Cradle to Grave, Grave to Cradle

Cradle to Cradle. This is a sustainability model popularized by William McDonough. But he isn’t the originator of this line of thought. The basic sustainability ideas he argues for have been around for a while. Even the phrase “cradle to cradle” was used by others before him, which makes it irritating that he tried to trademark it. He has a habit, as some have noted, of stealing ideas and claiming them as his own while demanding high fees. So, maybe he is a bit of a self-promoting egotist or maybe he is simply greedily self-interested. His being a thought leader might be equal parts real influence and aspirational fantasy, whether or not that is problematic to the sustainability movement. It sometimes takes big egos to push big ideas, as long as a personality cult doesn’t get in the way.

Whatever the case, he could still be right about what he (and many others) have advocated. The moral merit and practical value of those ideas is a separate issue from what some deem to be his personal weaknesses or failings. The point is that I wouldn’t argue that there are necessarily problems in the ideas themselves, but underlying motives are always of concern in what they point toward. It’s a question of ascertaining and assessing what is behind the rhetoric and to what end that rhetoric might be used. It’s the same issue that motivated my writing about Foster Gamble (Thrive: Libertarian Wolf in Progressive Clothing) — and I might note that it was the same friend that brought them both to my attention, a very good friend I might add whose opinion I respect, but he admits to being drawn into and sometimes misled by libertarianism (something I can empathize with, considering my own libertarian inclinations).

My doubts began when I read an article about McDonough (the one specifically recommended by my friend): Industrial Revolution, Take Two by Matt Tyrnauer. As often is the case, I had a mixed response. It is one of the many nice-sounding libertarian dreams and not one that easily fits into the left-right spectrum. The problem is, even when well intentioned, these dreams are too often used to rationalize nightmares or else the resulting obfuscation (intended or not) makes it hard to tell the difference.

What stands out to me is that McDonough doesn’t seem to discuss democracy at length or at the very least he doesn’t clearly prioritize it, which opens the door for anti-democratic opportunists and reactionaries. To be fair, he does occasionally, albeit briefly, mention democracy. On his official website, in talking about one of his projects and the principles its based upon, he explains that, “In essence, they will extend the rights and responsibilities of a democratic government and its citizens into the realm of nature and design.” He rightly worries about “the fundamental challenge to democracy,” that “If our actions today rob our children of their right to choose, we are practicing intergenerational tyranny, an affront to democratic traditions.” And about regulations, he writes that they:

…are a legitimate transitional response. And when technologies such as nuclear energy and genetic engineering threaten to generate irreversible environmental changes, perhaps more urgent action is called for. Addressing the possible impacts of these industries would be an expression of democracy, for irreversible ecological change robs future generations of the right to choose: Once you’ve altered the genetic code there’s no turning back; once a species is lost, it is lost forever. As Thomas Jefferson said, “life is for the living,” and diminishing the life and the choices of our children and grandchildren is a kind of remote tyranny. Regulations that preserve choice and environmental health preserve democracy.

This Jeffersonian idealism is a major strain in American thought. And it resonates deeply.  I might add that this was the basis of the early notion that constitutions, patents, and corporate charters should never last longer than a single generation — that is to say no generation, once dead, has the natural right and moral justification to (immortally and in perpetuity) impose anything onto following generations, be it constraints or costs. McDonough also is able to put democracy into a larger global context:

Today, we might try waging peace on the scale of the Marshall Plan with the widespread application of intelligent design, a concerted international effort to develop products, industrial processes and social systems that support sustainable economic strength, cultural diversity and environmental health. From this perspective, sustainable design can be seen as one of the essential paths to peace and security. Consider resource dependency. From the viewpoint of both sustainability and international relations, reliance on a single, non-renewable resource to fuel economic growth is a signal of a design problem. In Saudi Arabia and Nigeria, for example, we see oil generate wealthy elites but no democratic institutions and no emerging intellectual infrastructure to support long-term social well-being or economic growth. In America, there are strong democratic traditions, but today the U.S. spends up to $50 billion annually, as well as lots of international good will, to protect the oil fields of the Persian Gulf. South America is now emerging as the new, unstable oil arena.

But strangely democracy only comes up once in his book, Cradle to Cradle (p. 23), and even then only in the context of industrial capitalism:

The advantages of standardized, centralized production were manifold. Obviously, it could bring greater, quicker affluence to industrialists. On another front, manufacturing was viewed as what Winston Churchill referred to as “the arsenal of democracy,” because the productive capacity was so huge, it could (as in two world wars) produce an undeniably potent response to war conditions. Mass production had another democratizing aspect: as the Model T demonstrated, when prices of a previously unattainable item or service plummeted, more people had access to it.

I give him some credit for discussing democracy at all. But the above commentary of his from various sources is about a page worth in total and, as far as I can tell, it is about all he has ever written on the topic. It’s merely something about which to make a rare point in passing. But it’s not central to his argument or, if it is in the background of his thought, it isn’t a rhetorical frame overtly used to construct his worldview. Even when democracy does come up, there doesn’t seem to be any mention of it in relation to self-governance, political process, anarchosyndicalism, etc. At most, McDonough’s view of democracy appears to be as a general concept of a democratic society and a broad tradition of Western civilization, in the mainstream sense and not with clear radical and revolutionary implications.

Maybe this is unsurprising. He argues against any ‘ism’ for, in his mind, ideology inevitably means extremism. This indicates that he considers the radical and revolutionary to be a bad thing. He wants moderate and gradualist reform within the system, not wholesale transformation of the system. And so he argues for a balanced approach that doesn’t go too far in any direction, which obviously means some kind of claim for centrism (a position that puts me on guard). The problem is that the denouncing of ideology is an old strategy for smuggling in an unstated ideology. This was powerfully used by Southerners before the Civil War in attacking supposedly radical ideologies of the Northern states such as abolitionism, feminism, Marxism, red republicanism, etc. Anyway, it’s clear that McDonough does have an ideology, something along the lines of mildly progressive soft neoliberalism leaning toward social semi-libertarianism. On the positive side, he seems to be a pragmatist of sorts (self-perceived pragmatism, after all, is a core neoliberal justification) and so maybe open to persuasion… or else just ideologically confused.

There is no doubt that cradle to cradle is a beautiful dream. But it won’t be primarily created through technology and industry but through democratic revolution that helps create a democratic political and economic system. Otherwise, such technology and industry will lead to yet another authoritarian social order. Libertarian (or pseudo-libertarian) techno-utopias won’t save us from the more fundamental problem of anti-democratic corporatism with its concentrated wealth and power, no matter how paternalistically it is wielded. Change will have to come from the bottom up, which is problematic that McDonough directs his arguments toward those at the top.

To my mind, this seems part of an old game… no matter if McDonough understands his own part in it. It has been played well by right-wing libertarians and laissez-faire capitalists for generations, co-opting rhetoric as necessary. There is always a beautiful dream involved. It’s hard to argue against it on its own terms. If the rhetoric matched reality, I’d be on board with almost every beautiful dream that came down the pipeline. But the reality rarely matches the rhetoric. The political right loves to complain that liberal and leftist reality is inferior to right-wing fantasies. Yet they feel no responsibility to ever concretely prove their fantasies should be taken seriously. Neither neoliberalism nor neoconservatism, much less libertarianism, have spread freedom around the world. The wealth has not trickled down and all boats have not been lifted. We are still waiting on the promises of prior utopian visions. Repackaging old rhetoric is the opposite of helpful, if that is all this amounts to (and I hope not).

To continue, here is something else from Tyrnauer’s piece:

“How many environmentalists do you know who say growth is good?,” McDonough asks. “We celebrate growth. Abundance is something we want. Our idea is to make production so clean there’s nothing left to regulate.” This, he notes, is extremely appealing to people of all political persuasions, from those who love the environment to those who want commerce free of regulation.

I can guarantee you this much. Such rhetoric will be used to attack environmental regulations and regulatory agencies by right-wing think tanks and media, lobbyists and politicians. As Chomsky advises, we the public need to develop some serious intellectual defenses against the power of rhetoric, especially when it becomes mass-produced and widely circulated propaganda. Millions, if not trillions of dollars, are spent every year in researching, developing, and implementing more effective ways to monopolize the public mind, manipulate public perception, and manage public opinion.

The fact that corporations and corporate media have already latched onto this “cradle to cradle” rhetoric should greatly worry us all. It maybe already has been turned into yet one more ideology of technocratic paternalism, the reason the investor class and the creative class love it so much. It portrays a world led and ruled by the tech industry and its pseudo-libertarian visionaries. Denying its status as an ideological ‘ism’ makes it even easier to be co-opted for nefarious ends. Such sustainability visioneering is an answer coming from on up high, not being developed from below among the democratic masses. If failed government is eliminated without filling the void with democracy, all that would happen is for corporate bureaucracy and privatized authoritarianism to take its place. Tech and industry is a means, not an end. Only democratic process can lead to democratic results.

Give the lower classes ability and freedom to solve their own problems — some possibilities: community self-governance, direct vote determining government budgets, corporate charters determined by and limited to the public good, tax free co-operatives, employee-owned factories, locally-operated municipalities, every neighborhood with a creativity lab, tools and machinery made affordable to the lower classes, public education and professional training provided as a right, educational and research resources freely available to all citizens, all or nearly all scientific research and academic books openly accessible to the public, a publicly-maintained internet system of knowledge and ideas, strong platforms of public media and public debate, and whatever else along these lines.

I’m thinking of examples like the young guy in an isolated poor village who was able to build a windmill to pump water for his community and he did so by using knowledge from the internet and spare parts nearby. And I’m thinking about the experiment involving computer terminals that were put into poor neighborhoods that allowed uneducated kids to educate themselves (English, mathematics, etc), even though no one was telling them that is what they should do. I bet, if given the resources and opportunity, the poorest of minorities out of necessity would be more likely to come up with brilliantly innovative ideas than rich white guys like William McDonough and Foster Gamble.

If there is an environmentally sustainable societal and economic ecosystem to be developed, it will come from the common folk because they have the strongest incentive for improving society. It won’t come from the world of transnational corporations nor from corporate media and corporatist government. Big biz is a threat to our survival, not our savior. All that big biz and its cronies will do is use the techno-libertarian rhetoric to dismantle environmental regulations and protections while they spin some PR and throw out a few token efforts and symbolic actions. They will enact their ultimate capitalist dream of endless guilt-free hyper-individualistic consumerism that replaces community and civil society, the commons and the public good.

But it will sound great in theory. The corporatist media will push the propaganda model so as to make these rhetorical schemes into some variety of ideological realism. The pundits will preach it with such inspiration. The thought leaders will give their TED talks. The Koch-funded academics will indoctrinate the young. The think tank intellectuals will spread the word. And the professional politicians will halfheartedly repeat the talking points. Any alternative will be ignored, dismissed, ridiculed, or attacked.

Let me finish with one last quote by Tyrnauer:

One of the things that is holding back the environmental movement and its proponents, says McDonough, is the collective burden of guilt about the ills of our society. “They say they want durable products that last a long time. Like a 25-year car. I’ll tell you why that’s not good. That car will still be made with toxins in the adhesives, compound epoxies. O.K., it amortizes its damage over a longer period of time, but it’s still a car that is damaging. You also lose jobs, because people don’t buy enough cars. You are using outdated technology on the roads for a longer time.” The solution that he and Braungart suggest is a five-year car that allows for industry to “transform the technology at high speed toward the Cradle to Cradle concept. The five-year car is a car whose materials are all coherent and tagged. In fact, all materials in the car have ‘passports.’ So we know where they come from, and we know where they’re going”—back to the auto-makers—“after five years of utility, so the car could be recycled and updated with the latest in safety and efficiency. All done with the same materials that you—in effect—lease from the auto company. They keep making the cars out of the same stuff.”

Meanwhile, one of the things holding back actual environmental sustainability, protection, and thriving is corporatist power and rhetoric. The ruling elite force guilt onto us about our demands for a political and economic system that serves we the public of this society and we the inhabitants of the living biosphere, calling us such names as ‘takers’ and ‘welfare queens’. They shift the guilt onto us in order to avoid the legal and moral guilt of those who have created the mess and made government seem dysfunctional, even as government serves their every need and demand — like Reagan complaining about big government as he grew the military and created the permanent debt. If guilt really were so powerless to influence change, it wouldn’t be a target of those most guilty. Social science research shows that guilt is quite powerful, such that people will punish the perceived guilty even at high costs to themselves. That enforcement of public morality is what the powerful fear, as it is the fuel of populist outrage that has forced major changes throughout history.

Besides, environmental regulations won’t ever be eliminated. In any society, there will always be public policy about how natural resources are used, how costs and benefits are allocated, how social norms are enforced, how wrongdoing is punished or compensated. etc. The issue isn’t for or against government, as long as we want to maintain a complex society. Rather, what we must choose is a free society of self-governance or an authoritarian regime of self-destruction. Government regulations are most dangerous when there is regulatory capture. Eliminating the power of government doesn’t eliminate the dangers of the very corporations that took control. That would simply lead to privatized authoritarianism, corporate bureaucracy, and plutocratic monopolization.

Simply put, I don’t trust sirens of laissez-faire salvation and plutocratic paternalism, even when dressed up with environmentalist buzz words and social democratic pleadings. It doesn’t matter how enticing is the futuristic utopia they promise. The challenge before us is the sifting out the good from the bad, the intentions from the results, the rhetoric from the reality. We should dream big, but we must guard those dreams jealously. We must defend them against those who would co-opt and abuse them, turning the radical and revolutionary into the reactionary and regressive. The solution isn’t to curtail big dreams but to unleash them from the forces of small-minded dreamers. If these dreams are to serve the public good, the public must claim them.

I’ll leave it to others to judge the likes of William McDonough, one of the glittering gods on Mount Olympus. It is ultimately irrelevant. He doesn’t own any of these ideas, despite his attempts to do so. If he helps give voice to what needs to be heard, well then good for him. But he better get out of the way for those who will need to do the hard work. And so I’ll look to the ground for what will be emerging next in the world. The much needed radical revolution will come in unexpected forms, like a god in the gutter. A new living generation will inherit the earth and they will do what must be done. Cradle to grave, grave to cradle.

* * *

Untying Cradle to Cradle
by Aetzel Griffioen

Closed Loop, Cradle to Cradle, Circular Economy & the New Naturephilia
by Dr. Mae-Wan Ho

Walter Stahel, an architect, economist, and one of the founding fathers of industrial sustainability is credited with having coined the expression “cradle to cradle” in the late 1970s [8]; even though Braungart and McDonough claimed to have invented it [9]. Stahel intended to reverse the crude and wasteful linear industrial system the world has inherited from the industrial revolution, which depletes finite resources, creating toxic products that largely end up in landfills to poison the environment. Stahel developed a “closed loop” approach to production and founded the Product Life Institute in Geneva with the main goals of product-life extension, long-life goods, reconditioning activities and waste prevention. Kodak, DuPont, the BBC and Bosch are among its clients.

“Cradle to cradle” as propounded by Braungart and McDonough means to go one step further; they want industry not only to close the loop by recycling, but to redesign the industrial processes altogether. Instead of concentrating on making the current system more efficient (less bad), we can redesign the system to be thoroughly good. Recycling and reuse is not a solution if the product or material is toxic in the first place, it will inevitably end up in the environment to poison us more slowly, but still surely.

So, we must eliminate toxic materials and processes altogether, to make products that can be safely recycled and reused or else composted to support plant growth. There are already impressive successes (but also notable failures that critics accuse McDonough of ignoring, or still claiming as successes [9]).

If, like me, you expected to find a coherent theory behind the cradle to cradle approach, then you’d be disappointed and frustrated as I was, until I learned of the successful actual implementations (see Box), which serve to remind us that good intentions can often work. On the other hand, a coherent theory may improve the success rate, and at least, provide criteria for judging success.

Cradle to Cradle
by David Swanson

Three comments. First, this book does not suggest any radical change in behavior for the typical reader. (Have lots of kids, drive lots of cars, buy lots of stuff – what a break through!) This book is, rather, advice for architects, corporations, and municipalities. It is intended to free the typical reader of guilt. I think it should do something else as well, namely urge us to political action, to demanding of our democratically elected representatives that the earth-saving innovations described in the book be taken advantage of. All the descriptions in this book of common household objects, such as sofas, “off-gasing” toxic particles makes me want to take action to change things or at least buy a mask, not go shopping.

Second, the examples of new materials and building and product designs described in the book all build on the environmental thinking that McD and B so loudly reject. Reducing pollution to zero is not a “new paradigm” from reducing pollution to a teeny bit – it’s just better.

Third, the vision of rendering mad self-indulgence completely beneficial to all other species is far from a reality, and even the dream described by McD and B would not, in any way that I can imagine, make it possible to place an unlimited number of humans on the planet without hurting anything – more humans than under current practices, yes — an infinite number, no. But let’s remember that most of the people now on the planet do not do nearly as much damage as we do in this country. How many billion Americans the Earth can hold has not been answered.

There is also a disturbing thread of anti-government corporatism in the book. Ford and Nike and other corporations for which the authors have worked are described as heroes for their positive efforts, while their destructive practices are passed over. The authors repeat a distinction (citing Jane Jacobs’ “Systems of Survival”) between Guardians and Commerce, i.e. paternalistic government and noble corporate heroes:

“Commerce is quick, highly creative, inventive, constantly seeking short- and long-term advantage, and inherently honest: you can’t do business with people if they aren’t trustworthy.”

Is this a joke? Do these guys believe press releases they read from, say, Enron? (Apparently so, because later in the book they write: “…the summer of 2001, when unusually high energy demand in California led to rolling blackouts, skyrocketing prices, even accusations of profiteering….” Accusations! High demand or restrained supply? What rock have these intelligent authors been naturally cooling themselves under? Well, at least they recognize the concept of profiteering, even though it fits poorly with the inherent honesty of commerce.)

Immediately following the “inherently honest” comment (page 60) Mc D and B go on to equate regulation with partial pollution reduction, and to conclude that because complete pollution reduction is desirable and possible, regulation is bad. Instead they should conclude that rather than allowing limited pollution, regulators should ban it entirely (through whatever stages of phasing in that policy prove feasible). Later the authors claim that their design to allow a factory to reuse its effluent as influent “eliminated the need for regulation.” This should at the very least have been stated more clearly: it eliminated the need to monitor effluent. It did not eliminate the need to ban harmful effluent. Nor did it provide any reason to think making environmental behavior “voluntary” would cause other factories to employ similar solutions, however easy or profitable they might be.

The Lies and Fraud of My Hero William McDonough
by Derek Christensen

What’s the summary of the summary? McDonough is an impressive man, but he dreams on a scale much larger than he can deliver. His impressive gains are frustrated by his personal desire for wealth – Cradle to Cradle had incredible potential until he slapped on such high fees licensing fees. By attempting to control and own everything he created, potential partners were alienated and the growth of his ideas stagnated.

The future lies with green architecture and manifacturing, but it does not lie with William McDonough.

Green Guru Gone Wrong: William McDonough
by Danielle Sacks

As someone who believes that “commerce is the engine of change,” as he puts it, McDonough has never confined his ambition to the high plains of principle. The virtue of his cradle-to-cradle idea is that it offers a virtuous result — infinite abundance with no waste — through an unabashedly commercial channel, namely manufacturing. If he could establish himself in that chain as the arbiter of clean products, there is no limit to what it might yield — for everyone. “The faster and larger our business grows,” he told me, “the better the world gets.” […]

McDonough is not above poetic license. When I ask him which building marked the genesis of the sustainable-design movement, he points to the office he designed for the Environmental Defense Fund. “It was the first green office in the U.S.,” he says. Harrison S. Fraker Jr., dean of the College of Environmental Design at UC Berkeley, demurs: “Sustainable design started long before McDonough even opened his office… . McDonough gets credit for everything because he is such a good promoter of all the good things he has done… . I hate to see false myths perpetuated.” Even the term cradle to cradle, for which McDonough has applied for a trademark, isn’t his at all. According to Hunter Lovins, cofounder of the Rocky Mountain Institute think tank, “Walter Stahel in Switzerland actually coined the phrase 25 years ago, long before Bill started using it.”

For those who came to know McDonough from within the environmental and design movements — those whose labors rarely reach the ears of Laurie David — an alternative narrative exists about him. Until now, it has been shielded from the mainstream for two reasons: First, McDonough has done more than most to popularize the very idea of cleaning up the world, and for that, even his detractors agree he deserves thanks; second, if word gets out that he may not be all that he appears, the overall cause of sustainability could suffer. “He’s been incredibly important and valuable in this role as visionary,” says Auden Schendler, executive director of sustainability at Aspen Skiing Co. “The problem is that sometimes the theorists like McDonough will represent themselves as practitioners, and that’s where the guys in the trenches get frustrated.” […]

The Oberlin case is part of a larger pattern, some of his former colleagues say. “McDonough doesn’t care if the facts are wrong,” one told me, “because he’s a self-mythologizer. His job in the world is to convince people that a positive future is possible, and it doesn’t help his cause to admit there are hiccups and failures along the way.”

Inscribed near the entrance of McDonough’s architecture firm in Charlottesville is a favorite mantra: design is the first signal of human intention. He repeats it religiously, and for him it means that every object contains clues to whether it was created with the earth in mind. It is one’s intention, McDonough believes, that one is judged on.

McDonough’s willingness to let good intentions obscure very mixed results appears to have sometimes clouded his own — and others’ — view of his abilities. […]

Critics argue that McDonough’s work is not transparent or consensus based, and that because he sometimes consults for companies whose products he’s also certifying, the whole endeavor is conflicted, if not unethical.

Bill McDonough Gets Trashed in Fast Company
by Lloyd Alter

K • 9 years ago
I too was there at UVA school of architecture when McDonough was there and was unimpressed. Sure, he’s an amazing motivational speaker, who regurgitates the same speech over and over. Then, if you get to meet any of the people he champions (as I did, when I took his class, ‘Environmental Choices’) what you really learn is that what he’s doing is taking the messages of people who are really ‘doing the work’ and ‘breaking ground’ and making like they were his own.

Now sure, not everyone is a good salesman, and I do think there’s a niche for someone to ‘get the word out’. But there is no good reason to make yourself look amazing on the backs of others and not really give them credit. Also, once you heard the people speak he was ‘borrowing’ from, you realized how great they were and how vacant some of the stuff he was saying was- because he wasn’t a specialist, just a salesman.

And a somewhat overinflated one at that. Champion people for the right reasons I say. McDonough has an amazing flair for the pitch, but you really can’t count on him for substance (from experience).

Anonymous • 9 years ago
I was at UVA’s school of architecture when McDonough was there. My former classmates and I, including people who have worked for him and his firm, have been telling anyone who will listen that he is not all that he seems for almost 10 years. Funny how long it’s taken for word to get around.

Cradle to Cradle as Conventional Right-Wing Anti-Government Ideology
by Dale Carrico

To denigrate the “cradle to grave” tyranny of social democracy and public welfare has, of course, been a staple of reactionary right-wing political invective for generations. But I want to direct attention to a variation of this same polemic at the heart of what is often peddled as a progressive, environmentalist discourse — the so-called “cradle to cradle” design ethos.

Cradle to Cradle: Remaking the Way We Make Things, by William McDonough and Michael Braungart has come to be a sort of bible (together with Janine Benyus’ Biomimicry and Bruce Sterling’s periodic papal-imperial declarations about blobjects and spimes and whatnot) for the so-called “Bright Greens” and the whole green design crowd more generally that more or less arose out of or together with Stewart Brand’s California libertopian retro-futurology-qua-ecology.

In a characteristic passage (pp. 59-61) from Cradle to Cradle, McDonough and Braungart summarize a formulation from the great Jane Jacobs that they take up and divert to their own ends, describing “two syndromes of human civilzations: what [Jacobs] calls guardian and commerce”:

The guardian is the government, the agency whose primary purpose is to preserve and protect the public. This syndrome is slow and serious. It reserves the right to kill — that is, it will go to war. It represents the public interest, and it is meant to shun commerce (witness conflicts over campaign contributions from vested interests).

Commerce, on the other hand, is day-to-day, instant exchange of value. The name of its primary tool, currency, denotes its urgency. Commerce is quick, highly creative, inventive, constantly seeking short- and long-term advantage, and inherently honest: you can’t do business with people if they aren’t trustworthy.

Notice that the attribution of slowness and violence as definitive of government, and then of efficiency and creativity to commerce are very straightforward Anglo-American right-wing Movement Conservative pieties (an assimilation to neoliberal discourse I think Jacobs herself resists better herself, if not enough).

One need not pretend that all representative politics and social administration are transparent, efficient, fleet-footed, and fair to feel hesitant about declaring governance as inevitably and exhaustively and quintessentially bloated and jackbooted as conservatives nowadays are so often keen to do, usually all the while singing arias to celebrity CEOs and commercial culture as though corporations and salesmen are gloriously immune to bureaucracy, dysfunction, conformism, cronyism, fraud, aggression, and waste.

Although it might seem the authors are somewhat evenhanded in a characterization noting the indispensability of government to the “public interest,” they undermine this apparent balance when they go on thereupon to depict government action exclusively in terms of war-making and then stealthfully re-attribute public interestedness to the commercial sphere declaring commerce, astonishingly, as inherently concerned with long-term interests and trustworthiness.

Notice, by the way, the authors’ rather typical handwaving away of the well-known critique that a focus on short-term profit-taking tends to happen at the expense of thinking about longer term consequences with their chirpy collapse of this conflict into a seamless “seeking [of] short- and long-term advantage,” a phrasing that refuses to concede such a problem even exists. Also, notice that the authors seem to consider trustworthiness logically entailed by the structure of enterprise and that the endless empirical instances to the contrary anybody can effortlessly call upon are apparently irrelevant to their abstract celebratory point. It is also intriguing to say the least to note that fairly widespread concerns about the impact of corporate money in the United States’ flabbergastingly corrupt and wasteful campaign finance system are regarded by the authors as straightforward expressions of hostility to free enterprise, as if innovation and fair trade somehow require a “democracy” controlled by millionaires instead of majorities.

Waste is Food (review of Cradle to Cradle by William McDonough and Michael Braungart)
by Tom Lambert

As a historian, I often think about how the carrying capacity of the planet has changed. Six hundred years ago, it would be unimaginable to think that we could live in a society of plenty where nobody had to die of famine and where we would see life expectancies of 70 years and more. Medieval Europeans believed that only in Eden had such a state existed and, furthermore, there was no reason for man to live hundreds of years like Noah and Methuselah. A short life sufficed to find salvation and a long life only served to encourage vice. As it turns out, they may have been right about that one – a long lifespan has given us the chance to use up a lot more resources per person, but hasn’t necessarily made us into better human being. In any case, though, we forget that at one time the wheeled plow was high tech and it created the possibility of feeding far more people. Similarly, changes in land tenure, the increased use of horses and so forth, made it possible for fewer farmers to feed more people.

So I believe that McDonough is right. Faced with the alternatives, we can come up with products that are non-toxic. They will be infinitely upcycled if industrial products and just simply thrown “away” if they are biological products that can be simply composted. Under such conditions, what is to stop infinite growth? In a word: energy. Thus far, almost every shortage we have faced on the planet has been solved by throwing more energy at the problem. As we see the looming problem of climate change, though, we see that using more energy in the forms we currently use it is, in itself a problem. I have no doubt that if we can solve the energy question, we can shift to a planet of plenty where every necessary product is produced safely and sustainably. Some products, it’s true, might get prohibitively expensive, but for the most part we will see those as unnecessary. There is a limit to planetary population, certainly, but history has shown that we have no idea what that number is (and to some extent that’s a value judgement – can we plow up all wilderness in order to grow food?). But the energy question is one that is looming imminently. That’s the one part of the puzzle that McDonough doesn’t really address and that may be the fundamental problem. As he says, efficiency is not enough. A more efficient system just runs out of resources more slowly. Granted, energy is not on McDonough’s agenda – he designs products and buildings and does his best to make them energy efficient (that bad word again), but leaves it up to others to find sources of energy that are as eco-effective as McDonough’s designs.

Anthropocene Politics I
(from Environments, Natures and Social Theory)
by Damian White, Alan Rudy, & Brian Gareau

The fusion of transhumanist and neoliberal ideas has played an important cultural role in Right libertarian digital utopianism that has emanated out of Silicon Valley, and through Wired  magazine. End Times Ecology provides the backdrop narrative informing all kinds of different modes of environmental activism. In some senses they can be seen as reinstating in new ways the catastrophe/cornucopia binary that has run through environmental politics since the early 1970s. Nevertheless, a great deal of contemporary science fiction, from the work of Octavia Butler’s Parable of the Sower to films such as Gattica (1997) and Elysium (2013), are attempts to grapple with worlds confronting both neoliberal hybridities and ecological collapse. Much of this literature thus unsettlingly suggests that these two discourses could in fact be different sides of the same coin. […]

It is interesting to note that bright green literatures often work with multiple political narratives. Some of the less compelling interventions are directed at business leaders who, it is believed, will act out of enlightened self-interest to implement forms of eco-innovation (see McDonough and Braungart, 2013). However, other currents (see Mostafavi and Doherty, 2010) provide more layered accounts of multiple possible entry points available for the dispersal of such innovations well beyond the conventional “entrepreneur/CEO as hero” model: from forms of industrial redesign that are promoted by local, municipal, regional or national governments to full scale public urban planning, from firm-based innovation to innovation driven by government regulation or social movements. Reading beneath the green business uplift narrative, many bright green authors acknowledge that much more radical regime change will be required to make their visions possible. This observation is rarely made explicit in this literature, but it outlines the necessary terrain of engagement that must take place between the critical environmental social sciences and Bright green sensibilities (see White and Wilbert, 2009; Hess 2012, 2014). […]

Given the technocentric and power-free nature of much post- environmentalist analysis, it is easy to see how the post-environmentalist vision of a “good anthropocene” could converge and merge with the hybrid neoliberal vision. A post-environmentalist ecomodernist future can be envisaged where the affluent live in high security, Dubai-style dense, green “smart cities.” Such forms of fortress urbanism could be underpinned by corporatist public-private governance structures, mega-energy technologies, hyper-industrial agriculture and global industrial supply chains that are all serviced by dispossessed classes living densely and eco-efficiently in the urban periphery. This decoupled, carbon- constrained, ecomodern world would, of course, exist within a broader “re-wilded” planet where perhaps “non-moderns” and those who have refused to be “modern” or those who have escaped from the neo-corporatist ecomodern smart city live off their wits, taking their chances while plotting different futures. […]

If end times ecology looks upon our unfolding hybrid worlds with horror and resignation, we have also seen that diverse hybrid neoliberals, bright green and post-environmental currents – whatever their differences – have sought to reframe the environmental debate as questions of technological innovation and inventiveness. All these dis-courses present technological innovation as defining
invention. As a result of this, there are strong tendencies to present social life and politics as the realm of inertia. More generally, it could be observed that the primary voices that are seen as drivers of change are “entrepreneurs,” policy makers, technocratic experts and design professionals. The public, or publics, as potentially sentient, creative, informed and knowledgeable political actors with their own insights, are absent.

Andrew Barry (2002) has observed quite usefully that this conceit, that we live in technological societies that are driven by technologies, has become central to the understanding of many people in the affluent world. Barry suggests that “technological societies” are not necessarily any more technological than past societies, but they are societies that take technological change as the model of invention. The irony here, Barry suggests, is that the endless technological churn that contemporary “technological” economies generate do not necessarily give rise to particularly inventive worlds. Barry indeed observes that periods of rapid technological change can drive anti-inventive forms and behavior. Patenting knowledge or making endless upgrades of software or hardware packages can merely facilitate forms of defensive innovation generating technological changes that are conservative in their implications, “maintaining or rigidifying existing arrangements between persons, activities, devices, and habits of thought; they may restrict and displace the possibility of alternative developments” (Barry, 2002:212). We should not then simply equate technological novelty with inventiveness. Rather, Barry suggests:

Inventiveness should not be equated with the development of novel artifacts, or indeed with novelty or innovation in general. Rather, inventiveness can be viewed as an index of the degree to which an object or practice is associated with opening up possibilities. In this view, scientific and technical objects and practices are inventive precisely in so far as they are aligned with inventive ways of thinking and doing and configuring and reconfiguring relations with other actors. From this perspective it is possible to identify forms of invention that are not technical but rather involve the use of a device in more creative ways. In short, just because an object or device is new does not make it an invention. What is inventive is not the novelty of artifacts and devices in themselves, but the novelty of the arrangements with other objects and activities within which artifacts and instruments are situ-ated and might be situated in the future. (Barry, 2002:211–212)

Barry’s observations prompt the question as to whether there are ways of thinking about an inventive politics, an experimental environmentalism and a public ecology (Luke, 2009) which could open up the making of our hybrid worlds to many more perspectives and voices.

Redefining Sustainability
by Ramesh Bjonnes

Progressive Utilization Theory, also known by the acronym PROUT, is a collection of socioeconomic and political ideas created by Indian philosopher Prabhat Ranjan Sarkar, envisioning “a decentralized, community-based world economy of self-sufficiency; economic democracy; small business; and limits on the accumulation of wealth.” From a PROUT perspective even the most idealistic sustainable models will inevitably confront capitalism’s inherent contradiction: that self-interest and profit are the main drives of the economy and also the main causes of economic exploitation and environmental degradation.

Sarkar explains: “The contradictions in capitalism are due to the self-centered profit motivated psychology and the accumulation of wealth for the benefit of a few rather than for the welfare of all. Hence, capitalism is not congenial to the integrated growth of human progress.” In other words, in a capitalist economy, no matter how green, there will always be a tug of war between the bottom line (profit) and the second bottom line (sustainability). And the bottom line will always win.

Sarkar’s keen insight into this fundamental flaw of capitalism is the reason why PROUT advocates a radical restructuring of the entire economy. PROUT’s alternative to capitalist reform is its three-tiered structure—small private enterprises, worker owned cooperatives and enterprises owned by state, regional or municipal boards. The inherent problems of profit-motivated greed can thus be checked and balanced by limiting capitalism itself. In other words, without curbing the growth of private capitalism—which is driven by its profit motivation– it will be impossible to maintain social, economic and environmental balance, no matter how “sustainable,” “green” or “natural” the economy is.

What We Must Do (Part 2)
by Peter Montague

As we have seen, the main enemy of democracy is inequality of wealth (and therefore power). When Big Money calls the shots, most people are disenfranchised like cattle. There is no evidence that wealthy elites make better decisions than the American people as a whole would make if the institutions of our democracy were working properly (media, schools, courts, legislatures, labor unions, law-making and policy bodies, local businesses and local economies, plus electoral systems for judges, legislatures, governors, and presidents).

If inequalities of wealth are the greatest threat to democracy — and are the hallmark of an unsustainable society — then we could protect democracy and promote sustainability by protecting the institutions that reduce inequalities of wealth.




A Compelling Story

“A year after that very popular novel came out I read an article summarizing a study about that novel conducted by scholars at a well-known university. The study documented that the vast majority of people who bought and read this popular book believed it was not a novel, but an absolutely true story, though the book was marketed as a work of fiction, and nowhere on or in the book did the publisher or author claim the story was true. The study further reported that when people who loved this book were informed that the story was not true, they reacted with either tremendous anger or enormous disappointment, or both.”

This is Todd Walton discussing an interesting phenomenon, from Know Your Audience. And it is something he has personally experienced with his own fiction writing:

“I became aware of this phenomenon—people believing fiction is true—some years before this mass delusion about a popular novel swept the nation. In those long ago days, I frequently gave public readings of my fiction; and it was during the mid-1980s that more and more people began to experience my stories as true rather than as fiction. In response to this phenomenon, I would preface my reading of each story by declaring that the tale was not autobiographical, not inspired by supposedly true events, and was most definitely a work of fiction.

“Even with this disclaimer, many people in my audiences continued to assume my stories were recollections of things that had really happened to me, regardless of how preposterous that possibility.”

It’s not only that people were adamant about believing his fiction was real. They would get quite upset when told once again that it was fiction, even though they already had this explained to them before the reading. Some of them accused the author of lying to them. And a few left the room in protest.

From a slightly different perspective, here is an anecdote shared by Harlan Ellison:

“He told me– and he said this happened all the time, not just in isolated cases– that he had been approached by a little old woman during one of his personal appearances at a rodeo, and the woman had said to him, dead seriously, “Now listen to me, Hoss: when you go home tonight, I want you to tell your daddy, Ben, to get rid of that Chinee fella who cooks for you all. What you need is to get yourself a good woman in there can cook up some decent food for you and your family.”

“So Dan said to her, very politely (because he was one of the most courteous people I’ve ever met), “Excuse me, ma’am, but my name is Dan Blocker. Hoss is just the character I play. When I go home I’ll be going to my house in Los Angeles and my wife and children will be waiting.”

“And she went right on, just a bit affronted because she knew all that, what was the matter with him, did he think she was simple or something, “Yes, I know… but when you go back to the Ponderosa, you just tell your daddy Ben that I said…”

“For her, fantasy and reality were one and the same.”

I quoted that in a post I wrote about a similarly strange phenomenon. It’s how people are able to know and not know simultaneously (a sub-category of cognitive blindness; related to inattentional blindnesscontextual ignorancehypocognition, and conceptual blindness). With that in mind, maybe some of those people in Walton’s various audiences did know it was fiction, even while another part of them took it as real.

This kind of dissociation is probably more common than we might suspect. The sometimes antagonsitic responses he got could have been more than mere anger at having their perception denied. He was going beyond that in challenging their dissociation, which cuts even deeper into the human psyche. People hold onto their dissociations more powerfully than maybe anything else.

There is another factor as well. We live in a literal-minded age. Truth has become conflated with literalism. When something feels true, many people automatically take it as literal. This is the power of religion and its stories, along with politics and its rhetoric. But some argue that literal-mindedness has increased over time, starting with the Axial Age and becoming a force to be reckoned with in this post-Enlightenment age of scientism and fundamentalism. That is what leads to the black-and-white thinking of something either being literally true or absolutely false (a blatant lie, a frivolous fantasy, etc). Iain McGilchrist describes this as the brain dominance of the left hempisphere’s experience and the suppression of right hemisphere’s emotional nuance and grounded context.

This mindset isn’t just a source of amusing anecdotes. It has real world consequences. The most powerful stories aren’t told by fiction writers or at least not by those openly identifying as such. Rather, the greatest compelling storytellers of our age work in news media and politics. The gatekeepers have immense influence in determining what is real or not in the public mind. This is why there is a battle right now over fake news. It’s a battle among the gatekeepers.

This connects to the smart idiot effect. It’s interesting to note that, according to studies, the least educated are the most aware of the limits of their knowledge and expertise. It requires being well educated to fall into the trap of the smart idiot effect (hence why it is called that). This is the reason media personalities and politicians can be so dangerous, as they are people who talk a bit about everything while often being an expert in nothing or, at best, their expertise being narrowly constrained. This is fertile ground for storytelling. And this is why attention-grabbing politicians like Ronald Reagan and Donald Trump first became famous as media personalities — their being experts only in entertainment and egotism. Those like Reagan and Trump are storytellers who embody the stories they tell. They pretend to be something they are not and their audience-supporters take the pretense for reality.

This is seen in many areas of society but particularly on right-wing media. Interestingly, according to research, it is most clearly evidenced among the most well informed audience members of right-wing media who simultaneously are the most misinformed. The average Fox News viewer does know more factoids than the average American (maybe no great accomplishment), but they also know more falsehoods than the average American. What they don’t know very well is how to differentiate between what is true and not true. To be able to make this differentiation would require they not only be able to memorize factoids but to understand the larger context of knowledge and the deeper understanding of truth — the subltety and nuance provided primarily by the right hemisphere, according to Iain McGilchrist. Otherwise, factoids are simply fodder for talking points. And it leads to much confusion, such as a surprising percentage of conservatives taking seriously Stephen Colbert’s caricature of conservatism. Isn’t that interesting, that many conservatives can’t tell the difference between supposedly authentic conservatism and a caricature of it? The election of Donald Trump, an apolitical demagogue posing as a conservative, emphasizes this point.

It is maybe no accident that this phenomenon manifests the strongest on the political right, at least in the United States. It could be caused by how, in the US, authoritarianism is correlated to the political right — not so in former Soviet countries, though. So the main causal factor is probably authoritarianism in general (and, yes, authoritarianism does exist within the Democratic Party, if not to the extreme seen within the GOP; but I would note that, even though Democratic leaders are to the left of the far right, they are in many ways to the right of the majority of Americans… as observed in decades of diverse public polling). Research does show that authoritarians don’t mind being hypocritical, assuming they even comprehend what hypocrisy means. Authoritarians are good at groupthink and believing what they are told. They are literal-minded, as for them the group’s ideology and the leader’s words are identical to reality itself, literally. One could interpret authoritarianism as an extreme variety of dissociation.

I wouldn’t be surprised if Todd Walton’s most offended audience members would test as higher on authoritarianism. Such people have a strong desire to believe in something absolutely. Self-aware use of imagination and the imaginal is not an area of talent for them nor the trait of openness upon which it depends. This is because they lack the tolerance for cognitive dissonance, a necessary component of suspension of disbelief in the enjoyment of fiction. It makes no sense to them that a story could be subjectively true while being factually false (or factually partial). Hence, the sense of being deceived and betrayed. The fiction writer is an unworthy authority figure to the authoritarian mind. A proper authoritarian demagogue would tell his followers what they wanted to hear and would never then tell them that it was just fiction. The point of storytelling, for the authoritarian, is that it is told with utter conviction — it being irrelevant whether or not the authoritarian leader himself believes what he says, just that he pretends to believe.

Authoritarians aside, it should be noted that most people appear to be able to distinguish between truth and falsehood, between non-fiction and fiction. People will say they believe all kinds of things to be true. But if you give them enough of an incentive, they will admit to what they actually believe is true (priming them for rational/analytical thought would probably also help, as various studies indicate). And it turns out most people agree about a lot of things, even in politics. Dissociation has its limits, when real costs and consequences are on the line. But most storytelling, whether fictional or political, won’t effect the concrete daily life of the average person. People want to believe stories and so will take them literally, especially when a story has no real impact. For example, believing in the literal reality that bread and wine becomes the body and blood of Christ is an attractive story for it being largely irrelevant, just a pleasant fiction to create a social bonding experience through ritual (and evidence indicates that many ancient people perceived such things metaphorically or imaginally, instead of literally; the mythical being a far different experience from the literal). Literal-minded people forget that something can have truth value without being literally true. That is what stories are about.

So, it’s possible that if there had been some concrete and personal incentive for self-aware honesty (at least some of) those seemingly naive audience members would have admitted that they really did know that Todd Walton’s readings were fictional. It’s just that, under the actual circumstances with little at stake, their only incentive was their own emotional commitment in being drawn into the story. To be told it is fiction is like being told their experience is false, which would be taken as a personal attack. What they are missing, in that situation, is the willingness to separate their experience of the story from the story itself. It feels so real that they it would ruin their experience of it to imagine it not being real. That is a successful story.

(By the way, this helps explain why Plato so feared the poets, the storytellers of that era. See some context for this in an earlier post of mine, On Truth and Bullshit: “Frankfurt talks about the ‘bullshit artist’. Bullshitters are always artists. And maybe artists are always bullshitters. This is because the imagination, moral or otherwise, is the playground of the bullshitter. This is because the artist, the master of imagination, is different than a craftsmen. The artist always has a bit of the trickster about him, as he plays at the boundaries of the mind.”)

* * *

For some further thoughts from Iain McGilchrist:

The Master and His Emissary
pp. 49-50

“Anything that requires indirect interpretation, which is not explicit or literal, that in other words requires contextual understanding, depends on the right frontal lobe for its meaning to be conveyed or received. 132 The right hemisphere understands from indirect contextual clues, not only from explicit statement, whereas the left hemisphere will identify by labels rather than context (e.g. identifies that it must be winter because it is ‘January’, not by looking at the trees). 133

“This difference is particularly important when it comes to what the two hemispheres contribute to language. The right hemisphere takes whatever is said within its entire context. 134 It is specialised in pragmatics, the art of contextual understanding of meaning, and in using metaphor. 135 It is the right hemisphere which processes the non-literal aspects of language, 136 of which more later. This is why the left hemisphere is not good at understanding the higher level meaning of utterances such as ‘it’s a bit hot in here today’ (while the right hemisphere understands ‘please open a window’, the left hemisphere assumes this is just helpful supply of meteorological data). It is also why the right hemisphere underpins the appreciation of humour, since humour depends vitally on being able to understand the context of what is said and done, and how context changes it. Subjects with right brain damage, like subjects with schizophrenia, who in many respects resemble them, cannot understand implied meaning, and tend to take conversational remarks literally.”

pp. 125-126

“Metaphor is the crucial aspect of language whereby it retains its connectedness to the world, and by which the ‘parts’ of the world which language appears to identify retain their connectedness one to another. Literal language, by contrast, is the means whereby the mind loosens its contact with reality and becomes a self-consistent system of tokens.”

p. 332

“Metaphorical understanding has a close relationship with reason, which seems paradoxical only because we have inherited an Enlightenment view of metaphor: namely, that it is either indirectly literal, and can be reduced to ‘proper’ literal language, or a purely fanciful ornament, and therefore irrelevant to meaning and rational thought, which it indeed threatens to disrupt. It is seen as a linguistic device, not as a vehicle of thought. What the literalist view and the anti-literalist view share is that, ultimately, metaphor can have nothing directly to do with truth. Either it is simply another way of stating literal truth or else it undermines any claim to truth. But as Lakoff and Johnson have shown, ‘metaphor is centrally a matter of thought, not just words’. 2 The loss of metaphor is a loss of cognitive content.”

An Inconsistency on the Political Left

Sam Harris and Noam Chomsky had some strong disagreements a while back, about religion in its relation to extremism and terrorism. It was a dialogue that didn’t really go anywhere. Their ideological worldviews were too different. But it occurred to me what exactly is odd about the conflict.

Harris believes there is something inherent to certain religions and to the religious mindset in general. Chomsky takes the opposite tack by emphasizing conditions and context. Islamic terrorists are the result of a half century of geopolitical machinations that involved Western governments eliminating secularism and promoting theocracy.

It’s a difference of whether one emphasizes civilizational war or common humanity. The divergence of these worldviews extends back to the Enlightenment and even further back to the Axial Age.

That isn’t exactly what I want to discuss, though. It came to my mind that these two thinkers switch positions when it comes to the human mind. Harris denies that there is an inherent self, whereas Chomsky has long argued that there are inherent modules within the mind.

Both seem inconsistent, but as mirror images of each other. Some have noted that Chomsky’s linguistic theory doesn’t fit his political ideology. There is a drastic mismatch. Chomsky dismisses this as two separate areas, as though the human mind and human society had nothing to do with each other. That is odd. Harris, as far as I know, has never even attempted to explain away his inner conflict.

Most on the political right would argue that nearly everything is inherent: human nature, language, culture, religion, genetics, biology, gender, etc. It is assumed that there is a fundamental, unchanging essence to things that determines their expression. I disagree with this viewpoint, but at least it is consistent. There are other areas of inconsistency on the political right, some real whoppers such as with economics. Yet for this set of issues, the greater inconsistency appears to be on the political left.

Another Way

Health is a longtime interest of mine. My focus has been on the relationship between mental health and physical health. The personal component of this is my depression as it has connected, specifically in the past, to my junk food addiction and lack of exercise at times. When severely depressed, there isn’t motivation to do much about one’s health. But if one doesn’t do anything about one’s health, the symptoms of depression get worse.

It’s for this reason that I’ve sought to understand health. I’ve tried many diets. A big thing for me was restricting refined sugar and simple carbs. It’s become clear to me that sugar, in particular, is one of the most addictive drugs around. It boosts your serotonin which makes you feel good, but then it drops your serotonin levels lower than before you ate the sugar. This creates an endless craving, once you get into the addictive cycle. On top of that, sugar is extremely harmful to your health in general, not only maybe resulting in diabetes but also suppressing your immune system.

Most addictive behavior, though, isn’t necessarily and primarily physical. The evidence shows that it’s largely based on social conditions. That has been shown with the rat park research, with inequality data, and with Portugal’s model of decriminalization and treatment. Humans, like rats, are social creatures. Those living in optimal social conditions have lower rates of addiction, even when drugs are easily available. I’m sure this same principle applies to food addictions as well. It also relates to other mental illnesses, which show higher rates in Western industrialized countries.

This occurred to me a while back while reading about the Piraha. Daniel Everett noted that they didn’t worry much about food. They ate food when it was there and they would eat it until it was gone, but they were fine when there was no food to eat. They live in an environment of great abundance. They don’t lack anything they need.

Yet it’s common for them to skip eating for a day because they have something better to do with their time, such as relaxing and socializing. Everett had seen Piraha individuals dance for several days straight with only occasional breaks and no food. Hunger didn’t seem to bother them because they knew at any moment they could go a short distance and find food. A few hours of a single person hunting, fishing, or gathering could feed the entire extended family for a day.

The same thing was seen with their sleep patterns. The Piraha rarely slept through the entire night. There were always people awake and talking. They didn’t worry about not getting enough sleep. They slept sporadically through the night and day, whenever they felt like it. According to Everett, the Piraha are a happy and relaxed people. They don’t seem to fear much, not even death, despite living in a dangerous environment. They have a low anxiety existence.

Modern Westerners also live amidst great abundance. But you wouldn’t know it from our behavior. We are constantly eating, as if we aren’t sure where our next meal is coming from. And we obsess over the idea of getting a full night’s rest. Our lives are driven by stress and anxiety. The average Westerner has a mindset of scarcity. We are constantly working, buying, consuming, and hoarding. The only time we typically relax is to escape all the stress and anxiety, by numbing ourselves with our addictions: food, sugar, alcohol, drugs, television, social media, etc.

That has been true of me. I’ve felt that constant background of unease. I’ve felt that addictive urge to escape. It’s not healthy. But it’s also not inevitable. We have chosen to create this kind of society. And we can choose to create a different one. Addiction makes us feel helpless, just as it makes us feel isolated. But we aren’t helpless.

As Thomas Paine wrote at the beginning of this country, “We have it in our power to begin the world over again.” Imagine a society where we could be at peace with ourselves, where we could have a sense of trust that our needs will be taken care of, to know that there is enough abundance to go around. A world where the hungry are fed, the homeless are housed, and the poor lifted up. All of that is within our means. We know how to do it, if only we could imagine it. That would mean creating a new mindset, a new way of being in the world, a new way of relating.

* * *


I was thinking about a particular connection to addiction, mental illness, and other health problems. This is part of the isolation and loneliness of a hyper-individualistic society. But American society adds another dynamic to this in also being highly conformist — for various reasons: the entrenched class hierarchy, the strictly oppressive racial order, the history of religiosity, the propagandistic nature of national media, the harsh Social Darwinism of capitalist realism, etc.

Right before this post, I was writing about authoritarian libertarianism. There is a weird, secret link between the extremes of individualism and the extremes of collectivism. There is a long history of libertarians praising individualism while supporting the collectivism of authoritarians.

Many right-wing libertarians are in love with corporatism which was a foundation of fascism. Corporations are collective entities that are created by the public institution of government through the public system of corporate charters. A corporate charter, by government fiat, doles out special privileges and protections. Business often does well under big government, at least big business does.

This dynamic might seem strange, but it has a certain logic. Carl Jung called it enantiodromia. That is a fancy word for saying that things taken to their extreme tend to become or produce their opposite. The opposite is never eliminated, even if temporarily suppressed into the shadow and projected onto others. It’s a state where balance is lacking and so the imbalance eventually tips the other direction.

That is the nature of the oppositional paradigm of any dualistic ideology. That is seen in the perceived divide of mind (or spirit) and matter, and this leads to Cartesian anxiety. The opposition is false and so psychologically and socially unsustainable. This false ideology strains the psyche in the futile effort to maintain it.

This has everything to do with health, addiction, and all of that. This condition creates a divide within the human psyche, a divide within awarenesss and thought, perception and behavior. Then this divide plays out in the real world, easily causing dissociation of experience and splintering of the self. Addiction is one of the ways we attempt to deal with this, the repetitive seeking of reconnection that the can’t be satisfied, for addiction can’t replace the human bond. We don’t really want the drug, sugar, or work we are addicted to, even as it feels like the best substitute available to us or at least better than nothing. The addiction eases the discomfort, temporarily fills the emptiness.

It is worth noting that the Piraha have little apparent depression and no known incidents of suicide. I would see this as related to the tight-knit community they live within. The dogmatic dualism of individual vs collective would make no sense to them, as this dualism depends on a rigidly defended sense of identity that they don’t share with modern people. Their psychic boundaries are thinner and more open. Social hierarchy and permanent social positions are foreign to them. There is no government or corporations, not even a revered class of wise elders. Inequality and segregation, and disconnection and division are not part of their world.

You might argue that the Piraha society can’t be translated into lessons applicable to Western countries. I would argue otherwise. They are human like the rest of us. Nothing makes them special. That is probably how most humans once lived. It is in our nature, no matter how hidden it has become. Countries that have avoided or remedied the worst divides such as inequality have found that problems are far fewer and less severe. We may not be able or willing to live like the Piraha, but much of what their lifestyle demonstrates is relevant to our own.

This can be seen in the Western world. Lower inequality states in the US have lower rates of mental illness, obesity, teen pregnancies, homicides, suicide, etc as compared to higher inequality states. Countries with less segregated populations have greater societal trust and political moderation than countries with highly segregated populations. In modern societies, it might be impossible to eliminate inequality and segregation, but we certainly can lessen them far below present conditions. And countries have shown when social conditions are made healthy the people living there are also more healthy.

The world of the Piraha isn’t so distant from our own. We’ve just forgotten our own history. From Dancing in the Streets, Barbara Ehrenreich discusses how depression becomes an increasing issue in texts over the centuries. If you go far back enough, anything akin to depression is rarely mentioned.

She puts this in the context of the loss of community, of communal lifestyle and experience. During feudal times, people lived cheek to jowl, almost never alone. As family and neighbors, they lived together, ate together, worked together, worshipped together, and like the Piraha they would wake up together in the night. They also celebrated and danced together. Festivals and holy days were a regular occurrence. This is because most of the work they did was seasonal, but even during the main work season they constantly put on communal events.

Like the Piraha, they worked to live, not lived to work. Early feudal villages were more like tribal villages than they were like modern towns. And early feudal lords very much lived among the people, even joining in their celebrations. For example, during a festival, a feudal lord might be seen wrestling a blacksmith or even playing along with role reversal. The feudal identity hadn’t yet solidified into modern individuality with its well partitioned social roles. That is partly just the way small-scale subsistence lifestyles operate, but obviously there is more going on than that. This involved the entire order and impacted every aspect of life.

Let’s consider again Paine’s suggestion that we begin over again. This was stated in the context of revolution, but revolution was understood differently at the time. It implied a return to what came before. He wasn’t only speaking to what might be gained for he had a clear sense of what had been lost. The last remnants of feudalism continued into the post-revolutionary world, even as they were disappearing quickly. Paine hoped to save, re-create, or somehow compensate for what was being lost. A major concern was inequality, as the commons were stolen and the public good was eroded.

Even though it wasn’t how it typically would’ve been framed at the time, the focus in this was public health. Paine on occasion did use the metaphor of health and sickness — such as when he wrote, “That the king is not to be trusted without being looked after, or in other words, that a thirst for absolute power is the natural disease of monarchy.” The monarchy wasn’t just about the ruler but about the whole social order that was ruled over, along with its attendant inequality of wealth and power. The sickness was systemic. As with the human body, the body politic could become sick and so it could also be healed.

It never occurred to the American revolutionaries that the problems they faced should be blamed on isolated individuals. It wasn’t limited to a few malcontents. A growing unease spread across colonial society. Even as we think of our society having progressed much over the centuries, we can’t shake the mood of anxiety that continues to spread. Surrounded by abundance and with greater healthcare than our ancestors could have dreamed of, we manage to lead immensely unhealthy and unhappy lives. We are never fully content nor feel like we like we fully belong.

As individuals, we hunger for our next fix. And as a society, we are rapacious and ravenous toward the world, as if our bountiful wealth and resources are never enough. Early colonial trade was strongly motivated by the demand for sugar and now we find present neo-colonial globalization being driven by the demand for oil. Sugar and oil, along with much else, have been the fuel of restless modernity. It’s an addictive social order.

The corrupt old order may have ended. But the disease is still with us and worsening. It’s going to require strong medicine.

Snow Crash vs Star Trek

“[C]yberpunk sci-fi of the 1980s and early 1990s accurately predicted a lot about our current world. Our modern society is totally wired and connected, but also totally unequal,” writes Noah Smith (What we didn’t get, Noahpinion). “We are, roughly, living in the world the cyberpunks envisioned.”

I don’t find that surprising. Cyberpunk writers were looking at ongoing trends and extrapolating about the near future. We are living in that near future.

Considering inequality in the US began growing several decades ago when cyberpunk became a genre, it wasn’t hard to imagine that such inequality would continue to grow and play out within technology itself. And the foundations for present technology were developed in the decades before cyberpunk. The broad outlines of the world we now live in could be seen earlier last century.

That isn’t to downplay the predictions made and envisioned. But it puts it into context.

Smith then asks, “What happened? Why did mid-20th-century sci fi whiff so badly? Why didn’t we get the Star Trek future, or the Jetsons future, or the Asimov future?” His answer is that, “Two things happened. First, we ran out of theoretical physics. Second, we ran out of energy.”

That question and answer is premature. We haven’t yet fully entered the Star Trek future. One of the first major events from its future history are the Bell Riots, which happen seven years from now this month, but conditions are supposed to worsen over the years preceding it (i.e., the present). Like the cyberpunk writers, Star Trek predicted an age of growing inequality, poverty, and homelessness. And that is to be followed by international conflict, global nuclear war, and massive decimation of civilization.

World War III will end in 2053. The death toll will be 600 million. Scientific research continues, but it will take decades for civilization to recover. It’s not until the 22nd century that serious space exploration begins. And it’s not until later in that century that the Federation is formed. The Star Trek visionaries weren’t starry-eyed optimists offering much hope to living generations. They made clear that the immediate future was going to be as dark or darker than most cyberpunk fiction.

The utopian world that I watched in the 1990s was from The Next Generation and Deep Space Nine. Those two shows portray the world 250 years from now. That is why I would argue it’s premature to say that no further major advancements in science will be made over that time period.

Scientific discoveries and technological developments tend to happen in spurts. We can be guaranteed that, assuming we survive, future science will seem like magic to us — based as it would be on knowledge we don’t yet comprehend. At the beginning of the 20th century, there were those who predicted that nothing significant was left for humans to learn and discover. I laugh at anyone who makes the same naive prediction here at the beginning of the 21st century.

To be fair, Smith doesn’t end there. He asks, “These haven’t happened yet, but it’s only been a couple of decades since this sort of futurism became popular. Will we eventually get these things?” And he adds that, “we also don’t really have any idea how to start making these things.”

Well, no one could answer what the world will be like a century from now any more than anyone a century ago was able to predict the world we now live in. Nothing happens yet, until it happens. And no one really has any idea how to start making anything, until someone figures out how to do so. History is an endless parade of the supposedly impossible becoming possible, the unforeseen becoming commonplace.

Smith goes on to conjecture that, “maybe it’s the authors at the very beginning of a tech boom, before progress in a particular area really kicks into high gear, who are able to see more clearly where the boom will take us.” Sure. But no one can be certain one is or is not at the beginning of a tech boom. That can only be seen clearly in retrospect.

If the Star Trek future is more or less correct, the coming half century will be the beginning of a new tech boom that leads to the development of warp drive in 2063 (or something akin to it). And so following it will be an era of distant space travel and colonization. That would be the equivalent of my grandparents generation growing up with the first commercially sold cars and by adulthood, a half century later, experiencing the first manned space flight — there being no way to predict the latter from the former.

As a concluding thought, Smith states that, “We’ll never know.” I’m sure many in my grandparents generation said the same thing. Yet they did come to know, as the future came faster than most expected. When that next stage of technological development is in full force, according to Star Trek’s future historians, those born right now will be hitting middle age and those reaching young adulthood now will be in their sixties. Plenty in the present living generations will be around to know what the future holds.

Maybe the world of Snow Crash we seem to be entering into will be the trigger that sends us hurtling toward Star Trek’s World War III and all that comes after. Maybe what seems like an endpoint is just another beginning.

Ancient Memory

Forgetting something is a common human experience. We forget where we left our keys or parked our car, the name that goes with a familiar face or the birthday of a family member, a friend’s phone number or what we ate last night. Et cetera.

This can seem like the fate of humanity with our feeble brains. Yet some people have great memories. That is even more true for some societies. The next time you forget something think about the indigenous people who can remember things for centuries and millennia, in some cases all the way back to the Ice Age.

In our society, a large part of the population can’t even keep straight the details of recent history. We are bad enough about recall of info from within our lifetime. Anything before our birth is usually a vague blur. Maybe we need to work on that.

* * *

Ancient Ruins Older Than The Pyramids Discovered In Canada
By Gabe Paoletti, ATI

Using carbon dating on the charcoal flakes, the researchers were able to determine that the settlement dates back 14,000 years ago, making it significantly older than the pyramids of Ancient Egypt, which were built about 4,700 years ago.

To understand how old that truly is, one has to consider that the ancient ruler of Egypt, Cleopatra lived closer in time to you than she did to the creation of the pyramids. Even to what we consider ancient people, the Egyptian pyramids were quite old.

This newly discovered settlement dates back more than three times older than the pyramids.

Alisha Gauvreau, a Ph.D student who helped discover this site said, “I remember when we got the dates back, and we just sat back and said, ‘Holy moly, this is old.’”
She and her team began investigating the area for ancient settlements after hearing the oral history of the indigenous Heiltsuk people, which told of a sliver of land that never froze during the last ice age.

William Housty, a member of the Heiltsuk First Nation, said, “To think about how these stories survived only to be supported by this archeological evidence is just amazing.”

“This find is very important because it reaffirms a lot of the history that our people have been talking about for thousands of years.”

The Memory Code
by Lynne Kelly
Kindle Locations 560-584

I believe that it would be only certain genres of information that would survive reasonably intact. The landscape is the basic structuring system for many indigenous cultures, so it is to be expected that records of landscape features would be the most enduring of all traditional knowledge. Consequently, I am very comfortable accepting the long-term records quoted in the following pages that relate to changes in the landscape. Although the content of stories may vary, what will survive longest is the base structure, a description of Country.

Many researchers argue that oral tradition is not a reliable source for information on historical events. I have no reason to doubt their research. Historical events are less critical to survival than the practical knowledge of plants, animals, the environment and the laws and expectations which bind the community. The natural sciences cannot be so readily adapted. Reality acts as an audit on the knowledge stored. As with all cultures, literate and oral, history is adapted to the political will of the powerbrokers who tell the stories.

There are some cultures that recall hundreds of years of historical data. In many Pacific villages, hereditary lines of the chiefs were used as a basic organising structure for the knowledge system. Some Māori can recite an 800-year genealogy dating from when their ancestors first reached New Zealand. In Africa, the king lists for Rwanda were structured by their reign and the quality of their kingship, which in turn acted as a set of subheadings for the many different anecdotes associated with their reign. The Fang of Gabon and Cameroon were able to recite genealogies of up to 30 generations in depth, recalling associated events from centuries ago. However, it is the landscape that offers the best examples of robust, long-term oral tradition.

The Dyirbal language group has lived in northeast Queensland for at least 10,000 years. One myth describes a volcanic eruption and the consequent origin of the three volcanic crater lakes which were formed at least 10,000 years ago: Yidyam (Lake Eacham), Barany (Lake Barrine) and Ngimun (Lake Euramoo). It describes the very different terrain in that time. Only recently, scientists were surprised to discover that the rainforest in that area is only about 7600 years old. Another Dyirbal storyteller told of how in the past it was possible to walk across the islands, including Palm and Hinchinbrook islands. Geographers have since concluded that the sea level was low enough for this to be the case at the end of the last ice age.19

Similarly, the Boon Wurrung and Kurnai people from Victoria, Australia, gave evidence to a select committee of the Legislative Council in 1858 detailing the landforms in Port Phillip Bay, including the path of the Yarra River. These details have since been verified by scientific mapping of the bay floor. It is debated whether the bay was last dry at the end of the last ice age, about 10,000 years ago, or had possibly dried out again, about 1000 years ago. At the very least, the geographical knowledge has been passed down accurately within oral tradition for a thousand years.20 Examples like these are being published regularly as geographers explore indigenous stories as scientific records.

Iron Law of Bureaucracy?

Here is Jerry Pournelle’s Iron Law of Bureaucracy:

“In any bureaucracy, the people devoted to the benefit of the bureaucracy itself always get in control, and those dedicated to the goals the bureaucracy is supposed to accomplish have less and less influence, and sometimes are eliminated entirely…. In any bureaucratic organization there will be two kinds of people: those who work to further the actual goals of the organization, and those who work for the organization itself. Examples in education would be teachers who work and sacrifice to teach children, vs. union representatives who work to protect any teacher including the most incompetent. The Iron Law states that in all cases, the second type of person will always gain control of the organization, and will always write the rules under which the organization functions.”

I appreciate that he used a real world example. That means his hypothesis is potentially falsifiable. We just have to find an example to weaken his claim. And we do have such examples. The Finnish school systems are among the best in the world. Finnish teachers are trained at the best universities. Once they take up a teaching position, they are given great authority and control of their classrooms. They are highly respected and well compensated. And last but not least, they are members of a powerful teachers union.

Interestingly, Doug Schoen (conservative Democrat and Fox News contributor) pointed out that the Finnish education system reminded him of the US education system from earlier last century. It was a time when Americans had one of the best public education systems in the world. And it was a time when union membership was high and union leadership was powerful. How has a half century of attacking unions improved anything? For damn sure, bureaucracy has grown even larger as organized labor has shrunk.

It’s also important to clarify the point that the least bureaucratic (and more democratic) forms of labor organizing were the most viciously attacked and most thoroughly eliminated. Only more bureaucratic forms of labor organizing were able to survive the onslaught of the powerfully entrenched bureaucracy of corporatism with its alliance of government, corporations, lobbyists, think tanks, and big biz media.

That doesn’t necessarily disprove this law of bureaucracy. But it does prove that some of the evidence he uses doesn’t support his argument. And that makes one doubt that, as presented, it is an Iron Law. No organization, not even a union, is inevitably bureaucratic. Nor is there always (maybe not even usually) a distinction between those dedicated to the goals of the organization and those dedicated to the organization itself. It depends on what kind of organization, such as whether it is authoritarian and hierarchical or democratic and egalitarian.

This law leaves out many details. It’s a generalization that, however applicable in some cases, has many exceptions. More problematic is its fatalism, in that the bureaucrats can be nothing but bad and they will always win. Still, its a useful generalization for those of us living within the United States, the largest and most powerful bureaucratic system in world history.

* * *

Refuting the “iron law of bureaucracy”
by CronoDAS

Pournelle’s Iron Law of Bureaucracy
by Phil Ebersole

Parasites Among the Poor and the Plutocrats

Hookworm rates in parts of the United States have reached the levels seen in developing countries.

This was a major problem in the past, specifically in the rural South. It was thought to have been largely eliminated, although that might not have been true. The most harmed populations just so happen to be the very populations most ignored — these are mostly poor rural populations with little healthcare and hence limited availability of public health data. The problem was maybe more hidden than solved. Until a study was recently done, it apparently wasn’t an issue of concern beyond the local level and so there was no motivation to research it.

As hookworm is a parasite, with it comes the problems of parasite load. Parasitism and parasite load effect not just general health but also energy levels, neurocognitive development, intelligence, and personality traits; for example, toxoplsasmosis is correlated to higher rates of neuroticism and parasite load is correlated to lower rates of openness. Populations with heavy parasite load will behave in ways that are stereotyped as being poor, such as acting lethargic and unmotivated.

Research indicates that poverty rates are an indicator of diverse other factors, many being environmental. People dealing with such things as stress, malnutrition, and parasites literally have less energy and cognitive ability available to them. Under these oppressively draining conditions, the body and mind simply go into survival mode and short-term preparedness. This is seen on the physiological level with stressful conditions causing early sexual maturity and increase in fat reserves.

This relates to the worsening poverty in many parts of the country, exacerbated by growing inequality across the country. But in many cases these are problems that aren’t necessarily worsening, as they have simply been ignored up to this point. Put this also into the context of problems that are clearly worsening, specifically among lower class whites: unemployment, homelessness, stress-related diseases, mental health conditions, alcoholism, drug addiction, and suicides. It’s not just poor minorities that have been shoved out of the way in the march of progress. Even the middle class is feeling the pressure, many of them falling down the economic ladder.

This is why most Americans at present neither trust big government nor big business. And this is why economic populism has taken hold. Since the DNC silenced Sanders in order to maintain the status quo, we got Trump as president instead. If we ignore these basic problems any longer, we are looking toward the possibility of an authoritarian takeover of our government and that would mean something far worse than Trump. That is what happens when a large part of the citizenry loses faith in the system and, unless a democratic revolution happens, are willing to look to a strongman who promises to do what needs to be done.

Simply put, we are long past the point of tolerating this inequality. This inequality is not just of income and wealth but also of political representation and public voice, of life opportunities and basic health. We shouldn’t tolerate this because the oppressed will only tolerate it for so long. Once we get beyond the point of collective failure, there is no turning back. The upper classes might prefer to continue ignoring it, but that isn’t a choice that is available. If push comes to shove, the upper classes might not like the choice that the oppressed will eventually demand by force. That is precisely why FDR created the New Deal. It was either that or something far worse: fascist coup, communist revolution, or societal collapse.

It would be nice if we Americans proactively solved our problems for once, instead of waiting for them to become an emergency and then haphazardly reacting. We probably won’t be so lucky to get another Roosevelt-like leader with a sense of noblesse oblige, belief in the duty to defend and uphold the public good. With that in mind, a useful beginning toward preventing catastrophe would be taking care of the basic the public health issues of rampant parasitism, lead toxicity, etc. That is the very least we can do, assuming we hope to avoid the worst. If we need an existential crisis to motivate ourselves and gain the political will to take action, we appear to be at that point or close to it.

Yet before we can deal with the parasites in poor areas, we might have to purge the body politic of the more dangerous parasites breeding within the plutocracy. That might require strong medicine.

* * *

Hookworm, a disease of extreme poverty, is thriving in the US south. Why?
by Ed Pilkington, The Guardian

These are the findings of a new study into endemic tropical diseases, not in places usually associated with them in the developing world of sub-Saharan Africa and Asia, but in a corner of the richest nation on earth: Alabama.

Scientists in Houston, Texas, have lifted the lid on one of America’s darkest and deepest secrets: that hidden beneath fabulous wealth, the US tolerates poverty-related illness at levels comparable to the world’s poorest countries. More than one in three people sampled in a poor area of Alabama tested positive for traces of hookworm, a gastrointestinal parasite that was thought to have been eradicated from the US decades ago.

The long-awaited findings, revealed by the Guardian for the first time, are a wake-up call for the world’s only superpower as it grapples with growing inequality. Donald Trump has promised to “Make America Great Again” and tackle the nation’s crumbling infrastructure, but he has said very little about enduring chronic poverty, particularly in the southern states. […]

The parasite, better known as hookworm, enters the body through the skin, usually through the soles of bare feet, and travels around the body until it attaches itself to the small intestine where it proceeds to suck the blood of its host. Over months or years it causes iron deficiency and anemia, weight loss, tiredness and impaired mental function, especially in children, helping to trap them into the poverty in which the disease flourishes.

Hookworm was rampant in the deep south of the US in the earlier 20th century, sapping the energy and educational achievements of both white and black kids and helping to create the stereotype of the lazy and lethargic southern redneck. As public health improved, most experts assumed it had disappeared altogether by the 1980s.

But the new study reveals that hookworm not only survives in communities of Americans lacking even basic sanitation, but does so on a breathtaking scale. None of the people included in the research had travelled outside the US, yet parasite exposure was found to be prevalent, as was shockingly inadequate waste treatment.

The peer-reviewed research paper, published in the American Journal of Tropical Medicine and Hygiene, focuses on Lowndes County, Alabama – the home state of the US attorney general, Jeff Sessions, and a landmark region in the history of the nation’s civil rights movement. “Bloody Lowndes”, the area was called in reference to the violent reaction of white residents towards attempts to undo racial segregation in the 1950s.

It was through this county that Martin Luther King led marchers from Selma to Montgomery in 1965 in search of voting rights for black citizens, More than half a century later, King’s dream of what he called the “dignity of equality” remains elusive for many of the 11,000 residents of Lowndes County, 74% of whom are African American.

The average income is just $18,046 (£13,850) a year, and almost a third of the population live below the official US poverty line. The most elementary waste disposal infrastructure is often non-existent.

Some 73% of residents included in the Baylor survey reported that they had been exposed to raw sewage washing back into their homes as a result of faulty septic tanks or waste pipes becoming overwhelmed in torrential rains.

The Baylor study was inspired by Catherine Flowers, ACRE’s founder, who encouraged the Houston scientists to carry out the review after she became concerned about the health consequences of having so many open sewers in her home county. “Hookworm is a 19th-century disease that should by now have been addressed, yet we are still struggling with it in the United States in the 21st century,” she said.

“Our billionaire philanthropists like Bill Gates fund water treatment around the world, but they don’t fund it here in the US because no one acknowledges that this level of poverty exists in the richest nation in the world.” […]

He added that people were afraid to report the problems, given the spate of criminal prosecutions that were launched by Alabama state between 2002 and 2008 against residents who were open-piping sewage from their homes, unable to afford proper treatment systems. One grandmother was jailed over a weekend for failing to buy a septic tank that cost more than her entire annual income. […]

The challenge to places like Lowndes County is not to restore existing public infrastructure, as Trump has promised, because there is no public infrastructure here to begin with. Flowers estimates that 80% of the county is uncovered by any municipal sewerage system, and in its absence people are expected – and in some cases legally forced – to provide their own.

Even where individuals can afford up to $15,000 to install a septic tank – and very few can – the terrain is against them. Lowndes County is located within the “Black Belt”, the southern sweep of loamy soil that is well suited to growing cotton and as a result spawned a multitude of plantations, each worked by a large enslaved population.

The same thing that made the land so good for cotton – its water-retaining properties – also makes it a hazard to the thousands of African Americans who still live on it today. When the rains come, the soil becomes saturated, overwhelming inadequate waste systems and providing a perfect breeding ground for hookworm. […]

“We now need to find how widespread hookworm is across the US,” said Dr Peter Hotez, dean of the National School of Tropical Medicine, who led the research team along with Rojelio Mejia. Hotez, who has estimated that as many as 12 million Americans could be suffering from neglected tropical diseases in poor parts of the south and midwest, told the Guardian the results were a wake-up call for the nation.

“This is the inconvenient truth that nobody in America wants to talk about,” he said. “These people live in the southern United States, and nobody seems to care; they are poor, and nobody seems to care; and more often than not they are people of color, and nobody seems to care.”

Paul Adkin on Decadence & Stagnation

“Decadence: when things are just too good and easy that no one bothers to push forward anymore, bringing about stagnation …

But there is also another kind of stagnation: one which comes about because there just isn’t enough time to go forward; when all time is taken up with something that is essentially futile when considered from the point of view of the bigger picture. Like making money. Even the seemingly dynamic world of business, if it is dedicated only to business and not to authentically meaningful human progress (things associated with knowledge and discovery), it is essentially stagnating. Any society that is a simulacra society, hell-bent on reproducing copies rather than on developing its creativity, is a decadent, stagnating society. We are stagnant not because of what we are doing, our anthill society is always busy, but because what we are driven by, in all this anthill activity, is not creative. When production is synonymous with reproduction, then we know we have fallen into the stagnant pool of decadence.

“Nietzsche talked about the residual nature of decadence[1]. That decadence is a cumulative thing. Certainly, it is nurtured both by dogma and nihilism. Only a sceptical meaningfulness can push forward in a creative way.

“Sceptical meaningfulness? How can such a thing be? Surely it is a contradiction in terms.

“To understand how this oxymoron combination can work, we need to see meaningfulness as a forward pushing phenomenon. Once it stops pushing forward, meaningfulness slips into dogma. Meaning is fuelled by truth, but it does not swim in truth as if truth were a lake. Truth, in order to be lasting, has to be a river.”

from Decadence & Stagnation by Paul Adkin

The Way of Radical Imagination

Someone questioned me about what is radical imagination. I wasn’t sure if they were being merely disingenuous in playing Devil’s advocate as an intellectual pose. An intellectual debate about the issue wouldn’t have brought either of us closer to understanding.

Anyone who has ever had their mind shook loose by seeing in a new way knows the power of radical imagination, whether or not they could explain it. Radical means that which goes to the root. As such, radical imagination is what has the capacity to shake us to our foundation or send us tumbling down unexplored caverns.

The intellectual who was interrogating me seems more attracted to the dark imagination than to the radical imagination, not that the two are mutually exclusive. He considers himself a radical and yet he apparently has a hard time imagining what exists outside of the iron prison. I get the sense that he has come to romanticize dystopia and apocalypse, which he rationalizes as his seeking to understand. The danger is that it can lead to a mirror image of the dogmatic utopian, exchanging one absolutist fantasy for another.

I’m not dismissing this motivation to bleakly stare down ugly truths. Some of my favorite writers leaned heavily in this direction. There is a dark bent to Ursula K. Le Guin, Philip K. Dick, Octavia Butler, etc; but their speculations didn’t end in mere gloomy cynicism. They were always looking beyond. Even a perverse and pessimistic visionary like William S. Burroughs sought to creatively portray alternative societies and other ways of being.

In my own sense of radical imagination, what drives my thinking is a profound epistemological dissatisfaction and ideological disloyalty, not just toward the status quo but also toward much of what opposes it. I’ve grown tired of predictable conflicts that endlessly repeat, like some cosmic tragicomedy. Each side reinforces the other, making victory for either side impossible. Radical imagination, however, seeks to escape this trap.

No amount of studying the hegemonic order will necessarily help one to see the hidden aporia and lacuna, the gaps in the structure. Negative capability is only useful to the degree that it opens the mind to negative space as creative void and a passageway through. The darkness can paralyze us in blind immobility or it can shift our perception into other senses.

The stakes are high. And the consequences all too personal. It goes far beyond any social order. This touches upon our humanity, the psychological reality of our being.

We stand in a hallway of doors, not knowing what is behind them. The entire social reality we live within is that hallway. We stand there in that tight place, the crowd shuffling back and forth. Groups form taking up different positions along the hallway and sometimes fight with the other groups. A few curious souls notice the doors themselves, but the doors remain unopened. That hallway is warm and safe. We are surrounded by the familiar and we have no fear of loneliness.

But what if some of the doors were cracked open, allowing one to barely glimpse something else? What then? Radical imagination is that inability to ignore the light coming through the crack, the temptation to press against the door, the curiosity about what is on the other side.