapter of Charles Eisenstein’s The More Beautiful World Our Hearts Know Is Possible.  Please buy this book!  You can do that here.  You can read the full chapter here.

When I was young, it seemed that life was so wonderful, a miracle, it was beautiful, magical
And all the birds in the trees, well they’d be singing so happily, joyfully, playfully, watching me
But then they sent me away to teach me how to be sensible, logical, responsible, practical
And they showed me a world where I could be so dependable, clinical, intellectual, cynical

—Supertramp

I would like to speak to those of you who feel triggered by the principles of interbeing I laid out earlier, which I admit smack of New Age puffery. Actually, let me be brutally honest here: I only use the phrase “New Age puffery” as a way to implicitly assure you that I am no dupe of such a thing; that I am on the side of the hardheaded realists. See, here I am joining you in derision.

This is a common tactic. Liberals take special pleasure in criticizing more radical leftists; nuts-and-bolts UFOlogists are vehement in their derision of abduction claims; the kid who is bullied turns on someone still weaker. The unpopular kids in school take pains not to be tainted by association with the very unpopular kids. By doing this, though, we attempt to borrow legitimacy from the very system we hope to subvert, and indirectly enhance its legitimacy by associating our own with its. We commit the same error when we overrely on the academic or professional credentials of our allies to persuade those who are impressed by such things. If I appeal to Dr. Eben Alexander’s status as a professor of neurosurgery to get you to believe in extrasomatic near-death experiences, then implicitly I am affirming that you should trust that status generally, along with the edifice of academic science surrounding it. But generally, those of that status and of that edifice deny his arguments. Appeals to authority will only strengthen authority. What implicit message is encoded in “See, this professor, that Republican, this businessman, that mainstream pundit agree with me”? It is that these people carry the legitimate stamp of approval, and not those outsiders, hippies, the uncredentialed, the unpublished. Using this tactic, we might win the battle, but we will lose the war. Audre Lorde said it well: The master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house.

……

Does that mean the new story is a motivational subterfuge, a device to trick us into acting as if what we did mattered? The last resort of my inner cynic is to say, “Well, I suppose the Story of Interbeing might be useful as a way to deceive people into taking action, but it isn’t true.” I would be like the preacher exhorting people to pious acts while secretly being an unbeliever himself. Underneath this particular cynicism I find again pain, an anguished loneliness. It wants proof that the Story of Interbeing is true, proof that life has purpose, the universe is intelligent, and that I am more than my separate self. I wish I could rely on evidence to choose my belief. But I cannot. Which story is true, Separation or Interbeing? I will in this book offer evidence that fits the latter, but none of it will constitute proof. No evidence is ever enough. There is always an alternate explanation: coincidence, fraud, wishful thinking, etc. Absent conclusive evidence, you will have to decide on some other basis, such as “Which story is most aligned with who you truly are, and who you truly want to be?” “Which story gives you the most joy?” “From which story are you most effective as an agent of change?” To make such a choice on something other than evidence and reason is already a huge departure from the Story of Separation and its objective universe.

So, am I tricking you? Surely, if I offered the new story from a place of secret disbelief, I would be an ineffective storyteller. My duplicity would show in one form or another and mar the integrity of the narrative. That is not to say that I have fully stepped into the Story of Interbeing and the total faith and trust it implies. Far from it. Fortunately, my ability to tell the story doesn’t depend on my faith alone. I am surrounded by many, many other people who themselves, imperfectly as I do, hold the same story. Together we move deeper and deeper into it. Enlightenment is a group activity.

Supertramp, “The Logical Song”

Richard Thompson–“Cooksferry Queen





ISLAMIC TERRORISTS? WHO NEEDS ISLAMIC TERRORISTS? WE’VE GOT TORNADOES (AND FINANCIERS)!

7 05 2011

Suppose I told you that terrorists had launched a series of attacks on the U.S. that killed over 400 people, caused billions of dollars in damage, and leveled large sections of several cities?  Suppose I told you that these same terrorists had also caused the flooding of  hundreds of thousands of acres of farmland and numerous small towns?  And suppose i told you that our government seems utterly clueless about the identity of these terrorists and is doing nothing to stop them–that, indeed, a great many legislators, including a majority in one house of Congress, are simultaneously denying that these terrorists exist and passing laws that seem designed to aid and abet them?   And suppose I told you that our government is not only ignoring these terrorists, but dashing madly off in the wrong direction, using its resources to combat imaginary enemies, and even prosecuting  people who attempt in some way to counter the real threat to our national, not to say individual, security?

It’s happening.  The terrorists didn’t use bombs, or airplanes, or anthrax.  Tornadoes and torrential rain did the trick.  Our country is undergoing a massive, sustained terrorist attack from the natural world.

And suppose I told you there was yet another gang of terrorists who are doing everything they can to destroy this country economically–by defunding and demoralizing our educational system, eliminating every middle-class job they can get their hands on, and throwing people out of their homes, even when they’re not behind on their mortgages?  And that this gang of terrorists seems to be proceeding with the overt backing of not only our government, but millions of voters?

I mean, it’s like “mice for fat cats” or “rabbits for hawks.”  Instead, we’re calling it “The Tea Party.”Finally, suppose I pointed out to you that the government, instead of going after these terrorists, who are doing such widespread, real damage, is spending our tax dollars prosecuting environmentalists who attempt to bring attention to the real terrorists, whistle blowers like Bradley Manning,  who draw attention to what a poor job the government “of the people” is doing “for the people,” and luring Muslim youth into government-fabricated “terrorist plots” so it can prosecute and incarcerate them at our expense, as well as threatening to arrest state employees for helping implement state-run medical marijuana programs, and busting Amish farmers for selling raw milk to willing customers.

Can you say, “straining out gnats and swallowing camels,” boys and girls?  Is there a pattern here?  Can you connect the dots?

The dots most people aren’t connecting here are the ones that point to how we, including me,  my wife, our numerous internal combustion engines and our dependence on grid-generated electric power, are feeding both the power of our planet’s weather systems and the power of our insatiable financial elite.

Both equations are simple.  The planet is warming, and we are turning its forests, with their ability to sequester both water and carbon dioxide, into various single-use consumer goods that sequester neither water nor CO2, meanwhile burning all the carbon-based fuels we can, as fast as we can, throwing even more CO2 into the atmosphere, warming the planet.  A warmer atmosphere creates more evaporation, putting more water in the atmosphere.  More moisture in the atmosphere creates the potential for more and stronger storm systems.  And here we are, biting our own ass.

Similarly, it’s almost impossible to function in this country without feeding the corporate demons that seem to be hell-bent on devouring the world.  Automobile?  Insurance? Property?  Internet connection?  Tools of any kind?  Medical care?

Food and clothing?  Maybe you grow most of your own food and buy most of your clothing at yard sales, but unless you’re saving all your own seeds, using only homemade compost, and scratching the ground with a pointed stick, you’re still dependent, and, let’s face it, all that second-hand clothing came from a factory somewhere.  Still dependent.

And, if you try to hole up and devote all your time to being self-sufficient, you’re likely to have your local codes people knocking on your door, and, by the way, how are you going to pay your land taxes?

Truly, we are all caught in a web.  Some people are resigned to being spider food, but some of us are doing everything we can to free ourselves.  The Hopi had a word for our situation–“Koyaanisqatsi,” which means

“crazy life, life in turmoil, life out of balance, life disintegrating, a state of life that calls for another way of living”

So, just how are we going to get back in balance, find that other way of living?

In the Tibetan tradition, when you are afflicted with a demon, sometimes the best thing to do is to create a bigger demon who will smash the one who is attacking you; and that, I think, is what we have done.  Financial vampires may seem to have the upper hand right now, but the natural world demons they/we have unleashed will, in the end, prove to be much more powerful than any financial instrument, weapon, or government.

I’ve said it before, stolen it from James Kunstler, actually, but–get yourselves plenty of popcorn and drinking water, and a good umbrella.  It’s gonna be a great show from the cheap seats.  The expensive seats?  You wouldn’t wanna be in those.  That’s where things land when they go off the track.

music:  Jackson Browne, “Before the Deluge





WORLD MADE BY HAND

18 04 2008

As a kid, two of the first adult books I read that made a deep impression on me were Neville Shute’s On the Beach and Pat Frank’s Alas, Babylon, both of which portrayed the lives of everyday people in the aftermath of nuclear war. I found echoes of both in James Howard Kunstler’s new novel, World Made by Hand, which introduces us to the daily reality of life in upstate New York a decade or two after the trucks have stopped running and the electricity has gone off. There is a little post-nuclear flavor in Kunstler’s book, too. Part of his scenario involves terrorist nuclear detonations in Washington and Los Angeles, which delivered the coup de grace to the government and international economy that we take for granted now.

There are no newspapers in Kunstler’s world, no antibiotics, no rubber and not much plastic, but there are plenty of bullets left, and less inhibition about using them. The book starts on an almost idyllic note as it sets up a picture of clear-running, fish-filled streams, old railroad beds overrun with berries and strong, wild marijuana, and a slower-paced life reminiscent of the early 19th century, but we are brought back to earth with an unjust murder and a town left wondering how to deal with the powerful bullies who committed it.

The question is left simmering on a back burner as Kunstler introduces his other players: the dispirited townspeople, a wealthy, far-sighted landowner who has assumed a role not unlike that of a feudal lord, members of a Christian religious community who arrive in the area, fleeing the chaos prevalent in more urbanized areas to the south, and the lonely widow of the young man who was murdered, who seeks refuge in the home of Robert Earle, the story’s main character.

The “Christians” turn out to be more pragmatic and less sectarian than many who call themselves that today. They also have skills and deep pockets, and are willing to put both to use to help improve life in the little town of Union Grove, where most of the story takes place. After helping Stephen Bullock, the lordly landowner, recover a crew of traders who have been kidnapped on a trip down the Hudson, they gain the townspeoples’ trust enough to help them bring justice to the murder that began the book, and that is the point at which Kunstler brings our little tour of the future to a close.

Kunstler is best known for writing nonfiction about the circumstances of this novel. In The Long Emergency and the video The End of Suburbia he has laid out the facts, figures, and trajectories that lead to the world we inhabit when we read World Made By Hand, and it is this fact of fiction, as it were, this investment in believable human beings who inhabit the post-industrial, post-electrical America he posits, that brings the statistics and predictions to life. When we are told a story about what life after industrial collapse could mean for people like us, we have an easier time accepting the likelihood that the collapse of civilization as we know is going to happen to us and our friends, and this is just what Kunstler is trying to get across.

There were a few flags that went up for me in his portrayal. The denoument hangs on an act that seemingly can only be explained by some kind of supernatural occurence, a departure from the otherwise believable picture he paints. And somehow, there is no “alternative energy” technology in the book, either plain or fancy: nobody was smart enough to build a passive solar home, or a solar oven; nobody has any solar panels–but perhaps this is a symptom of Kunstler’s opinion that these artifacts are all too little, too late. And the occasional glimpses of what seem like magical powers by the Christian cultists? Perhaps Mr. Kunstler is going to tell us in a sequel. I would certainly read it, if civilization lasts long enough to get it in print.

music:  Terry Allen, “After the Fall





YOU THINK THAT’S BLACK? TRY THIS!

25 03 2008

I’ve generally relied on Paul Krugman as a clear-eyed and honest appraiser of the US economic system, so when, in a recent column, he wrote

 ….Even Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, the giant government sponsored mortgage agencies long regarded as safe places to put your money, are now having trouble attracting funds.

One consequence of the crisis is that while the Fed has been cutting the interest rate it controls — the so-called Fed funds rate — the rates that matter most directly to the economy, including rates on mortgages and corporate bonds, have been rising. And that’s sure to worsen the economic downturn.

What’s going on? Mr. Geithner described a vicious circle in which banks and other market players who took on too much risk are all trying to get out of unsafe investments at the same time, causing “significant collateral damage to market functioning.”

A report released last Friday by JPMorgan Chase was even blunter. It described what’s happening as a “systemic margin call,” in which the whole financial system is facing demands to come up with cash it doesn’t have. (A financial joke making the rounds, via the blog Calculated Risk: “Who is this guy Margin that keeps calling me?”)

The Fed’s latest plan to break this vicious circle is — as the financial Web site interfluidity.com cruelly but accurately describes it — to turn itself into Wall Street’s pawnbroker. Banks that might have raised cash by selling assets will be encouraged, instead, to borrow money from the Fed, using the assets as collateral. In a worst-case scenario, the Federal Reserve would find itself owning around $200 billion worth of mortgage-backed securities.

Some observers worry that the Fed is taking over the banks’ financial risk. But what worries me more is that the move seems trivial compared with the size of the problem: $200 billion may sound like a lot of money, but when you compare it with the size of the markets that are melting down — there are $11 trillion in U.S. mortgages outstanding — it’s a drop in the bucket.

The only way the Fed’s action could work is through the slap-in-the-face effect: by creating a pause in the selling frenzy, the Fed could give hysterical markets a chance to regain their sense of perspective. And to be fair, that has worked in the past.

But slap-in-the-face only works if the market’s problems are mainly a matter of psychology. And given that the Fed has already slapped the market in the face twice, only to see the financial crisis come roaring back, that’s hard to believe…..

Well, that seemed to me to be seriously saying that the situation is really serious, y’know?

But James Howard Kunstler accuses Krugman of making nice, saying

    The feigned cluelessness in Paul Krugman’s Sunday New York Times“The Face-Slap Theory”) about the meltdown in finance is a good index of the cringing mendacity now emanating from those in service to the centers of power. I doubt an editor, or the publisher, Mr. Sulzberger, had to whisper in his ear to soft-pedal the situation. I don’t even believe anything like his job depends on it. Krugman’s glossing-over the truth is just social cowardice. He doesn’t want to be called out dissing fellow members of his club. column (

      Krugman avers to the Federal Reserve’s two previous big efforts since August to bail out the insolvent banks, insurers, and hedge funds with cheap loans as “slaps in the faces” of these wobbling corporations — “yo, wake the fuck up!” — as if narcolepsy was their only problem. (Try that with a wino on the sidewalk outside the Port Authority bus terminal and see if he immediately signs up for rehab and a high school equivalency program.) Krugman calls the club’s latest plan — for the Fed to just suck up their impaired and worthless collateral in exchange for more cheap loans — as a “third slap,” saying, with all the panache of a midwestern Rotary Club secretary, that “the third time could be the charm.” Had the monkeys already flown out of his butt as he wrote that, I wonder.

(you’re a little overblown, Jimbo–Krugman didn’t think it would work, either–but, carry on:)

   Well it was a bad week on the money scene in what is sure to be a worsening year. Paul Krugman and his fellow club members can pretend that the hallucinated finance economy is not really flying to pieces. After all, he / they are trying to avert panic. But, as noted previously in this space, the only thing we have to fear is not fear itself. We have to fear the consequences of actions by a banking leadership that has shown the grossest irresponsibility (and an American public that has been conditioned to expect a steady diet of getting something for nothing).

      The US faces a pretty stark choice right now: it can let the losers take their losses — both the big institutions who created and traded in fraudulent securities, and all the “little guys” who borrowed too much money trying to get rich quick, or trying to live like the millionaires they see on TV. We can let them go down, and suffer the consequences of their bad choices (and maybe prosecute some of the culpable bankers and corporate executives), OR, in an effort to let these losers off the hook we can wreck the whole machinery of capital by making our medium-of-exchange worthless.

     The people in charge — both in and out of government — can’t face the losses, so for now they’ve apparently decided to wreck the currency. The dollar has lost two percent of its value against the Euro just in recent weeks, as cheap loans from the Fed pour into the black hole on Wall Street (never to be seen again). Other soft-pedalers in the media claim that the financial markets have “already priced in” yet another expected .75-point interest rate drop by the Fed this week, but I’m confident that such a move will only accelerate the dollar’s vanishing act…..

So…how do you want it?  Black? Or blacker?





THE CRY OF THE PEOPLE FOR BROCCOLI

8 03 2008

Last month, my wife and I went to the very first Nashville Food Security Summit, where we heard a number of local and imported speakers and activists talk about their own particular piece of the puzzle, and joined with other conferrees to brainstorm on what to do next. There were aspects of the one-day conference that were very encouraging, and there were aspects that left me scratching my head. I’ll start with the good news.

First of all, I was very happy to see 250 people come together to talk about the issue. Some of them were old friends, but many were people I hadn’t met before, and if there’s anything the local food question needs, it’s to escape from the activist ghetto and run wild in the general population.

The conference addressed two semi-separate questions, and this broadened its appeal. One is the lack of availability of healthy food choices for people in urban situations–that is, mostly lower-class blacks and other ethnicities. The complaint was made that in many parts of Nashville it’s easier to buy cigarettes and soda than fresh fruit and vegetables. The other issue, the one that brought me in, was concern over the long distances traveled by much of what we eat, which dovetails with the lack of locally-grown food.

In the morning, I attended a panel discussion whose primary speakers were a couple of small-scale commercial vegetable gardeners. They were both making a modest living by cultivating 5-10 acres and feeding a couple of hundred people, marketing their produce directly to households. Both said there was far more demand than they could supply, and welcomed the idea of more small farmers. Both had learned their craft through the intern system, which amounts to apprenticing with an organic grower to learn the trade, and both met a fair amount of their labor needs by taking on interns, but they also both managed to acquire their farmland by dint of a spouse with a 40-hour job.

At this point in the seminar, I did a little math and offered up the resulting statistics: if one farmer with 5 acres provides vegetables for 200 people, then it would take 5,000 small farmers gardening on 25,000 acres of land to meet Nashville’s vegetable needs. Currently there are 15-20 vegetable growers in the Nashville area, cultivating no more than a couple of hundred acres. How do we get there from here, I asked; not surprisingly, nobody could really say,except to encourage people who already own farmable land to either work it themselves or lease it long-term to somebody who will. Leasing land for organic farming is a touchy subject; so much of what one does to create fertility is long-term investment and hard to justify doing to a piece of land that one may lose at the whim of the owner. One of the farmers pointed out that, with the spread between food prices and real estate prices being what it is today, it is impossible to pay for land by farming it. This is an impasse that will need to be addressed.

Twenty-five thousand acres of vegetables sounds like a tall order, but according to the latest agricultural census, there are still more than 50,000 acres of cropland in both Davidson and Cheatham Counties and over 200,000 each in Williamson, Wilson, and Robertson Counties. That’s good news–even including acreage for grain, bean, oilseed, egg, meat, and dairy production, there’s still enough open land in the metro Nashville area to support the population if it’s all intensively farmed and if the infrastructure can be put into place to distribute it.

Local distribution infrastructure was the subject of the afternoon workshop I attended, a presentation by Anthony Flaccavento, who works with an outfit called Appalachian Sustainable Development, based over on the Tennessee-Virginia border. ASD has “helped former tobacco farmers and other ‘traditional’ growers transition to growing organic produce, free range eggs, and other farm products that are sold to more than 600 supermarkets in the region,” including Whole Foods. Flaccavento filled us in on the nuts and bolts of creating agricultual infrastructure from scratch. It was inspiring just to know that it can be done, even if it’s not making a profit yet and only involves about 70 acres of cropland. Through the whole day at the conference, this question of how to upscale our efforts quickly enough to forestall famine kept coming up for me, although most conference participants seemed blithely oblivious of such a dire possibility.

Flaccavento was not oblivious to the wider political implications of his work, however, citing Wendell Berry and James Howard Kunstler as his inspirations and talking about framing (not houses but questions), pointing out that the strongest argument in favor of the status quo is its ability to provide cheap, plentiful food, (or at least “food-like substances“) that fills the needs of most Americans. We who believe we’re onto a better way of doing things will have to beat the mainstream at the food game in order to prevail, he predicted, saying, “Only about ten percent of people will actually change their mind due to a logical argument. For the other ninety percent, you just have to give them something that works better for them than what they’re used to, and then they’ll adopt the philosophy after they adopt the technology.”

At the final session of the conference, we were teamed up with other attendees and asked to brainstorm our three best ideas for what to do next, present them to our team, and have the team vote for the three best ideas. My table approved my advocacy of an Appalachian Sustainable Development-type outfit for the Nashville area, but didn’t see so much merit in pushing for a legal framework that would better enable small-scale, local production and distribution of dairy products and meat. (I don’t eat ’em, but for most people, that’s what’s for dinner!)

In case you didn’t know, the laws around meat and dairy are strongly slanted towards large dairies and slaughterhouses, supposedly for quality reasons–so we get milk that may or may not have high doses of Bovine Growth Hormone in it, downer cows in our hamburgers, and a couple of nationwide “organic” dairy producers that may or may not be engaging in organic practices. But, although it’s still legal to keep your own cow and milk her, it’s illegal to share her milk with anyone for a commercial consideration of any kind, and if you try to open a small slaughterhouse, you will have to follow the same regulations that guide the big boys–like maintaining a separate restroom for the use of the USDA inspectors. And when you factor in the way USDA regulations are designed to keep big row-crop producers from branching out into vegetables, and how firmly both the Democrats and Republicans agree on these issues, it starts to look like a more local food production and distribution system will be happening in spite of, and not because of, the federal government.

Back to the conference–what my tablemates (and a great many people at the conference, I discovered as the tables reported their results) wanted to do was give school children more hands-on experience with growing and cooking garden vegetables. That is probably a very good idea, because the way the economy is tanking, soon a lot of people won’t have anything better to do than swing a hoe to try and feed themselves, and community gardening is going to get very popular. I think we will need to teach the kids blacksmithing, as well, because if you can’t work iron to make tools, or afford to buy them from China any more, you’re back to scratching up dirt with a pointed stick, and that’s a very long way to fall from our current affluence.

But I avoided that kind of extremist talk at the conference for the most part, overcome by the ambience of shared hope for the future. This year, the main concern was a bountiful supply of local fruit and vegetables. Next year or the year after, maybe we’ll hear hungry people crying for bread.

music:  Grateful Dead, “Uncle John’s Band”








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