Monday, February 27, 2017

M is for Madness in our Time

Image by Tavis Leaf Glover


Have you noticed how many people are losing their minds recently? Ever since people here in the UK democratically voted to leave the European Union and, more recently, voters in the USA decided they'd rather have a businessman as the president instead of a career politician, people have been, to put it politely, going batshit crazy. People who, before these votes took place, appeared to be well balanced and generally happy in life, might now spend their every waking moment hammering away on keyboards with the caps lock on, spitting out an endless slew of invective against people they don't  know. The slightest thing can trigger them off into an epic meltdown and one can only imagine their red rheumy eyes scanning their computer screens as they scroll continuously looking for another perceived slight that can be blown up into a full-on fight to the death.

If this were the Middle Ages these people would be called "possessed".

Here's an interesting thought experiment, imagine if we wound back the clock by a couple of years and approached these keyboard warriors with a simple question. If they were British we might ask them "On a scale of 1 - 10 how interested are you in the political and trading arrangements between the UK and the European Union?" Most people, I suspect, would reply that they were either rather uninterested or utterly uninterested. Many would just grunt and look puzzled and say "Eh?" They would then ask you what you thought of the latest series of Game of Thrones.

Now, these same people might say that the arrangements between the UK and the EU are practically the most important thing in the history of things. They might then claim they have always thought that way — that all those years when they ventured no comment on politics or economics or anything serious at all were merely an act — and that anyone who even dares to question the importance of such a thing is a closet fascist and an ignorant sub-human who deserves to be put out of his misery with a cricket bat.

The same goes for America. Ask a person in 2014 whether the country should be run efficiently and like a business and most people would probably agree that it sounds like a good idea. Roll forward to 2017 and there's a president who's a businessman who's trying to run the country like a business and half the population are claiming that he's a satanic Hitler who uses kitten heads as golf balls and lets Vladimir Putin urinate on him as he's wrapped in the American flag.

What's going on?

Clearly, social media and digital legacy media have played a part in the great insanitising of the West.  People have retreated inside their own echo chamber silos where the only views they get to hear accord 100% with their own views, meaning the moment they encounter someone with a slightly different viewpoint (which, to them, will also appear 100% logical and correct) they react as if they just opened their wardrobe to find a tentacled Chthonic abomination trying on their shoes as it lazily devours their firstborn child.*

But anyway, what is it exactly that is causing so many people to go crackers over what, to many of the people who read this kind of blog regard as of the lesser order of magnitude of the Bad Things That Can Happen scale? For a long time we've been saying that our civilisation depends on cheap and abundant energy, and that the supply of our most accessible form of that energy — oil — is faltering and that there's nothing out there to replace it, in any meaningful sense. And that as it falters we'll follow the time-honoured trajectory of civilisations in decline which will feature the more powerful actors attempting to secure energy and materials (as represented by monetary wealth), an inevitable kickback by the left-behind majority whose survival instinct will lead them to choose leaders and reject the ideology foisted upon them by the establishment, who will in turn then fight back etc. — in a rinse and repeat cycle that continues until a new equilibrium is established, albeit at much lower levels of available energy, materials and — yes — population.

We entered into this part of our dance of death some decades ago and it's testament to the power of politics and marketing that the illusion of things getting better (How? For whom? At what cost?) has persisted for so long. When this mass illusion began to fracture in the early part of the 21st century most people doubled down on the denial presented to them by the corporate media. We had somehow convinced ourselves that we were a 'special case' and that the normal rules of entropy and dissolution did not apply to us. Boy, was that a bad mistake, but surely someone must be to blame?

Have you ever heard of the term 'gaslighting'? I encountered it for the first time when I read Thomas Sheridan's book on psychopaths and mind control Puzzling People: The Labyrinth of the Psychopath  — but have heard it used increasingly ever since.

The 1940 British film Gaslight is about a married couple who move into a vacant house in a fashionably wealthy London square. An old woman had been murdered in the house some years before and the property had stood vacant ever since. At first everything seems normal and the couple are happy. But then something odd happens; the woman keeps mislaying things around the house and forgetting where they are, and the husband begins to accuse her of stealing them. He disappears for long periods of time to the top floor of the house—somewhere his wife never ventures—and every time he does so the lights in the house dim. His wife notes this but he dismisses it, implies that she is losing her marbles.

Gaslight — which you can watch for free on YouTube — is a classic illustration of a how a psychopath controls their unsuspecting victim. The person being controlled does not realise they are being manipulated in such a way as they see every 'failing' as a personal one and they will do anything to protect the person who has captured their mind and soul. This is the precise manner in which cults are able to convince people to commit suicide en masse, and anyone who manages to escape from the cult will be able to tell you how terrifying it is for someone to have such complete control over you without you even realising it. They will sink to any depth to defend against anyone who is attacking their beloved leader, to whom they have unconditionally surrendered their mental and emotional faculties.

Which begs the question: have millions of people in the West fallen victim to mind control and gaslighting? In my view the answer is almost certainly yes. Are they irrational and impervious to any argument that doesn't conform with the one they have drilled into their own head? Are they united against some kind of common enemy or demon who is so evil as to justify any form of protest or violence against them? Are they willing to lay down their lives for their dear leader — just like the members of the Heaven's Gate cult, whom Marshall Applewhite managed to convince to commit suicide in order to hitch a ride on a passing alien space craft? When Hillary Clinton released a video yesterday calling for 'resistance' to Donald Trump, the hive mind of social media immediately responded with the following image:



Generations of cultural and social programming has resulted in a mass of people who are mentally vulnerable and easily manipulated. Some of it has been deliberate and some of it may not have been. In Dmitry Orlov's recent book Shrinking the Technosphere: Getting a grip on Technologies that Limit our Autonomy, Self Sufficiency and Freedom (New Society Publishers), he makes a convincing case for the existence of a "Technosphere", which is an emergent system that has evolved the characteristic of intelligence and now seeks to dominate the human mind and spirit. It takes human beings with rich histories and cultures, as well as great intrinsic worth, and processes them into almost homogenous units of consumption and production as a means of expanding its own power. People, willingly and unwillingly, submit to being fed into its gaping maw and one of the software programs this Technosphere machine runs on is neoliberal economic orthodoxy, as personified by Hillary Clinton or any other globalist politician.

The Irish writer and artist Thomas Sheridan, likewise, identifies the same phenomenon but from a different angle. Working on Wall Street he once handled a report for a large bank financing a dam being built in Central America. He asked a senior staff member what the miscellaneous costs item was at the bottom of a row of figures and was told off-handedly that this is the money put aside to pay the local mafia to murder all the people opposed to the project. That was an epiphanic moment for Sheridan and he went on to investigate how such seemingly evil machinations can be passed off as merely the cost of doing business, coining the term "Psychopathic Control Grid", which to all intents and purposes is the same as Orlov's Technosphere in that it assigns value to humans and nature only in as much as it can use them for its own ends. In this regard we have somehow created the ultimate death machine, and its modus operandi is neoliberal corporate capitalism.

For people to willingly submit to having their cultures assimilated, their economies ground into the dust, their sense of sexual identity made incoherent and to endure a lifetime of debt servitude in hock to a priestly class of bankers, academics and pseudo mystics (Zuckerberg, Bezos, Musk et al.) they must be offered something as recompense. And that something is no less than a vision of perfect enlightenment or Nirvana. The true believers, who usually identify themselves as atheists, are even willing to be sacrificed to the gods of progress — just look at how many applied for a one way ticket to Mars and the reasons they gave for willingly giving up their (usually young) lives. This Nirvana, of course, won't be attained by the faithful any time soon, but remains far off in a fuzzy Star Trek future i.e. after they are dead. In effect, 'progressive' neoliberalism is a death cult.

On the other end of what appears to many to be a spectrum, we have Donald Trump, Brexit, nationalism and conservatism all lumped uneasily together. For neoliberal progressives this can also appear cult-like. Who knows, perhaps there are people out there who worship Donald Trump as a living messiah and hang his tweets on their bedroom walls in gilt frames, and certainly there are those who maintain that concepts such as the "free market" (a mythic entity with no earthly presence) are worthy of unquestioning worshipful obedience — but in reality they are a different kettle of fish. Most people who chose to vote for Brexit or Donald Trump didn't do so on idealogical terms, they did so on down-to-earth practical ones. Unable to see the greater glory of a neoliberal progressive future they turned instead to look at their own run-down communities, their empty wallets and their ever-dimishing freedoms and they decided to vote against the assorted lawyer-politicos and unelected bureaucrats who they identified as the cause of their malaise.

So, if you got caught up in this and lost your mind, then I'm afraid to say you may have fallen at the first hurdle of our increasingly challenging future. If you spend hours of every day sitting on Facebook writing snarky passive-aggressive comments to your "friends" and trying to debunk them by posting links to your own favoured highly-manipulated information source, then you've been bitten just as bad. Claiming that anyone who doesn't agree with you is "Hitler" is not the way to regain your mental balance, and neither is calling anyone who doesn't agree with you a "Snowflake Pussy" from the other team. Bear in mind that, as Frank Zappa once said, politics is merely the entertainment arm of the military industrial complex, so try to concentrate on the things that are more immediately relevant to your life, such as your friends and family.

To that end, i you value your sanity and think it wiser to direct your energy towards making your little bit of the world a better place during your limited time here then it's probably best to steer clear of political death cults altogether, and instead take a more Stoical view of life. If you've got the time and inclination, take off for a hike alone in a region not too infested by the Technosphere. Pick somewhere you won't encounter many people (or, better still, any) and pack a copy of the meditations of Marcus Aurelius (as I did in the account of my Swedish forest journey The Path to Odin's Lake) and something by Carl Jung. To ensure you are out of the reach of the Psychopathic Control Grid, leave your phone at home and say 'Hi' to your shadow side as you contemplate your own inevitable demise and the demise of everyone and everything you hold dear — because plumbing the depths of your psyche builds perspective and makes you a more balanced individual. Spend time in nature, notice the animals and the trees and the way rain drips off leaves and how sun light is dappled on the ground, and then meditate on deep time and what it means to be a human being alive at this point in the turning of the Earth. If you do this you'll find it to be a useful first step in building up some protection against gaslighting and mind control and you'll feel a greater sense of autonomy and personal resilience. When you get back, if you've truly embraced the challenge you'll be quite unable to hate anyone on the basis of their ideology, cultural or religious identity or whatever — and that will be a useful mental state to be in as we continue on our hike down the far side of Hubbert's curve.

Of course, if this is too difficult and, like a moth circling a candle you simply must throw yourself into the flames, then by all means be my guest. You won't lack for company as you self-immolate and after you've been reborn you can visit a past life regression hypnotist who'll inform you that you died a martyr to some cause that will seem completely incomprehensible to the future you. But there will be more food and stuff to go round for the rest of us, so take your pick.

* [You will either have laughed at my flippant comments above or you will have stared at the screen shaking your head and closing the tab because you've no time for people who joke around when things are so serious. But please take note: gallows humour is another way of avoiding insanity.]

Monday, February 20, 2017

L is for Learning new Stuff



One of the benefits of knowing that the demise of the oil industry is at hand—and thus the modern way of life—is that it now makes sense to learn new skills. Under the standard educational model for most people in the industrial world, most learning takes place in the early years, perhaps stretching into early adulthood for a few. It is during this time, we are told, that the necessary skills are acquired to enable us to become obedient worker/consumers in the economy (or "upstanding citizens in society" in old money). For most people, any learning beyond this age tends to be merely a tweaking of what they already know. For example, they may already be able to operate a computer in an office environment, but they may need to be sent on a course to learn how to use the latest versions of a software package. This kind of learning is called training and one is expected to go through it in order to get a pay rise or avoid being sacked—at least until the day your job is handed to a computer algorithm or a robot.

Of course, this isn't real learning, it's merely learning how to tinker with an unstable and unsustainable system. On the other hand, many adults take it upon themselves to voluntarily expand their minds and pick up new skills. They attend night school classes and go on courses, learning a dizzying array of new subjects that could include anything from conversational French, stained glass window making or calligraphy, through to quilt making, taxidermy or astrophysics. Many more simply buy books and instructional DVDs and learn all about the foxtrot, Faberge egg painting or ritual magic that way—but usually the reason for learning this new information is motivated by a desire to practice a hobby in the leisure time outside of one's productive, money-earning life.

If you want to switch professions, say from being a teacher to a lawyer, you'll likely have to gain a professionally recognised qualification, awarded after a lengthy period of burning the midnight oil and at great personal expense. This is another kind of learning, often referred to as re-training, and although it might give you the ability to make more money in the short term it still likely does not address the problem of systemic instability in the longer term—you might be re-training for a job or profession that doesn't exist in five years.

Economic logic in our over-complex world currently dictates that it is very hard, if not impossible, to earn a living making useful things that can be made far more cheaply elsewhere due to mechanisation, cheap fossil fuels and globalisation. Only people in the continually-shrinking upper middle classes can afford to pay the real costs of production for items made by people who do not work under conditions of slave-labour. For example, I have a friend who is a highly skilled woodworker. He can take a piece of freshly-cut wood and transform it into a beautiful and practical object, such as a chair, a set of spoons and bowls, or a canoe paddle. The amount of work and attention to detail he puts into his creations is both impressive and admirable. But even he admits that he'd rather buy a cheap chair from Ikea than pay the full cost of one of his beautiful hand-made chairs — and he's realistic enough in his outlook that he doesn't blame others for doing so.

Yet this unfair-seeming scenario will not—cannot—last forever.

As the availability of high-density energy sources falters and dwindles, and the political technostructures that make globalisation possible grind to a juddering halt, the calculus of this setup will turn on its head. Many, if not most, of the items we currently take for granted will become very expensive. In other cases they will simply become unavailable at any price. When this happens, the laws of supply and demand will assert themselves and anyone able to provide necessary products and services will find themselves in an enviable position.

Learning new skills and how to make things, however, takes time. There's an assumption these days that anything can be learned quickly and easily, and that once one has learned it one can instantly become a teacher of it. The wife of my chair-making friend—who herself makes baskets, lamps and even coffins from willow—told me last week that she has fielded several separate phone calls in the last two weeks from people wanting to learn how to do exactly what she does. All of them, she said, wanted to quit their careers immediately and move down here to west Cornwall—which for many people is really the back of beyond—and instantly become basket weaving teachers, despite their never having touched a piece of fresh willow in their lives. When gently prodded as to why they felt so moved they each gave some answer that indicated Donald Trump or Brexit as the cause of their unease. An impending sense of Armageddon seemed to be the driver behind their sudden desire to learn how to make picnic baskets.

My friend patiently explained to them that it took her many years of practice to get where she is today. There were the years of experimenting with different designs, and of growing different species of willow, discerning which ones were appropriate for the local climate and soils. Aside from the ongoing learning of the skill of basket-making there were the years of plodding around the region's craft fairs—leaving home at 4:30am in order to get there in time to set up her stall, only to come home late in the day having hardly made the petrol money. There were the years of research into these lost skills (including hunting down old retired fishermen in their 80's and 90's, and learning how they once sat on the harbour walls weaving the extremely specialised lobster and crab pots before the era of mass industrial production) and the years of building up the strength in her hands and fingers. And then there were the numerous setbacks, such as rabbits destroying her willow crop, and all the other various slings and arrows that life chucks at you. Only, she then says, only after a decade and a half of dedication has she been finally able to call herself an artisan who is able to make a modest living from her craft—and she still refuses to call herself a master (you can see what she makes and judge for yourself).

But the people who contacted her were not interested in all of this—they wanted to learn how to make baskets next week and be teaching it the week after.

The point I'm trying to make here is that learning useful skills takes TIME. And the moment one begins to learn something new one begins to realise that there's a lot more to it than you previously thought. Growing food, for example, is another skill that many people assume you can just pick up more or less overnight. It's true that you might be able to quickly grow some food without any prior experience, but growing enough for a balanced diet that will keep you and your family alive is a whole different ball game: man cannot live by beans and potatoes alone.

From a personal perspective, since I first encountered the seriousness of our predicament some six or seven years ago, once I had worked through all the K├╝bler-Ross stages of grief "No, it can't be happening!", "I'll be alright if I just pack a bug-out bag and buy some gold," etc.) I have picked up quite a few new skills and been led down many an interesting intellectual avenue.  Having gone from a situation of relative complacency with a comfortable, if unfulfilling, office job, I have now learned the value of what it means to be a producer of things rather than just a consumer of them. Among the things that I can now produce are charcoal, wood products, fruit, biochar, natural soap, wine, cider, herbs and vegetables, and books. I'm working on producing many more things, including mushrooms, coppice products (fences, hurdles etc), herbal beers and honey. I've planted a forest garden, I've learned permaculture and coppice woodland management, I can strip a chainsaw down and I can field dress a squirrel. All of these things take skills that I have learned, to some degree.

Am I an expert at making and doing these things? NO! (I might be able to make some charcoal in an oil drum but I'll never be like the Japanese masters who had 2,000 different grades of charcoal, which apprentices had to learn to recognise merely by sniffing the smoke it gave off during production.) Could I live self-sufficiently using these skills? Don't make me laugh! In fact, I consider myself a rank amateur in terms of my practical skills, although to an outsider it might superficially appear that I know what I'm doing. This, I have learned, is the case for many people who nevertheless pass themselves off as experts (I recently heard of a young newly-qualified permaculture teacher who had never seen a carrot grow and was unsure how to get it out of the ground - and he was 'teaching' a group of middle aged people who had been expert gardeners since before he was born).

That's where the community aspect comes into play. Nobody can know everything. I would go further and say that hardly anyone can even know a lot of things. There are very few people in the world who  can do everything from rebuild a car engine, solder electronic circuit boards, grow (and know how to use) their own medicine, and defend themselves in a court of law. For the most part it is far better to specialise and organise into small, manageable groups. The ideal size for an autonomous group of differently skilled individuals is around 150 people (see Rob O'Grady's book, 150 Strong). This was the size of group I chose to use as an example of 'good practice' in my fictional novel Seat of Mars. In my story the 'clan leader' Art Gwavas, takes over a farm and only allows people with a variety of useful skills to live there. In this way they manage to make life a lot more bearable than it is for the hapless individuals hit by the same national calamity.

People learn in different ways. Many are autodidactic to some extent (can teach themselves), but many also prefer to be taught as part of a class. Some things have to be taught one-on-one. A good method for learning that I have heard works well is to be part of a skills swapping group. The concept is simple; you meet up once a week or month and someone teaches their particular skill to the rest. The next meeting it is someone else's turn. The ones I have heard about tend to involve skills such as sewing, soap making, fermenting and household item repair—but it could be anything really. What I have found with learning is that you should only try and learn things in which you have a natural interest. If you're unsure whether it is for you, you can always dip you toe in and give it a go to see if it appeals to you. I have something of a butterfly nature and tend to flit from one thing to next, so there have been many things I have thought would be interesting to me but turned out not to be. I've been learning my whole life and I plan to only stop learning new things when I'm dead.

It's scientifically proven that learning new things keeps your brain ticking over as you get older. My grandfather decided to learn Italian as an old man. Having never been outside of England in his life, he simply got on a ferry and a train and lived in Rome for a while. His method of learning was to sit on public benches and strike up a conversation with similarly-aged Italian men. They no doubt chatted about the war and the how things had been. When he was happy he could speak Italian he returned home.

So if you decide to learn a new skill for the future, make sure it's something that will likely survive the future. Learning how to race cars is probably not such a good skill for the future (nor is anything that would involve wasting fossil fuels). Also check out the competition. For example, when I lived in Denmark I taught myself how to make natural cold-pressed soaps. Everyone was amazed that I could do this ("What, you mean you actually make it? With your own hands?") and was happy to part with a tidy sum of money for a simple bar of soap. Then I moved to Britain and soap-makers are two-a-penny, and so my soap-making venture no longer makes sense*.

The main thing it's important to consider is the lead time involved in acquiring new skills. The best time to start learning them, ideally, is ten years ago. The second best time is today.


* Oh, and don't become a yoga teacher either. The world is already full of yoga teachers and doesn't need any more.