Sunday, April 15, 2012

Sobering Up

Anarchy A to Z:
a guide to understanding our history unfolding for the anesthetized and apathetic

L is for Limits

   When I was in college, I had a friend who carelessly lived--and almost died--by the 30-rack of Keystone Light. If he wasn’t with friends playing beer pong, he was managing the keg at a frat party. If he wasn’t with his brothers, he was at the bar. Our little Northern California college town was a bad place for someone who takes to the drink. Any night of the week one could find 50 cent shots, dollar pints or two dollar Long Islands. We went to a few house parties where we dumped six or seven half gallons of liquor into a plastic tub and simply add one of those cardboard cartons of Kool Aid to make it palatable. We called it Jungle Juice, but it should have been called a stupid-shit-o-meter. Every ladled cup was a step closer to a fight, an inch closer to death, a mile farther from the people who truly cared about you.

   In his worst three years, he pissed myself, spit on his sister, stole some random girls pizza before intentionally burning her with a cigarette, tried to convince a very large woman to fuck him behind a dumpster. The ambulance got called at least once and he spent three different nights in jail. And this is just a fraction of his escapades. Many told him he needed to learn my limits. But it wasn’t really about learning how to balance his physiological limits with something completely incompatible with good health. He was in a bad spot mentally, and it crept into his psyche. He had an alter ego, even though he wasn’t schizophrenic. His name was Drunk Steve.

   Drunk Steve didn’t pay attention to limits. He proceeded to stumble around town in his own universe. He didn’t need limits. He would presumably wake up in the morning a little hung over, hopefully in his own bed, without any broken bones or bloodied body parts. The fact remains that he had limits, even if he ignored them. He did, in fact, need to know his limits. It took him a long time to come to fully realize the damage he had done to his friendships. He’s still discovering the damage he did to his body.

   What if we knew our limits? Would we ride our bicycles more to save some cash and hydrocarbons? Would we plant a garden or meet our local farmer? Would we stop buying into the political circus and create parallel institutions in a spirit of mutual aid? Could we divorce ourselves from our lifestyles? Smash our Magnavox? Throw our iPods into the wind? Would we be willing to live simply, to enter into a compact of voluntary material poverty if it meant access to greater humanity or even enlightenment? 

   Ah, the hyperbole of a pessimist! And his false dilemmas! What reason has he!? We need to be pragmatists. Remember?

   Our spectacles conceal our fears. We turn to the solitude of group identities because reality is like Jungle Juice, but without the Kool Aid. It tastes like shit. We don’t want to drink the Kool Aid called reality. We would rather live and die by our spectacles, in shallow soulless shells of humans that never learned to be human. The Kool Aid won’t kill you, though, drinking it won’t save you either. But it most certainly will help you sober up.

   We live in an age of limits—I’ll be attending a conference by this name Memorial Day weekend, so check back with the Mad Mind of a Man later. Our media narratives are proof positive we are ignoring these limits. With all the talk about gas prices, you hear competing claims that domestic drilling or the Keystone XL would solve the problem on one hand and that it is simply a matter of demand on the global market—the developing world is mighty thirsty and wants to drink up the milkshake. The latter is the more factual claim, the former a political stunt to speak to the fears of crusty old white conservatives who are already deeply skeptical of science, Democrats and dark-skinned folk. To talk about oil demand immediately validates the former’s claim that we need to produce more. But that’s not going to happen. We’d rather ignore the supply side of the equation. More on peak oil later.

   We live in a world of demographic limits too. Malthus’s predictions were not disproven, only postponed. 7,000,000,000 is a lot of mouths to feed. The Green Revolution was itself a spectacle built on petrochemicals and genetic manipulation. It is a complex dinosaur. It doesn’t take much to roll the snowball down the hill. With the unpredictability of climate change-induced extreme weather, we can expect to see the Malthusian skeptics and the techno-romantics look at each other with gaping mouths. “Dude. I didn’t believe it could happen.” No shit, dude.

   Aside from food, humans need water. Many of the world’s people are already water insecure. As climate change ushers in prolonged droughts, and hydrofracking, agricultural runoff and industrial pollution continue to render potable water poisonous, Americans too will know water insecurity. An Old West adage reads: “Whiskey’s for drinking. Water’s for fighting over.” I hate needles, and pain, but I’ve always said, if I get a tattoo, it will bear this mark. If you are going to permanently brand yourself, you might as well brand yourself with something that won’t change. I suspect, it will only become more prophetic with time. If you’re from the arid West, you should know what I’m talking about.

   We don’t really need to be drinking whiskey, because we’re already drunk. And when we’re drunk we’re already past our limits. We’re drunk on the illusion that economic growth will recover, that growth can be limitless. We’re intoxicated with the present. We keep thinking, like Drunk Steve, we’ll wake up in the morning with one helluva story to tell. We keep believing that we can keep pushing our limits, that we can continue to live in an advance and complex industrial society.

   The reality of limits says otherwise. We need to sober up to our limits. But instead, we’re still stumbling around, bar-hopping as if tomorrow is as given as the sunrise. We can hydrate with some reality Kool Aid and recognize that the age of the industrial civilization is in collapse. When we sober up, our heads might hurt for a while, but at least we can begin to manage the transition to a world where less is more, a world where we no longer spin the stupid-shit-o-meter.

   Know that we have limits and we can sober up. It really is that simple. Drunk Steve eventually sobered up.

   Trust me. I was Drunk Steve.

We need to talk...

Anarchy A to Z:
a guide to understanding our history unfolding for the anesthetized and apathetic

K is for Killjoy.

   So far I’ve covered some pretty intense stuff. I’ve outlined the dominant cultural traits we experience on a daily basis without the background information and words to describe their ramifications. In doing so, I have tried to illuminate the origins of the greatest succession of crises to befall planet earth in its 4 billion year history. What about meteor strikes or ice ages? Aren’t these extinction events more significant? Not really. Past extinction events are natural phenomena. They intend to keep the cosmos humble, existing as it does in its orbiting routines, sans any exceptionalist dogma.

   Life and death is a cycle that spares no star. Thus, our own insignificance. Yet we live in an age—an extinction event slowly unfolding—where a single species has done the work of a 10km piece of stellar debris. We are losing biodiversity at a rate that exceeds adaptive mutation. We have changed the surface of the earth, removing mountain tops, dredging canals to link distinct bodies of water and building wave breaks and levees to alter the process of erosion and deposition. Geologists and anthropologists have suggested designating our current era the “Anthropocene.” This does, actually, speak to our significance. But we are cast in a dingy light.    

"The problems of mankind can be solved because we created them."
- Bright Eyes, Firewall

   Humans always create the collapse. Our institutions are monolithic invaders, wrapping their specialized tentacles around us to exact a perfectly destructive order. Our culture of consumerism replaces human relationships with empty emotional bonds with lifeless objects. We are a people of debt. This debt represents disconnection between natural accounting of creation and destruction; we continue to overdraft. Our ecology is in peril. We have been unable or unwilling to implicate ourselves in the ecosystems and climate crises. We see the nonhuman as other because we fear that which what we don’t understand. When we can’t clothes ourselves in the warmth of mystery, we cannot expect to explain our crises, let alone manage them. Instead, we divide ourselves into categories that are easy to understand, narratives of group psychology and group struggle. We cling to these groups because it confirms our biases; it is an act of identity self-preservation in an unexplainable and overwhelmingly dynamic age. We cope with spectacles, and since we can argue--perhaps without challenge--that our political system and throw-away consumer culture have devolved into the most unproductive spectacles, we have to be pragmatic in our approach to resolving our crises.  

   All of this seems pretty negative. And I admit it’s hard to frame such cold and uncomfortable facts in rosy terms. Our “history unfolding” will be the unwritten history of collapse. Our society, like dozens of human societies and animal species before, has grown too complex to survive rapid change. We can cling to emerging technologies, relishing in the vanity of our intelligence, or we can accept that human beings are not the end game of evolution. We are adaptive, and we have that to our advantage as animals whose civilization contracts around them. Yet, we need to remember that humans are merely blobs of energy that by chance alone developed the capacity to become self-aware and manipulate our environment on such a large scale. Even the brightest minds in our media and political spin rooms can’t morph that nightmare into a dream.
We need to proceed with resolute pragmatism. Pragmatism is, in a sense, the opposite of idealism. Idealism is optimism. Pragmatism is pessimism. I am a killjoy.

   Pessimism dissolves the illusions of spectacle. It renders irrelevant the fear of an unknown. “Fuck it” is the pessimist's verse. But this doesn’t make her a nihilist. It makes her better prepared to survive the collapse. The pessimist will have no qualms with the end of civilization. It’s pragmatic to accept reality and start thinking of how to make do, how to salvage the best parts of our culture. We need to think about what skills we need to survive. We need to rediscover the art of food production and preservation. We need to redevelop a spiritual relationship with the land and with each other.

   If a pessimist can share one sliver of hopeful ideal, may it be that our environmental crises do not prevent our adaptation to collapse. If they do, it would be ironically fitting to be the victims of our own genius, responsible for our own extinction. Our civilization is past its peak. So, we face a difficult choice. We can prepare for the collapse with pragmatism, accepting that we must abandon all vestiges of comfort. Or we can ignore the warning signs, desperately gripping the illusion of perpetual progress. Perhaps to aid the decision, we should consider that the longer we hold on to our dying civilization, the greater probability epic violence accompanies the transition.

   Resolving our crises is not about throwing money and mass support behind some futile solution on a drafter's table. Resolving our crises is about managing collapse in a way that preserves that which is worthwhile and fulfilling, while simultaneously undermining any attempt for our systems of injustice to be a thistle in next year's seed.

Friday, April 13, 2012

Following the Yellow Brick Road (off a cliff)

Anarchy A to Z:
a guide to understanding our history unfolding for the anesthetized and apathetic

J is for Jesters

   We are consumptive little monsters, individuals suffice existing within our own minds for our own time. We want to control. Yet, because the system is designed and perpetuated through the dichotomy of Haves and Have Nots, we find ourselves as almost wholly powerless. To cope, we embrace the spectacle. Now, I can complain all day about the cult of celebrity and the reality TV show that is the Republican primary election, a spectacle bordering on blood sport replete with hissing Romans. The world is a fucked up place. We need an escape from reality, from time to time, so the history of Depression Era cinema tells. But why spend eighteen bucks on an apropos escape and a box of popcorn when our entire civilization is an illusory spectacle?

   I read, somewhere, that Guy Debord’s Society of the Spectacle is the Communist Manifesto of the 20th century because of its contribution to the social sciences. I wouldn’t be able to confirm it, though, because the book itself is a spectacle so complex that I need pages of written notes to decipher a two sentence passage. (I came to the conclusion that reading it is as close to dropping acid as one can get in sobriety). The idea of the spectacle is simple, and thus, expectedly powerful. Everything in the post-industrial society is a series of images meant to evoke emotion, to enslave us to power, to confirm our fears of otherness and to pacify the revolutionary impulse of freedom. Look no further than the land of OZ.

   Dorothy was a selfish girl, wanting to wander around all day, justifying the crass behavior of that little rat, Toto. She meets the Fortune Teller, whose entire economy is based on selling spectacle. Dorothy proceeds to escape reality to a land where “little people” are happy, jesters dancing around with their monstrous lollipops—a spectacle, no doubt--neither wage slaves on MGM’s payroll, nor victims of the robber barons of the Gilded Age. She meets the characters of a depressed society. The Wizard says, “Slay this evil other and I will give you what you desire.” And so Dorothy and her motley crew proceed to dispatch the one symbol of hope, the one voice that says we should not be wearing Ruby Slippers.

   Upon their triumphant return, our protagonists demand reparations. They even expose the wizard behind the curtain, but he is a sly fucker, just as the machinations of an unjust system tend to be. “Don’t be ignorant, capitalism can serve you too!” He hands over a diploma, as if departing the halls of academe improves our lot in life. “Don’t be cold, we’re just like you!” And he bestows a watch, because time is linear and we’d do best to not forget that time is also money. “Be not afraid, you will have yours soon!” And he hands a gold coin hanging on a silk ribbon, and calls it employee “appreciation”. Dorothy wakes up, but the spectacle continues. She has learned a life lesson, according to the masters of illusion. The problem is that she did not learn anything revolutionary on her psychedelic quest. She still opened her eyes on the dismal farm in the Dust Bowl Midwest; she was still wearing Ruby Slippers. The land of OZ was a nothing but a spectacular distraction, and meaningless in every way.

   Spectacles paralyze us and keep us wanting shitty-looking shoes, probably made in China by some indentured rice farmer’s daughter who will die early of breast cancer because of carcinogens in the smoke of the glue she used to attach all the pretty sequins. The shoes are an illusion of prosperity and normalcy. Our college degrees, our paychecks and awards systems all bind us to the society in which we are born. These spectacles define what is normal. If we feel like we fit into the system, we will bind it to our feet. We’ll skip down a big golden road toward the emerald towers of the American Dream. But that Dream is a spectacle. It is an illusion that does not exist.

   The “market” will recover. Home prices are on the up. Jobless claims are down. Our “leaders” just instituted new protections against mercury in coal power plant emissions. Are these a reason to be optimistic? I don’t think so. I think they are exactly the empty promises a society of the spectacle expects to be fed.

   Reality is pretty clear beyond the fa├žade of spectacle. Even when we expose the wizard behind the curtain, he does not abandon his post. He buys us off, biding time until we sink again into submission. Hope for the future is, in itself, an escape. If hope is a spectacle too, what lies beyond the curtain is not going to be pretty.

We’re GaGa for Ourselves: Intimacy, Identity and Individuals

Anarchy A to Z:
a guide to understanding our history unfolding for the anesthetized and apathetic

I is for Individuals

   The 21st century angst-driven teenager, locked in her room with the music blaring, lacks the strong cultural foundations that create normalcy and stability. “Just dance,” Lady GaGa proclaims, ”everything will be okay.” But everything is not okay. The future of our species lives in a world that is in its death throes, yet they do not possess the tools to make sense of it. Instead, they ignore them, retreating to their shells or their radical ideologies. We have created a world without the intimacy of healthy social relations, without a language of love. But it isn’t just our young standard bearers, but the standard itself.

   Without intimacy, our people cannot analyze the breadth and depth of our crises. We need a spiritual ecology, a return to holism and simplicity, but instead we socialize our system of hyper-individualism. With our identities under attack, we shy away from intimacy because in it we must sacrifice part of our self. It is no surprise that the military has one of the highest divorce rates; these men and women are indoctrinated to view others and otherness as signs of inhumanity. You can’t pull the trigger in the name of your corporate masters if you see yourself staring back at you. To divide the commonalities of the human condition is to abolish the ability to be intimate. But the methods of doing so are convenient. The individual reigns herself. All others are “others.” 

   The Have-Have Not dichotomy creates a rift, as all dichotomies do, between individuals in our society. It reinforces the individual’s psychology, whether we see ourselves among our black brothers, our vegan clan or our cohort of conspicuous consumers. These group identities confirm biases and make us more comfortable as individuals. The first questions we ask someone at a social event are generally identity based. “What do you do? What kind of car do you drive? Are you married? Kids? What kind of music do you listen to?”
As a humanitarian, as an empath for the people of Palestine and the people of the Ninth Ward in New Orleans, and later as a student of Peacekeeping, I’ve sought to reduce the imperialist program to a manageable size. The science is inexact; it is a lot like chemotherapy. Sometimes you have to try it and hope it works, but surrendering a sense of control and accepting vulnerabililties and imperfections in proposals helps narrow the pharmaceutical response. In exploring the promise of deep peace, and being partly driven to explain the polarization of the American political system and its challenges, I have crafted a hypothesis to explain the failures of the Peacekeeping practitioners and their dinosaur enterprise (we’ll see if it flies with the thesis advisor). 

   In sum, identity is the cornerstone laid on a foundation of geographic determinism. But predatory corporate capitalism, with its M.O. of commodifying of every tiny piece of the planet’s surface, its inhabitants and their spirit, has expanded history’s most destructive economic system to every place worth exploiting. Some called it the end of history because there no longer seemed to be a challenger. These neoliberal neophytes clambered the halls of academia, hidden behind robes of Carnegie Fellows, missing the truth in their statements. The end of history is not the triumphalism of game theory and market dynamics, but the homogenization of the global order.

   Identity is fundamental to the human spirit. With the poetics of pop culture drunkenness as a thorny afterthought, self-realization is necessary transition in the life cycle of human social behavior. I was one of those confused and immediately defensive individuals, and you were too. Now extrapolate that process. Take flight and see yourself floating above earth with wide eyes of holism. See the villages in the Amazon, the refugees squeezed between Shell Oil’s drilling in the west and soy bean farmers encroaching from the eastern plains. Identity is the stability factor discussed earlier. It is a fundamental function of culture, the subject our socialization programs sustain. Yet, in a world that is increasingly connected psycho-spatially, and under brutal assault by an exploitative economic system manifest in the injustices we have identified, humans are radicalized into violent defense of a simple but shared identity.

 “Cogito ergo sum.”
- Rene Descartes
   “I think. Therefore, I am.” The individual is a difficult phenomenon to navigate. It is rooted in basic brain function of self-realization, a pseudo spatial-temporal coping mechanism that underpins our basic philosophical questions. It was articulated in ancient philosophy. It was revived during the Renaissance and Enlightenment. It was exploited to serve the basis of the Westphalian order in the bastardization of human social psychology we call nationalism; here, its destructiveness is obvious. American culture is particularly wedded to the frontier myth of the rugged individual, man versus the wilds of an untamed continent, always a victim but always the victor. It would come as no surprise that American enfranchisement requires at least a subconscious fist bump to images of individual ruggedness.

   The individual was lastly spun, so far as this conversation is concerned, as a culture of poverty. No irony is spared in the relationship between the mythological rider of the white horse--galloping from the gunslinger movies sets of California and into the White House, carrying proudly the individualist narrative perfected in the PR rooms of General Electric—and the process of hyper-individualizing, and thus dividing the American public.

   In the new world order, the individual is responsible for raising their standards, and, therefore, poverty is an individual choice. This narrative is incredibly useful for those piloting the collapse because it absolves them of wrongdoing and saddles the individual with guilt. But the individual is only as capable as the system in which they operate. Our systems of patriarchy, racism, scientific skepticism etc. create the ideal environment for exploitation without repercussion. And we are only beginning to see the ramifications. This American Life posed an interesting question recently: what country do you want to live in? 

   When a crowd jeers a gay serviceman or cheers for death by health insurance market, we know we are in trouble. Our social identities have been and continue to be under assault. They are being destroyed to so those that command the narratives of history can reconstitute all human social relationships as hyper-individualized, neoliberal, Social Darwinian fiefdoms. It creates spectacles to entertain us and to pacify us. It prevents individual human beings from recognizing that their uniqueness contributes to broader patterns of healthy social behavior.

“The control of a large force is the same principle as the control of a few men:
It is merely a question of dividing up their numbers.”
― Sun Tzu

   Hyper-individualism hampers the human need for friendship and intimacy, components of self-actualization and necessary to evolutionary enlightenment. It condemns any spirit of confederated cooperation that may allow us to confront our crises. It foments divisions within the ranks of the dispossessed. Instead of rising as one, we dance in our rooms alone. Hoping that out there, somewhere, is our “biggest fan,” someone to follow us around and be our Paparazzi.