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Thinking on Chris Hedges, Revolution, and Climate Change

March 3, 2019 9 comments

I was watching a lecture by Chris Hedges entitled Corporate Totalitarianism: The End Game. In it, Hedges engages with the subject with both frankness and humor, both of which I appreciate. Hedges has, for a long time, spoken quite well on the problem facing us. What he, and most any social or political critic has been awfully short on, is how to address the predicaments we are in.

He rightly points out that the prison systems rely on slave labor to operate and that, were prisoners retaining even a minimum wage salary, it and the industries this work supports would collapse. He rightly points out that our democracy doesn’t function, which by this point is almost “No shit?” passe. He could have cut a huge chunk of his lecture out by just saying “There is no top-down approach coming because the top is going to watch the bottom burn and drown.” It is the same damned song regardless of political party that has been pursued for the entire length of time that I have been alive. This is a point I am grateful that Hedges hammers on throughout his lecture and in the Q&A. The politicians are not coming to save us.

Something a lot of folks watching this lecture are probably going to miss is a very key point I felt was buried in the lecture among all the socio-political commentary. It is something I hammer on a lot in my writing and that folks from the Post-Carbor Institute, JMG, and others have been hitting on the head for some time. Namely, that the oil and natural gas markets are operating on what amounts to gambling to keep money in the system and keep production somewhat commensurate with needed supply. Except the field outputs are down. The Bakkan Oil Shale is being run by large companies with lots of land that they lease to small, risk-taking companies whose primary income is venture capital. The main way most of the large fossil fuel companies here stay afloat has nothing to do with well productivity, but land leasing. When that glut runs out the ability to generate income will also dry up, not because the gas will all be gone, but because the cost to extract and produce it in useable forms will eclipse the revenue from selling it.

In other words, the EROEI (Energy Returned On Energy Invested) is going to go down and bring a good chunk of the energy market with it. The whole system is facing this all at once alongside climate change. We would be lucky, and I use that term loosely, if the whole damned facade of the energy industry fell away before that 12 year mark for 1.5F increase in global temperature hits, because the damned near complete demand destruction we saw in 2008 when oil hit almost $150 a barrel of crude was one of the most effective acts in reducing greenhouse gas emissions that we made in this country. It was hell for any of us who were low-income, as I was fired in 2007 not long before the financial chickens of the crash came home to roost. When a gallon of gas hit $4 and was threatening to hit $5 the ripple effect was enormous. So trust me when I say such a thing will not be a picnic nor even desireable for the average person, but it may be something that could save us from our own consumption of fossil fuels.

Hedges’ point in the lecture about going to Scranton, PA where the city is insolvent is happening in every State and damned near every city I can think of in my own State. Hell, the DIA in Detroit almost sold off its collection to pay debts. His point that capitalism eats itself and its own until collapse is what we are in the middle of right now. The economic system is simply unsustainable. I appreciate he hooks this into his point in the lecture where he talks about the money system, especially in regards to how personal and student debt cannot keep churning out new debtors if the means to pay off interest and principle are subject to these interruptions. As he says, 1/3 of the employed people of America make less than $12 an hour and have no health insurance provided by employers. Keep in mind that Obamacare takes another chunk out of that, either directly through one of the health care plans, or with the year end penalty for not choosing a provider. There is a growing swathe of Americans who bought into the lie that a college education would help us become solid middle-class members. Instead, it has indebted us, some of us through our whole lives. Those, like myself, who went into public service with the promise that if we gave 10 years of our lives that our debt would be forgiven are now coming out the other side, having served that obligation, and our debt forgiveness being rejected. With the costs of living tracking to increase with energy costs there’s not going to be a way to pay off the debt, let alone stave it off much longer.

If we are to make any progress anywhere it is in getting that point across. It doesn’t matter if you are a conservative, liberal, leftist, rightist, any of it. The economic system is unsustainable. The energy infrastructure that allows for the modern American way of life is unsustainable. If you don’t get that then there is no conversation to be had. Without energy being available, on which money depends so it can work, the whole house of cards collapses. If folks disagree with basic reality, that we cannot expect infinite growth on a finite planet, then there is no more conversation to be had. The person can be on the same exact part of the political spectrum that I am on and if they deny the basic nature of where we are then speaking with them is completely without merit.

If, as I feel, Hedges is speaking well and pointing out fundamental problems in regards to our political and economic systems why do I feel such a disconnect from him? For the same reason I imagine most folks do. Though he has covered war and conflict as a journalist and lived alongside folks in those horrible situations I get the distinct feeling that his life, given he was educated at Harvard and has taught in prestigious universities, is a world apart from my own.

Hedges is right in saying that we were conned by Bill Clinton and his pushing through NAFTA, stating it would make us countless of middle-class jobs. I can look out into the neighborhoods where the auto industry was king and clearly see this lie on display, as can anyone who has seen similar scenes in coal and natural gas country. He is right to talk about the collapse of societies and bring his experience of what that looks like into this lecture. He got to watch Yugoslavia’s disintegration up close from the sounds of it. He’s right that we could well be facing the same damn thing here for the same kinds of reasons.

Hedges speaks of democracy as though we could possibly save it at this stage in America. His proposal to save America from totalitarianism is “sustained mass acts of political disobedience”. To me this is completely and hopelessly naive. He uses Standing Rock as an example, and I think it is a poor one in the way he uses it. Standing Rock was a powerful example of civil, sustained disobedience because, at its core, there was and continues to be a series of communities, the Standing Rock Reservation peoples, with real spiritual and physical stakes in the care of Standing Rock and in opposing the Keystone XL Pipeline. So long as there is abstraction there is inaction, and for far too many people Standing Rock is and remains abstract. Mni Wiconi for too many people is a slogan, something to put on their Facebook wall and to think about every now and again. If Mni Wiconi is merely words then its impact and its meaning is truly missing. The peoples of Standing Rock, and those who joined them long-term in their work, had real skin in the game and something to lose: sacred lands and sacred water their people were tied to in sacred right relationship.

I was at Occupy Wall Street protests near me not long after OWS started to come together across the nation. I attended rallies and I found them complete and utter wastes of time. Hedges states we need to not be restrained by the tyranny of the practical. I got to see what that looked like with OWS rallies local to me. The decision making process, if ever it could be called such a thing, was long, drawn out, tedious, needlessly time consuming and without any sense of order, duty, or use to the communities in which they were arranged. They actively repelled anyone older than maybe folks in their mid-30s. Even for those in their age group, many OWS folks pushed us out because we could see nothing was going to get done. There was no interest in folks with years of experience in organizing, non-profit work, none of it. The OWS in my area died about as quickly as it appeared.

Not a few moments after this statement regarding the tyranny of the practical Hedges calls for revolution, for ‘the overthrow of the corporate state’. Without practicalities addressed this will never happen, not for all the faith one has. Countless Marxists and Communists since Marx wrote Das Capital have been eagerly awaiting the Worker’s Revolution. So many millenarian, apocalyptic, and radical sects who have had faith in and waited for the coming of saviors and the awakening of ‘the people’ have been waiting for the exact same thing. Whether secular or religious, both groups who have had abiding faith in their salvific movements have ignored that revolutions that seek to succeed must pay attention to the practicalities of things so that not only is the revolution succesful, but that any of its gain can stick.

For anyone that has studied the abdication of the Tzar and the rise of the Bolsheviks, to call that anything like a nonviolent movement is foolish at best and obfuscating history at worst. It also ignores that deep, ravaging pain that the Bolsheviks and later Communist regimes would exact on those people they would be in charge of or conquer. These are not revolutions to look at as examples. Rather, I would see such be avoided.

The Founding Fathers understood that the practical and idealistic had to walk hand-in-hand. They understood the notion very well, organizing on levels that I think anyone thinking of such revolutions would do well to pay attention to. They did not merely speak pretty words. Their necks were, on signing the Declaration of Independence, very-much on the line. Hedges’ assertion that we can have a revolution with non-violence, especially in this country where corporate interests are entrenched with violence, where the State stands as it had with the Pinkerton agency in coal’s heyday times with TransCanada and Enbridge Energy today, and come through to victory, is foolish at best and at worst dangerous for his would-be revolutionaries.

The corporate people who hosed down the Standing Rock protesters in sub-zero temperature were committing violence. That pipeline is still getting its building permits worked on. The company, TransCanada, has not stopped to see that its aims are realized. Non-violent protest stalled the progress of the pipeline, but has it stopped it? No. For all the attention the pipeline garnered, all the protest, needed as it was, for all the symbol it was and how good a victory it felt when it was temporarily stopped, folks need to get that it, and countless B/l/a/c/k S/n/a/k/e/s like it are not done. They are not stopped -yet. These B/l/a/c/k S/n/a/k/e/s still need killing. Thankfully, the Standing Rock people of the Dakotas, the Anishinaabek Line 5 Protesters here in Michigan, and so many others are standing up again and again with folks in and across their communities. Not everyone standing up, proverbially here, will be doing so before a pipeline; not everyone can. There are plenty for folks to do who are unable to be a physical presence, and the best place where people can go to and learn how best they can contribute is to talk to those who live on the land and waters being threatened.

Another source of disconnect I feel with Hedges is that he is still living a very comfortable upper middle class life. Unlike many peak oil folks there is nothing I can point to that comes through in the lectures I have seen or interviews he has given that give me an impression of him like those I have seen of Richard Heinburg, James Kunstler, or JMG who live their values through living as sustainably as possible on the land each lives. He is not showing the future, showing where he has put up solar panels, started community gardens, or grown his own food. For all that he speaks well, he has not shown, even in general, how he seeks to enable future generations to live well in a post-petroleum climate change future. It is one thing to approach a crowd with a good speech. It is another to approach a crowd with a vision of the future where a good life is possible, even if it is not the life we have been sold by countless companies and TV shows. We need more than speeches. We need living leaders whose lives show us how we may live better on and with the planet and one another.

Now is time to do everything we can to live well with our Gods, Ancestors, and vaettir. Now is the time to organize our communities; the politicians will not save us, and the States are not going to make the coming crises easier to face. Now is the time to learn the skills we can, to pass on what we know, to do everything in our power so the next generation can face what is coming with every possible advantage on their side. We must do the work before us however we can do it. It is not enough to merely write and speak on what we need to do. Each of us concerned with our Holy Powers, our communities, and the Earth we live on will, wherever possible whenever possible, be living examples.

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Polytheist Relationships with the Land, Buildings, and Homes

January 1, 2019 Leave a comment

In a lecture held by James Howard Kunstler and William Fulton at the Congress for New Urbanism, both men go over in brief their experiences with and of urbanism as they grew up through it over the last 50 or so years. One of the striking things just listening to these two talk is how drastic the landscape changed in each others’ times being alive. Kunstler recalled experiencing what he called Central Park being the most lively and beautiful it has ever been after the financialization of the economy took place with the destruction of downtown NYC’s neighborhoods as a result, to the destruction wrought by urban planning in Auburn, NY in Fulton’s hometown. Throughout their lectures both men dug deep into the understanding that their relationship with the land and to the land fundamentally changed as urbanization dismantled peoples’ relationship to the land. What I appreciated about both is they both provided context to how each place looked historically, with Kunstler taking a detour to look at Buffalo’s progress over the last 100 years or so. The buildings that were torn down to make room for the new settlements went from places where one could walk, and as Fulton spoke, talked about how the landscape essentially went unchanged once the major highway cut Albany off from its residential zones, causing the zone to wither.

While the history of these places and their relationship to the burgeoning booms of the 40s and 50s are interesting in themselves, what it says about peoples’ relationship to the land is even more interesting to me. Kunstler roundly mocks people for the notion of building multistory food farms in city centers, and his primary reason for is that it is throwing a lot of resources at a problem while providing no long-term means for maintaining these structures. He points out that the urban areas are primarily for urban activities, and that the outskirts of cities and beyond, the rural areas, are the ones we have always historically grown the majority of our food in. That we are trying to get the cities, especially the multiplex cities to do this, is actively fighting against the point of having cities. This is not to say Kunstler is against folks growing their own food or urban gardening, but that we are ignoring the point of cities by trying to have the city do the job of rural areas by introducing ‘urban farming’ to them. For him this is no more apparent than these multimillion dollar projects of vertical farming.

Think about this for a minute. For the most part the cities’ soil is trapped under Gods-know-how-much concrete, steel, asphalt, and wood, and what soil is able to be gotten to may need quite a lot of remediation before it is ready to grow healthy food in. So this means, just on the basis of having enough soil to have enough for a multistory vertical garden, that much of that would have to be trucked in from somewhere else. The vertical gardens of the kinds that Kunstler was showing that are being proposed are massive, requiring millions of dollars in material and labor just to get built and Gods-knows how much more in maintenance. With climate change and peak oil both bearing down on us such projects are, in a word, untenable. Whether looked at from a cost perspective or a sustainability one, we have neither the treasure nor the resources to do this on the kind of scale that those who propose such techno-fixes would propose. We would be far better to retrofit rooftops to develop solar and wind energy, and retrofit the structure of the rooftops themselves to be able to be grown on and recycle water, use greywater systems, and develop top-of-building gardening and raising of animals. We have the technology available right now, the retrofits would cost the a small fraction of what it would to build wholly new vertical farming facilities, and it would have the potential of giving entire communities the ability to feed themselves far better with no space lost within them to what would probably be out-of-city/state developers.

There is another aspect to this that Kunstler did not touch on, and that is “Who is going to get displaced to make room for these? Who will benefit from this kind of development?” Just looking at the sheer amount of money such infrastructure would require I doubt, very highly, that any of the cities that could use such buildings would get them. If they did, in all likelihood it would generate one of the knock-on effects that the ‘urban farming’ initiatives are building in Detroit: gentrification. Sure, the buying up of and developing of properties is needed in the city. It keeps neighborhoods’ prices from depressing and creating a cascade effect in them. Yet, for many cities that are seeing a resurgence of affluent out-of-towners coming into the city and snatching up abandoned or especially foreclosed homes, it is pricing some folks, especially poor people of color, out of their own neighborhoods.

All these shifts, whether we look at the last 100 years in our own cities, towns, villages, and neighbrohoods, or across the board in how American living and commuting habits have changed since the introduction of the American highway system, provides insight in how we live on and with the land. There was a dynamic shift in how cities, towns, and villages were planned when we transitioned from horse, oxen, and waterways to trains for commuting and development. With the development of and later transition to the automobile these same places went through another shift, with the dominant feature being the main roadway arteries between various centers of industry at first, and more recently finance.

Just taking a look at US-12 here in Michigan shows how powerful these shifts are. The modern US-12 was part of two different and very old Native American trails, the St. Joseph Trail and the Sauk Trail. Both were footpaths for Natives here prior to European settlers arriving. It has always been a major thoroughfair for trade, and in the 1940s it was developed into expressways and freeways. Truck traffic still continues, but it has never really recovered from what expanding the highways have done to it. The aftereffects of the boomtown years can still be seen since US-12 is dotted with old, run-down tourist attractions from the 1970s and before, and the thriving antique shops throughout its run through lower Michigan.

As the train systems were demolished and automotives became our primary mode of transportation, many of the neighborhoods built up along the railroads died the same way our main outlets for shopping and commerce in suburban areas have been declinining since the 2008 financial crisis. Stores are shuttered, and entire areas that had once been full of life with residential communities growing in tandem along the railway, or in our case the main roads of cities and towns, went into foreclosure and short sales. Mom and Pop stores were replaced by larger companies or by centralizing stores in the same way that Wal-Mart, Kroger, and Meijer operates now. Those places that could not be replaced still remain as rotting husks of buildings displaying what once was a thriving place.

It is very sobering to think that automobiles have only been around since 1885, and in the time since, massive use of automobiles have only been around since the 1920s. So the main transportation method we take for granted today has only existed at most for about 133 years, and mass automotive use for 98 years. Before then we had mass transit in the form of electric streetcars, steam ferry, and trains. Before then we had horse, oxen, sailing ships, and of course, our own feet. With that in mind, what we have designed in America is an entire layout in cities, towns, and villages for a way of life that has only been with us for about a hundred years at best and is highly energy and resource intensive to create and maintain.

What does this mean for a polytheist view on these things?

We are bound up in the land we live on. Many of us worship Gods of the Earth, fertility, and local Gods. We worship our Ancestors, and the vaettir are all around us. Most of us don’t live anywhere near our Dead whether that is due to the amount of moving around automotives allow for, for personal ambitions, or the need to find steady work. For my family part of living well with our Ancestors is, where we are able, to live alongside Them. In this case this can mean something as small as an urn getting a place at an Ancestor ve, or as major a work as a burial mound being constructed so we can house our community’s Dead. The vaettir are all around us, no matter where we live. It is in our best interest to align well and live well in gipt fa gipt with all our Holy Powers.

If we are going to live well on the Earth with the Holy Powers we need to develop, revive, and encourage ways of life that align with the Earth’s ability to replenish and live well. We need to reduce or eliminate waste wherever we can, and to design our living arrangements so that we are not just extracting resources without Gebo. We have the cities, towns, villages, and neighborhoods we have now. I would have us retrofit what we can in these places and replace what we need to for a sustainable future now while we have the resources to do so. Whatever we do the work we put our hands to needs to be for the best for the environment and future generations who will live there.

This approach to how we plan and maintain our cities, towns, villages, and neighborhoods brings living with our Holy Powers out of abstraction and into our physical spaces, into lived everyday relationship with Them. It brings our concerns surrounding how we live in our everyday lives and asks “How can we best honor the Gods, Ancestors, and vaettir of this place?” with every decision. It forces us to acknowledge that there are living relationships with Holy Powers to be had regardless of where we are, or with what part of our lives we are engaging with. Water treatment facility? Likely at least one, if not many Gods to be worked with in that, and many vaettir as well. The city square? Public life is acknowledged as having a spiritual dimension, even if not everyone appreciates that spiritual dimension. Parks and streets alike teem with spirits. Designing our living spaces with care will ultimately benefit the community and the bonds we hold together with our Gods, Ancestors, and vaettir. Planning for environmental impact, developing ways that honor our communities and making them places people want to live will help our communities thrive and grow resilient together.

Planning our living spaces does not have to be terribly jarring. We can orient future repair and maintenance projects to make everything as walkable as humanly possible in our cities. We can encourage repair and reuse where we now are encouraged to throw things away and just get a new thing. Encouraging people to live above their businesses where they could would help cut down on wasted space. Developing various districts that make use of locally harvested foods and goods, especially those closest to the our cities and towns, would bring resiliency into these places and in reciprocity, resiliency to those growing and processing these things. Developing intentional interdependent relationships in cottage industries between city, town, and villages with those in rural areas can strengthen bonds between them. Doing this will keep goods and money circulating within and between communities, strengthening bonds and the resiliency of all of those within these relationships.

Encouraging these kinds of investments in our own communities might require modifying entire swathes of building codes depending on how strict they are and the kinds of buildings and industries in a given area. It might require folks to reevaluate how we buy things, how we consume things, and from where we get the needs and wants of our lives. Looking into community efforts to not only put together recycling collections, but composting, can save a lot of space in landfills better put to use in fields and community gardens. Folks will need to decide on where it is best to put their energy. I think that creating more walkable, interconnected, and interdependent places will encourage people to be more active in their communities and develop tighter bonds with their neighbors and the spaces everyone in a community shares.

It is worth thinking about what a climate change and peak oil future looks like. Do not go for doom and gloom; give yourself room to explore the full breadth of human technology and innovation we are privileged to live with in this time. JMG noted in a recent interview he gave that we are not bound to a single time or place in terms of the technologies we can adopt to face the future, and actively encouraged folks to explore what technologies we could make best use of in an age of decline. So yes, that means at some point looking look at what it means to live with intermittent, and perhaps eventually little to no electricity. Look at what it may mean for us to live with little to no gas because much of it would be out of our price range. Once you look around yourself and really see how much work fossil fuels are doing for you, and what climate change can mean for your area, take a breath.

Think about all the technologies we put down because fossil fuels have done so much of the work for us and have taken us out of relationship with the world around us. Our food, our water, how we relate to physical work itself. How we relate to one another. Not everyone can or will farm just as not everyone can or will work metal or wood. There will still be need for writers and artists, laborers, and organizers. There will still be need for folks who know how to make infrastructure, or to design sustainable developments in the places we live. We will still have need of trade, we will still have markets, and we will still have need of means of exchange in some form. We have had cities longer than we have had fossil fuels.

If you think about it, that is damned exciting. If you work with moneyvaettir (money spirits), imagine bringing that dimension of respect for the power of exchange and the power a cultivated relationship that these spirits can bring to trade. When we no longer have our debt-based money system as the primary arbiter of relationships we give space for our relationships with one another to grow in different ways. If you worship Gods who care about governance, imagine bringing the lessons of your Gods to bear in local government work, in layout for the treatment of water, sustainable rain harvesting, or building codes. If you worship Gods who hold theaters as sacred to Them, rebuilding or encouraging a revival of local theater troupes might be a powerful form of devotion. Guilds for craftspeople can be a powerful source of devotion, whether to Gods of the craft, Ancestors (such as masters in the craft who have died), and the vaettir associated with the craft or to crafting in general. Just carrying on a craft or art in general, regardless of skill, can be a form of cultivating relationships with the Gods, Ancestors, and vaettir associated with it.

When we allow ourselves to understand ourselves in relationship with our Holy Powers and one another not only in abstract ways, but concerete hand-to-mouth ways, our perspective changes. My understanding of Freyr changed when I recognized and worshiped Him as the God who blessed my asparagus with fertility. When I recognized the asparagus, each stalk a vaettr, as being in relationship with Him, it was a profound shift. Freyr could no longer abstractly be a God of fertility; His fertility was absolutely rooted in my soil and that has fed my family since we began to harvest it. Holiness is rootedness. The mead that I brew is related to many Gods and vaettir, and many of my Ancestors would have brewed their own drinks for their Gods, Ancestors, vaettir, and community. By taking up and engaging in the craft I have engaged in devotion with Kvasir, Gunnlodd, and in different ways, Odin. Likewise, I have worshiped different Ancestors I may not have engaged with, and the vaettir of the mead that I have developed has blossomed into a good, reciprocal relationship.

Through living our religious worldviews, in bringing these ideas of relationship, reciprocity, and wellbeing into our relationships with the lands we live on and the Beings we share this world with, we can avoid the devastating results that business-as-usual visited on Kunstler’s NYC and Fulton’s Albany. We can offer new ways forward in relationship of our societies to the lands we live on. Our neighborhoods may be more walkable, self-sustaining, and resilient. The very way we lay out these things can radically change. Our current ways of doing things are less than 150 years old. We can make our places that we live sustainable again. Arguably, it is one of the biggest shifts we could take so that our societies are in better alignment with Nature.

When it comes to peak oil and climate change we are looking at less is more. A simple example of this in action is a cob building. They can be constructed throughout most of the continental United States from local materials. Cob itself is a combination of soil, clay, and straw. The walls and ceiling are fashioned into multi-foot thick structures, often made in the footprint of the land they are built in. The placement below the frost line and thickness of their walls allows them to regulate heat effectively in most climates, with wood stoves, rocket stoves, and similar devices serving to heat them in colder climes.

Cob homes require very little in regards to fossil fuel inputs for their construction or maintenance due to being made of local all-natural materials, and can be fashioned by hand. Cob homes have lasted for hundreds of years as they were built. Contrast this with the average stick-built home not lasting well past a hundred years that requires massive inputs of fossil fuel powered machines, lumber, plastics, and so on just to build and even more to maintain. Cob homes can be built multistory, and can be built with basements as well.

Now, cob will not be useful in every situation, or even most urban situations where the layout of a city has been in place for a significant investment of time and capital. The same issues with soil quality that makes the question of whether an urban garden is a good idea applies to the fashioning of a roof and walls. Even putting aside issues of quality of the soil, the particular requirements for a home in the city may be too small for cob to be effective. Wattle and daub, made in similar fashion to cob with thinner walls due to its wooden ‘skeleton’, may be another house construction method with a long-term future. As with cob, wattle and daub can be made by hand and with local materials. As with cob, it has the ability to scale up and down for different building sizes. Unlike stick-built methods which require sizeable sums of lumber input, wattle and daub requires small amounts of timber with no need for processing pieces. Where neither cob or wattle-and-daub methods make sense, retrofitting homes and places of busines can still make dramatic impacts on energy use, repair, and development of spaces for different uses.

We could be much closer emotionally and spiritually to the places we live and work if we made them by hand, scaled them to our needs, and oriented them to maximizing our liveability in them. If we generated power locally, took care of our water and soils with an understanding that everyone in the community is part of the environment, we could not help but understand ourselves as living with the world around us. Making our communities easier to live and work in, making them more sustainable and resilient to climate change, peak oil, and other predicaments facing us, will benefit us and our descendants.

Engaging locally means our ways of doing things are much more accesible and doable at this level. Rather than fight with entrenched interests at the State and national level, we can encourage positive development where we live. We have the opportunity to be living examples to our neighbors, and encourage the spread of ideas further by showing that the things we are passionate about can be done. In regards to our polytheist religions, we can show the living our our religions and the values by embodying them. So yes, we are going to face push-back and set-backs will happen. The clear challenge to us is not that we need to reinvent the wheel but to put it to effective use.

By taking up the challenge of engaging in good relationships with the land, air, water, buildings, and homes as polytheists, we allow for our future with each to be better. By engaging with the land, air, water, buildings, and homes with respect, with devotion to the Gods, Ancestors, and vaettir of our urban, suburban, and rural areas, we develop better working relationships with each. By asking “How can we best honor the Gods, Ancestors, and vaettir of this place?” with every decision, we are mindful of our place in things, and open ourselves to the work before us. As we let the work each place asks of us to develop these relationships, this teaches us how to better to do the work.

Both Kunstler and Fulton spoke about how their ‘relationship with the land and to the land fundamentally changed as urbanization dismantled peoples’ relationship to the land’. It took less than 100 years for us to hit this point in our relationship with the land and all that has been built on it, much of it through fossil fuels and overextending renewable living Beings like our waters, forests, and land. By engaging with the land, air, and water in this healthier, more wholistic way, we are given the opportunity to repair our relationship to and with them. In taking up the challenge of repairing our relationships with and to land, water, and air, we can each weave threads that fundamentally change the tapestry of our society’s relationships with them for the better. Wherever you can and however you are able, start weaving your threads. There are no insignificant threads to developing better relationships with our Holy Powers.

Responding to The Spirits, Networks, and Emergence Part 3

April 28, 2017 1 comment

One of the joys of having Nick as a friend is that his writing and his thoughts push me, myself, to think on how I view things and how I relate to things. As I am a polytheist, and being a polytheist also an animist, I think that there is a lot that we share in worldview and the consequences of our beliefs, even if we phrase them different or some of the minutae of our worldviews differ.

Still, as an animist there is definitely a spiritual component to all the work that I do. I do think I have a spirit, a life essence, a life force; if you will. But I don’t think that my spirit is at all separate from my body. In some cosmologies, the spirit is not one piece, but a whole collection of different “spirits” in one body.

What he refers to here as ‘my spirit’ I may think of as the lich, huge, munr, and ond, along with a few other soul parts depending on the context, such as hame and hamingja.

I take a similar view; but on a much more biological scale. My body is the collective of countless numbers of individual cells, individual spiritual persons.

I find this an interesting concept, because if this is the case there is a unification of purpose and order to the internal ‘universe’ of spirits that inhabit the body. It also has implications for my worship of Mitochondrial Eve and Chromosomal Adam as Ancestors. If I recognize these two as Ancestors, then it is not much of a stretch to say that my cells are each spirits in and of themselves. I take it to mean that, in this context, that Nick is not saying that each of these cell-spirits are determinative of their own form and function on their own, but exist in a rather more restricted space than I, both in terms of their field of choices for existence, and sentience. This does not strip them of being spirits at all; rather, that they/we are collectively ‘aimed’ towards a purpose. In the case of red blood cells, circulating oxygen so the larger spirit-driven flesh-vehicle can keep on living, and fulfill its own set of needs and influences on the world at large. In the case of white blood cells, these spirit-driven little bits of me/us fight off infection for the same reason.

Together, they make something much greater than the sum of the parts. (We will come back to this later in this piece.) Yet there is something in there, a sum collective of all my energies and processes that is distinctly me. My body and my spirit are so deeply integrated and networked, that it’s not always clear where one ends and the other begins.

Yet, we have differentiation from Sarenth’s cells and Sarenth the person, and I think this is something to take note of. I don’t necessarily think that Nick loses that point here, mind, I just want to be sure we do not mistake trees for forest. My cells are prerequisites for the functions of my body, as are the networks of relationship between various cells, organs, etc. Yet, in the Northern Tradition and Heathenry, I am not my heart metaphysically or physically. My heart is a part of me. I think that, though Sarenth’s cells and Sarenth the person overlap in the Venn diagram here, there is clear demarkation that I am not my cells, but rather, that my cells are my own and distinct from Nick’s cells and Nick’s person.

Part of the reason I spent Part 1 of these posts exploring and taking apart Gleiser’s post, ‘Is Neuroscience Rediscovering the Soul?‘, is because I disagree with science communities or scientific writing taking over theological definitions when there is little-to-no reason to. If we are describing the soul, let us describe the soul. If we are describing the mind, let us describe the mind. Let us differentiate our language clearly, not because these realms never overlap, but so that we can be clear when they do, without muddying the specialized language and understanding of both.

Reading that made my skin crawl in a rather wonderful way. I especially love the bit where he says “For the mind is embodied, the self not an isolated property of what’s inside your cranium, but an emergent property of your whole mind-body integration…”

Meanwhile reading it made my skin crawl in a rather uncomfortable way, for reasons I described previous. Now, the idea of the mind being embodied and the self not being an isolated property but an emergent one of the mind-body integration is essentially taken as a given in the Northern Tradition and Heathenry. Of course identity comes out of one’s selfhood as in the godhi/gydhja, Ancestry, one’s spiritual communities, one’s actions within one’s community. The NT and Heathen religions assume an interconnectedness as part and parcel of existence, whether it is how our huge and munr develop. Our sense of self develops out of our various Soul Matrix parts into who we are in this incarnation. The lich lends itself to the mind-body connection as firmly as the more ephemeral Soul Matrix parts do.

The thing I refer to as my “self” is really more of a collective of individuals than a single being. All the trillions of cells in my brain and body working in conjunction across masses of networks. That is my body as well as my soul. The Norse concept of hugr, a form of the spiritual “self” is a rather nice fit here. The hugr is considered to be the sum total of the mental life of an individual, and that is exactly what I think Gleiser is talking about.

This is where Nick starts to lose me, and I acknowledge this could simply be a matter of phrasing. I understand the lich and huge or hugr as parts of the Soul Matrix, that ‘the soul’ as a whole in the Northern Tradition and Heathenry is made up of these souls/soul parts. In isolation, however, the huge would not be the same without a well-functioning lich to go with it. It is not that we are fundamentally disagreeing all that much here, except in that he is using the idea that these networks are ‘my body as well as my soul’ and that the word hugr fits this idea. It is the singular, that these networks of individuals form a single soul that is encapsulated in word hugr that I disagree with. It reads to me like the individuals existentent within the multiplicity of the Soul Matrix are, instead, fashioned into a singularity. It is at odds especially in regards to what I understand is a part of the Soul Matrix, itself a collection of different parts of, or different souls themselves. To have good hugr one must also have a good lich to go with it. Certain Soul Matrix pieces are interwoven with one another, and hugr and lich are among them. Yet, hugr is still hugr and lich still lich, and it would be a mistake to say they are one in the same when they are, in actuality, connected by individual.

An example is hamingja, what is often referred to as group luck, power, or soul. It is what we inherit from our Ancestors, by blood, adoption, and/or spirit. We can appreciate that many, many generations worth of souls, certainly not all of them human, went into developing this when we inherit our hamingja, but it would be a mistake, I think, to look at hamingja as a singular thing given it has so many Beings that make it up. Yet our hamingja is also our own because we are the latest iteration of the Ancestors, so there is tension of a kind between the collective and singular, places where we certainly are differentiated, but we cannot be wholly separate, as we would not be without our past.

Our stories, our environment, and our own makeup interacting and coming up with this thing we might call the spirit. That is just wonderful in so many ways.

Absolutely, this is wonderful. As with our bodies, minds, cultures, and so on are the results of a million lives before us, and is impacted by our environment, so our spirit(s) develop from those who came before us. What is more, as with our bodies and the passing on of traits, or the passing on of how we understand the world, and/or our culture(s), we impact them and those who came before us in return. If we fail to tell the stories, they eventually fade. If we fail to pass on the culture, eventually it dies. If we pass these things on, they continue to live and become part of future generations.

Before I harp too much on that, I want to turn to the other article that I read recently. It is by David Haskell, and is titled Life is the Network, not the Self. In talking about a maple leaf, Haskell says;

“By eavesdropping on chemical conversations within the leaf, biologists have learned that the life processes of a plant — growing, moving nutrients, fighting disease, and coping with drought — are all networked tasks, emerging from physical and chemical connections among diverse cells. These leaf networks are dynamic. “

In reading Grönbech’s The Culture of the Teutons and having read quite a bit of lore on ancient German and Scandinavian societies, one of the things that continuously comes up is that these are tribal societies, and that identification of and with the tribe is part of being alive. To be outlawed is to be dead, or something worse than dead. Within the collective society of ancient Germanic and Scandinavian tribes, it was not that the individual completely disappeared, but that all one’s decisions, all one does or is, is reflected upon because what one does affects the tribe, and likewise, the tribe affects the individuals within it. The tribe was, as in the plant example above, affected the push and pull of various decisions and needs and wants that are expressed and addressed from within the network, the network in this case being the tribe.

I told you we would come back to emergent properties and networked integration. When we consider our own bodies, we see huge networked complexes working together in both conflict and cooperation. Bacteria in our guts are working to help us digest our food, networked neurons are working to process the information from our senses, our heart muscles are working in a constant beat to keep the blood, nutrients and oxygen moving through our bodies.

I think it is important to discern, though, that networked tasks and networked things, in this cases leaves within a plant or bacteria within the gut, does not make the leaf the plant nor the bacteria the gut. They are pieces of a whole that helps the whole to function, is indeed necessary for the whole to function well in their contexts. If we agree that a leaf and the cells that make it up are each souls within souls, that the soul of the leaf is made up with the cells that make that leaf up, with each leaf itself a part of the soul of the plant, at some point the collective emerges around forms and functions. It is at this point that the ‘leaf cells’ become leaves, and that leaves become part of the plant. Necessary to the plant being alive and propogating, but not the plant as a whole. The leaves emerge from the plant, and the plant from the seed.

As Haskell points out, this kind of integration expands well beyond the individual human, but to maple trees, ecosystems, and the entire biosphere of the planet. Every collective being on this planet is networked, and from that networking new and fascinating forms emerge. Over the long course of evolution, individual cells have been experimenting with different collective networks, and that has given rise to every single living thing on this planet.

‘Collective networks’ functions well as a term if we’re just talking physical realms. There’s a word for this in the Northern Tradition and Heathenry, this tapestry of networked beings in the lattice work of all reality. It forms the ground of how we view ourselves, so that this idea is hardly alien. This is wyrd. Yet, unlike the networked beings and individuals described here, wyrd also takes into account spiritual impacts and phenomena. This is one of the places where I see the Venn diagram between science and religion crossing in terms of understanding some ways of interconnectedness.

As Haskell says;
“Living networks are ancient, perhaps as old as life itself.

Given our understanding of how life began, whether looking at this through the scientific lens of the Big Bang or through wyrd and the Creation Story, with the unfolding of Creation through the emergence of Muspelheim, Nifelheim from the Ginnungagap, I’d say that networks of interrelationship are older than life itself. That the building blocks of our reality rely on series after series of things relating between one another, whether in opposition, tension, or in concert.

The fundamental unit of biology is therefore not the “self,” but the network. A maple tree is a plurality, its individuality a temporary manifestation of relationship.”

Interesting. In my exploration of ancient German and Scandinavian cultures, the fundamental unit of how we understood ourselves as people began in the plurality of tribe, clan, and/or family. The individual tribe/clan/family members were a temporary manifestation of relationship, carrying and passing on hamingja, for instance. This understanding of ‘network’ could easily be replaced with the word ‘community’, ‘tribe’, etc. The tribe is a plurality, and each person part of it. We invididually exist within it, functioning separately, yet together form a collective identity and being.

If we consider the soul to be the sum total of all these connections, in our bodies and with our environment, something rather fascinating and terrifying starts to emerge.

As a polytheist and animist with a particular worldview, I see that what Nick has laid out is quite well along my own lines of thought. Where I keep getting myself hung up is in disagreements with particulars, such as considering the sum total of a soul to be all of/in this world.

So I have some questions for Nick, and I’m curious to see how he answers given what he said earlier in his post:

“I do think I have a spirit, a life essence, a life force; if you will. But I don’t think that my spirit is at all separate from my body. In some cosmologies, the spirit is not one piece, but a whole collection of different “spirits” in one body.

and this later:

As I have explained many times before, animism is concerned with life living in relationships with each other.

So if you think you have a spirit, a life essence, a life force, what is it? What forms does it take? Where did it originate from? Does it have a finite existence? If you do not believe your spirit is at all separate from your body, does it die along with your body? In other words, how would ghosts and spirits-after-death fit, if at all, into your cosmology? How does this fit into Ancestor worship and/or veneration (i.e. if the spirit dies with the body why rever/worship the Ancestors)?

Do you believe that the spirit is one piece, or that it is a whole collection of different ‘spirits’ in one body? I’m intensely interested in your cosmology, especially because if spirit is bound to body, then if something does not have a body, then, does it not have a spirit?

If animism is concerned with life living in relationship with each other does that preclude the numinous, or less body-bound realms of things? How does animism unfold as a, or part of, a religious point of view for you? What does animism of a worldview include, for you? What does it not include?

Consider our relationships well beyond ourselves. Think about the sum total of all of our technology and the natural world around us. Take a look at our cities from space and ask yourself, what is emerging from our relationships with other beings on this planet?

I am deeply curious to see how Nick would answer these things as well. I will below.

In considering our relationships well beyond ourselves, I think we first need to think of what things are actually within our spheres of influence. If we think of our ability to impact the world as represented by bubbles, with the further out we go having more and more reach, my bubble would be quite limited to those in my immediate surroundings, those in my family, my religious communities, and communities otherwise. Even in how I buy and consume things, my impact as such is quite small in scale compared to a large corporation or the collective impact of the US government.

After a while I stop considering relationships well beyond myself and the bubbles I can affect. My relationships with those outside of certain circles gets so tenuous and abstract that the ties I have to others are miniscule. In others they are nonexistant. This is one of the reasons I’m not as into Big Tent Paganism as others. It’s much like my view of being a US citizen. As with Pagans and issues particular to the communities we/they are part of, I care about the rights of all US citizens, but I’ll likely never interact with most of the folks out in California. I certainly won’t develop or keep up meaningful relationships with them. While my words may carry impact out there, I have only so much capacity within myself to develop meaningful relationships with those outside of my family and friends. I only have so much time to keep the relationships I do have. Since my energy and my attention are things that I have less and less of, between work, religious obligation, family obligations, and local community obligations, there’s not much time left over to develop deeper connections with folks outside of a couple of my bubbles where my time and attention goes.

Think about the sum total of all of our technology and the natural world around us. Take a look at our cities from space and ask yourself, what is emerging from our relationships with other beings on this planet?

The sum total of all our technology and the natural world is deeply out of step with one another. Our technology allows us to do amazing things, from the interconnectedness of the Internet to the generation of power so countless people have electricity, heat, and water, to beautiful pieces of art. Yet, I see so much technology now as being obsolescense for its own sake, or to increase someone’s bottom line at the expense of great swathes of this world, Earth, animal and plant alike. I see devices intentionally built to break. I see technology taking jobs once held by great swathes of people with nothing to replace them, leaving great stretches of this country destitute. I see great and small bodies of earth, water, and air poisoned by oil and gas, the production of our computers and cell phones. I see a world we will have a harder time living on and with because of the production and industries that bring up that oil and gas to burn so our electricity flows, the lights stay on, and our economies continue to be productive contributes to the very things that are rendering our planet less habitable to us.

Looking at our cities from space I see systems that have deep need of repair, both in terms of how they function internally and how they relate to the natural world. I see great swathes of resources going to these places; we can see the light of them in space from the photo Nick has provided. As a whole our relationships with the Earth through cities have become fraught with taking increasing amounts of dwindling resources, whether that be water, oil, or gas. The growth of cities has been useful in allowing us to live on less land, but we have not fixed fundamental problems with how we, especially in America, deploy ourselves in the land. If the supply lines get cut off for 3 days LA essentially starves. Now, thankfully, there are people who are opening up places in LA and Detroit to community gardens and community agriculture. However, we have basic problems with infrastructure that must be addressed if cities are to continue to remain viable places to live. We operate our cities on incredibly complex, but very, very brittle systems of transport that are, increasingly, operating with less and less support for the infrastructure that makes them possible. I have serious doubts as to how long our cities will be viable in how we have developed them.

In my own case I am developing good working relationships with my local earth, the earthvaettir, and landvaettir, vaettir otherwise, as well as the Gods and Ancestors. I am living as a good member of my society, providing for my family and developing ways to live in better concert with the Earth. I am doing all I can to be a living example in how I live with Her. I am pushing my local governments and cities to do more to get off of fossil fuels and generate our own energy through less environmentally destructive mean. I encourage people to explore their own local options, especially where their impact can be felt keener and firmer.

This, I think, is a lot of where polytheism and animism meets our proverbial road in life. In how we live our lives. In our daily interactions with our Gods, Ancestors, vaettir, and one another. The worldviews of polytheism and animism informs how we understand ourselves in the world, how we identify within our human communities, and how we live our lives accordingly with the values we live by. The foundations of our worldviews tells us what we consider ‘alive’ and ‘ensouled’ how we live well with all that lives and souls within us, and around us.

Affluence, Tribe, and Choice

August 12, 2016 2 comments

I was watching the end of a BookTV C-SPAN2 interview with Sebastian Junger for his book On Tribe and Homecoming.  I had been happening to be clicking through the channels looking for something to help bring me down so I could get to sleep.  However, when I clicked on the station and listened to what he said, it was like lightning in my brain:

“Affluence is a wonderful thing but the more affluent we get, the less we need to help each other.  It’s just how it works.  So the trick is, can we have it both ways?  Can we maintain the pleasures and benefits of an affluent society and also regain — somehow regain the communal connections?  I grew up in a suburb.  The physical layout of the suburb made it hard for communities –that community to coalesce.  It was a sprawling town where you really needed a car to get anywhere significant.  Short of banning the car, how do we return to living close-knit communities of 50 or 60 people?  It’s not happening.”

I disagree with Sebastian Junger’s statements here quite deeply, particularly his last sentence, but the whole of it bears dissecting from a polytheist, particularly a tribalist, perspective.

To start with, he asserts affluence is a wonderful thing.  The OxfordDictionaries.com defines affluence as “The state of having a great deal of money; wealth”.  I view it as a wonderful thing in being a useful thing, insofar as being able to secure one’s tribe, family, and/or self against privation, starvation, etc., and increase their ability to prosper, and empower future generations to do likewise.

Junger asks a pretty powerful question, but one that he fails, utterly, to answer himself:
“So the trick is, can we have it both ways?  Can we maintain the pleasures and benefits of an affluent society and also regain — somehow regain the communal connections?”

The simple answer to Junger’s question about having it both ways is yes.  How affluence in the U.S. manifests in a toxic fashion is an impediment to this, though.  He starts to get at why this is with his point on how the suburb is designed, how it makes it hard for connections, but falls short of following through on it.  The issue, to my take on this, is not the affluence or lack thereof, but how it is used, and the lens of extreme individualism in this country that makes communities very hard to form, and even harder to maintain.

The suburb is not designed in any way to be based on a system of reciprocity.  It has no connections to living systems within itself, i.e. there is no growing of food or capability to produce things of wealth otherwise.  Note when I use the word ‘wealth‘ here, I mean it in the sense of “An abundance of valuable possessions” rather than referring to money. Money is a means of carrying the value of things which produce or are, themselves, sources of wealth.  In America, we took ourselves off of the precious metals that, themselves, were recognized as wealth as a means of backing the value of our money, and took ourselves to a purely arbitrary fiat money system.  Our money system itself has the same problem as our suburbs: its connection to living systems and sources of wealth has been largely severed.

A suburb cannot mine for useful materials, nor can it grow an abundance of food to feed itself.  It has no means of trading en mass, or really of doing anything other than providing living quarters.  A homeowner may, assuming the home authority or ordinances allow, a few sources of food, but a tomato plant here or there does not an interconnected food system make.  The suburbs are wholly reliant on other sources for caring for those who live in them.  These people who live in the suburbs are often living very fractured lives from one another; the family next door could be starving, but because of the extreme individualist narratives the house right next to them would never know unless that family let them in to the situation at all.  Suburbs, and structures that operate like them, do not concern themselves with one another, only, at most, the atomized family unit.

The problem is not the affluence these places retain, in and of themselves, but the way the affluence is used to maintain the separation between people and the things they need.  It reinforces separation on a personal and communal basis.  As Junger notes, communities cannot coalesce because of how suburbs are designed.

I said Junger was asking a powerful question when he asked “Can we maintain the pleasures and benefits of an affluent society and also regain — somehow regain the communal connections?” because the answer very-well could be yes.  It would take concentrated effort and a reevaluation of how we live, and for what things we use our affluence.  Rather than simply taking affluence out of peoples’ hands and redesigning how society functions, which I have yet to see an example of where the system did not fail, I am suggesting something else.  Note, I am not saying socialist forms of government cannot work under this idea, since the Nordic Model is a good example of a society choosing the use their collective affluence in a pro-social fashion via taxes.  There’s plenty of opportunity for affluence while providing for the needs of one’s people.  I see this as going hand-in-hand.  However, I am approaching this as a tribalist.  As I have noted before, I have little hope of the U.S. ever adopting such an approach to our affluence until things start getting a lot worse for folks, or enough folks start working to change the over-culture of extreme individualism.

So let’s break this down to a tribal level.  How do we maintain the pleasures and benefits of an affluent society and also regain communal connections?

For one, we need to be pretty clear on how we define affluence as a community.
Is the tribe’s conception of affluence money-based or resource based?  It is my view that a resources based understanding of affluence does not play into the divisive nature that characterizes suburbs and the extreme individualism that can divide a tribe.  If we understand wealth as based in resources rather than money, how does this affect how we organize ourselves, and how can we maintain our relationship(s) with the larger society in which we live?  It is one thing to organize a society based on valuing resources as the form of wealth rather than money, but in the end, money is how things like taxes and debts get paid.  To what degree will a given tribe need to modulate their assumptions and desires to engage with resources-as-affluence on things in order to get along as a tribe, and with the larger society that they are within?

If we look at resources as affluence, then the growing and hunting of food, crafting, and forms of industry helps form the means by how a tribe supports itself and makes bonds between its members.  If money is the source of affluence, then the attainment of money is the means by which the tribe supports itself and makes bonds between members.  A mixed approach allows for the needs of the tribe to meet the demands the larger community may put on it while allowing for pleasures that a purely agricultural-based community may be unable to enjoy.  The ideal without considering the practicality of the tribal approach can fail if these things are not considered.  While I may prefer a resource-based approach to affluence, I live in America, and property taxes and forms of payment will not be accepted in the form of animal meat, vegetables, or crafted items.

What are the pleasures we most wish to secure as a community?

As with affluence, we need to be very clear on what we mean by the word ‘pleasures’, and how we wish to pursue them.  To this, I look to the second definition of pleasure: “An event or activity from which one derives enjoyment”.  How we measure and work with the concept of affluence directly determines what and how we turn over excess affluence for the events and activities that help to give us enjoyment in the first place.  If we define pleasures by the first definition, ‘a feeling of happy satisfaction and enjoyment’, this can leave communities flitting from emotionally-fulfilling thing to thing.  That is, by pursuing the feeling of enjoyment rather than the events or activities from which we may derive enjoyment, our use of affluence beyond the basic needs will deeply affect to what end our affluence is used, and how it helps the community form cohesive relationships, and bonds of trust, friendship, love, and alliance.

How?

If we take the idea of affluence-as-money as the organizing principle of affluence, we can already see what happens: people flit from whatever media or other money-driven entertainment they can afford that gives enjoyable stimuli.  A given community is not invested in Netflix the way that content creators are, even if members of a community really enjoy a series.  Certainly, a given community is not invested in Netflix in the way that a community is with a community theater, such as the Purple Rose in Chelsea, MI.  Whereas Netflix eats away at time between members of a community, with some folks intentionally isolating themselves for multiple seasons at a time without Netflix providing a residual benefit to the community the watchers are part of, the same is not true of community theater.  While community theater may not feature A-list actors or scripts, it does feature home-grown talent, the kinds of productions that the local communities want to see, a direct stimulation to a community’s businesses, and something for the community to call ‘theirs’.  In other words, a community that values the events and activities that lead to pleasure also give rise to a whole host of benefits beyond enjoyment of the event or activity.

This is not to denigrate Netflix; such a thing would be pretty hypocritical of me, considering how much I enjoy Daredevil, Jessica Jones, and other Netflix shows.  Rather, our value of what pleasure is directly impacts my physical community in the definition of pleasures being ‘An event or activity from which one derives enjoyment’ rather than ‘a feeling of happy satisfaction and enjoyment’.  I live in a time and place where it is far more cost-effective, easier, and less risky to my family to invest my affluence, such as it is, in a community theater.

This is also not to say that I think things like plays and musicals in community theaters are the only viable means of making events and activities from which a community may derive pleasure.  Though I am not a sports fan, there is a powerful draw to sport that a lot of Americans feel.  Rather than see us continue with the current model with NHL, NBA, and other similar sports formats which are often money-driven enterprises that take a lot out of the communities where they build their stadiums while offering paltry gains in return, I would rather we engage more directly in sport and other events that occur within our direct community and between communities actually physically adjacent to one another.  Why?  For the same reason I appreciate community theater as the vehicle for the creation of events and activities that enjoyment is derived from: the communities involved directly benefit rather than the affluence being given to an external source.  That is, the playwrights, actors, and so on that are within the community directly benefit from the affluence that is spent on the play, costumes, the theater tickets, and all the outgrowth of affluence that spreads into the community from that, such as through the local restaurants, artisans, and craftspeople.  By creating an environment where the amateur and those in training can thrive, professionals are made.

For the Northern Tradition and Heathenry, this concept of feeding both the individual and the community, figuratively and literally, come from these concepts: Gebo, hamingja, and maegen.  In Gebo, gift-for-a-gift, there is an exchange that strengthens, grows, tightens the ties of hamingja, the luck and bonds of a community.  By Gebo being fulfilled through the fulfillment of obligation and doing well by one another, and through the increase of hamingja, does one’s personal luck, power, and ability to use that power, maegen, grow in turn.  This can then be used for the benefit of tribe, and the cycle of Gebo continues to feed the good growth of hamingja and maegen.

What are the benefits we most wish to secure as a community?
A benefit is ‘An advantage or profit gained from something’.  An advantage is ‘A condition or circumstance that puts one in a favourable or superior position’.  A profit is ‘A financial gain, especially the difference between the amount earned and the amount spent in buying, operating, or producing something’ and is also defined as advantage and benefit. Putting this in terms of the tribe, the benefits we wish to secure a as a community are those actions and things which bring advantage to it.

The powerful thing about building up tribe is that you are not just planning for the success of your family or your generation.  You are helping to lay the foundation of success for everyone coming after you.  Everything you put your hands helps to lift burdens off of the next family, the next generation in the tribe.  Learning how to do more things in your own home, from small repair projects or through on up to making your own furniture, gives the next generation the benefit of that experience, and the end result of that product once you have made something of quality.  Heck, some families have the last names they do because their family was renowned for a trade, i.e. Coopers, Smiths, Tailors, etc.  Education and practical experience are benefits for families provided that they are resources that are used, and that are passed on.

The question of “What are the benefits we most wish to secure as a community?” is pretty powerful.  It asks us what things of advantage and profit do we want to actively work to bring into our community?  What skills will we need to make this happen?  What education, training, experiences, and resources will we need to make this happen?  To some degree our own experiences, skills, and abilities will inform this.  To another, this requires no small amount of discipline on a personal level, as well as a community willing and able to think in the long term.  Moreover, it takes a community willing to stick to a long-term plan if the goal is fairly ambitious.

Physical infrastructure, for instance, is fairly ambitious, and requires some good planning if we hope to pass that on.  The tribe or community would need to be able to handle physical upkeep, any financial costs including taxes (if applicable), and if a building has a special use, such as a power hub, network hub, greenhouse, and/or temple, you will need folks able to work with the special training to do the work associated with it.  Building a solid home in and of itself requires no small amounts of skills to do, even more so if a tribe/community wishes to keep things like power and the Internet as open to it as possible.  If your community can’t do the work needed to maintain it, then experts will need to be brought in from outside the community.

At some point it behooves the community to ask, then, what is a want and what truly is a need?  Will this thing, activity, etc. be a long term boon to the community, or will it take from valuable resources that the community needs to survive and thrive?  Not every benefit for a community will be need to have a physical gain to it.

Some of the greatest pieces of art have, if taken purely from a utilitarian perspective, little to offer.  One cannot eat the Gundestrup Cauldron, but it must have carried deep, powerful import for those who made it and received it.  One cannot eat art, but it suffuses our lives so deeply that it is the very means by which ideas are communicated, including this post here.  Think of the countless carved stones, such as the Einang Runestone or Eggjum Runestone.  Think of the countless carvings, amulets, burial mounds, and all the countless ways in which the Gods, Ancestors, and vaettir were represented, understood, and known through.  The benefits of art is that it communicates powerfully, resonantly, and can help us touch the Holy Powers, connect to deep aspects of culture, and communicate these things well beyond the generations we may know in this life.

The question of “What are the benefits we most wish to secure as a community?” thinking applies equally to individual families as to the communities they are part of.   What are the abilities we have gravitated to?  What skills do we possess?  What have I learned, and what am I willing and able to learn?  What are we actually able to do, or not do?  What skills, abilities, and things would we encourage others in our families and communities to help us make, or provide to us?

As with the community, this question asks us to take the long view.  I have a great many things I can do with my hands; what if, some day, I lose the use of my hands?  Can I pass the skill on to someone else?  Can I trade or encourage another to gain this skill or do that thing that I can no longer do?  What skills and abilities are essential to me?  What skills or abilities does my community rely on from me that need to be passed on?  What skills, abilities, and things that I and my family can provide are essential to my community?  These questions do not ask for self-effacement or self-abasement, but an honest appraisal of where one is, where one may be, and how one plans to work with things in the future.  It need not be a purely utilitarian view, either.  If I can no longer do work with my hands, such as leatherworking or woodworking, there are plenty of other ways I can help my community.  There are countless ways to be a member in my community and give good Gebo to the Gods, Ancestors, vaettir, and the tribe.

Sebastian Junger rather misses the point in asking if it is possible for us to have things both ways.  The planet’s answer, whether Peak Oil, climate change, or the deep income inequalities that must exist in order for the modern American way of life to exist in the first place (helping to drive the first two predicaments the more consumption is demanded for the latter) is no.  Further, modern American capitalism poses the notion of ‘we have all the toys or we have nothing’ as a way to make the shackles on our lives more willing to be borne.  This is thralldom by other means.  However, there is a healthy difference between thralldom as the ancient Heathen cultures knew it, and the wage slavery we experience today.

Note before I begin this section that I am not, for a moment, suggesting we should go back to thralldom.  I am using it to illustrate a point.  Thralldom as an institution was widely practiced by ancient Scandinavian and German peoples.  It was slavery.  I do not see it as something to be idealized, nor repeated.  I find the ways in which it differs from the yolks the middle class, working poor, and the destitute take on today via modern capitalism are useful points of comparison.

People were bought and sold like other commodities.  Some thralls and their families never knew freedom; sometimes thralldom, slavery, was inter-generational.  However, some thralls could and did buy their freedom.  Thralls could be freed, and some were.  If they chose, they could become full members of the tribe they had been sold into, or go elsewhere.  They could then marry, own land, and pass it on to their heirs.  The life of a thrall could end well, and one could make a name for themselves, and excel.

Modern capitalism gives no such comfort.  American incomes relative to cost of living have been stagnant or going down since the 1970’s.  We are required more than ever to work longer hours for less pay.  We have essential freedoms denied to thralls: freedom of travel, freedom of expression, freedom of religion, freedom to choose our representatives.  Talking about it this way, it seems there are freedoms everywhere.  What American culture is exceptionally bad at talking about is how tampered these freedoms are by whether or not you can afford to exercise them.

I used to be an employee with a home healthcare company.  We work with clients with a variety of needs.  Some require 24 hour care.  If someone does not show up to work, gets sick, etc., and I’m the only one around, I’m stuck at work.  Now, let’s say I have an election coming up and I know I want to vote.  If I am stuck at work because someone gets sick and I’m the only relief, I have a choice: potentially lose my job, face a permanent mark on my record for negligence, potential court action against myself and/or the company, or, exercise my right to vote.  This is not an uncommon scenario.

Thralls had a clear goal they could achieve: make enough money that they could then use to buy their freedom.  In the case of most Americans, we don’t even get this good of a deal.  Chris Martenson, who produced the excellent Crash Course series, calls debt a claim on future human labor. When the average American hits age 5 they’re placed into kindergarten, and for the next 12 years or so they are absolutely primed with the message that going to college will enable them to have a life, make a future for themselves.  What we are not told this entire time we’re working on reams of homework, projects, and whatever else our teachers want to throw at us, while living life in all its challenges, is that in order to make this dream of ‘making it’ come true, is that most of us will have to go into enough debt that we could probably have paid for at least half of the cost of a house, if not bought one outright.  I have worked at McDonald’s next to folks with supposedly market-ready STEM-field Master’s degrees.  The treatment teams I worked with at the home healthcare job had professionals whose loans were large enough that even if they devoted their entire yearly income to it they might only be able to pay a quarter or half of what they owed.  If they were lucky, weren’t part-time, and had some years in.

Keep in mind, these degrees are mere shots at getting a job.  One which may help pay some bills, but probably not enough to stock away for savings or a retirement.  The minimum wage jobs have not covered the cost of living in a very long time, let alone helped the working poor to provide for their families.  Americans as a whole are worse off now than the 1970’s.  We are required to work longer hours for less pay just to keep roofs over our heads, food in our mouths, clothes on our backs, and all the costs of those roofs, that food, those clothes?  They’re only getting more costly for us.

If debt is a claim on human labor, how many years of my labor are required to work to pay my debt off?  A thrall had a set amount they had to earn in order to buy their freedom.  Debt increases by a set amount of interest every year.  If I can only afford to pay some of the interest because the degree I earned through years of hard work still, years on, has not netted me a job commensurate to handle the cost of living, let alone the increasing load of debt, what hope do I have of ever getting out of debt?

What good does the freedom of travel do me if the means by which I access travel are closed to me because I cannot afford it?  What good does the freedom of speech do me if I can be fired from a job with little recourse if I demand respect from asshole customers or bosses?  What good does the freedom to vote do me if I must choose between keeping my means of income or voting?

If the means by which my future labor is claimed on is allowed to increase every year and my means of earning release from this claim are reduced each year, will I ever be able to be released from my debt?  Keep in mind that most private student loans are not discharged upon death.

From ABC News:

According to the U.S. Department of Education, if the borrower of a federal student loan dies, the loan is automatically canceled and the debt is discharged by the government. Unfortunately, private student loans do not offer the same liability protections.

In the case of federal loans my choices are to pay off the loan or die.  At least if I die the federal government will not come after my estate.  However, in the case of private loans, if I can’t pay back my debt and I die, my estate, if I can leave any, and my spouse is liable for the cost.  Oh, and family might be too if she can’t pay.  This is not something tangible like a car or a home.  This cost was on what amounts to a bet: “This might be a path to a career; good luck!”  Americans are being told from a young age this is ‘an investment in your future’ and that ‘this is the road to being able to live well’.  If the means by which my future labor is claimed increases each year while my ability to pay the cost of living and the claim on that labor decreases, the only shelter I may have from that debt is my death.

The average college student graduates with $40,000 of debt, and many of us go back and have to borrow more when that first foray into college doesn’t land us a job, or live with what job we can find.  With less people able to retire because they simply cannot afford to, the jobs many young people would be entering into cannot open up since there is less and less room to move.  I cannot tell you how many ‘entry level jobs’ I have seen that require 1-4 years of experience in the field you would be entering into.

A thrall had a better shot at taking off their chains than most Americans do at getting out of debt.

Those that choose to keep the chain of debt off their neck are probably struggling.  Over half of America is officially under the poverty line.  If we cannot afford the cost of living how can we afford anything else?  What good are freedoms if what keeps us from exercising them is privation?

Tribes offer another way.  The reliance on one another, and the ability to take care of one’s own.  The work done together that weaves strong ties to weather hardship, whereas a person alone could be doomed to privation the rest of their days, and to empower future generations.  Bonds forged between people, and from these bonds into a powerful community each person contributes to, and is supported by.

“Can we maintain the pleasures and benefits of an affluent society and also regain — somehow regain the communal connections?”

Yes.  For it to work, though, this must be a choice that all within the community make, and that all within it adhere to.  We can come together and be more together than alone.  We can come together and work with our Gods, Ancestors, vaettir, and one another to build strong communities.  We can come together and face the challenges that would eat each of us alone together, and come out stronger for it.  We can empower one another to learn, to do what is within us to do, and to build up something greater than ourselves that we can pass on to future generations: tribes whose cultures are grounded in the Holy Powers, in respect and work for the good of the community, and for the good of each of its members.  Tribes whose cultures are grounded in good Gebo with the Gods, Ancestors, vaettir, and one another.  We can maintain the pleasures and benefits of an affluent society andwe can regain communal connections.  Moreover, we can, and I believe should, do more, and do better for our Holy Powers, ourselves, and future generations.

A Polytheist Reflection and Response to Convenience, Consumption, and Peak Oil Part 7

March 24, 2016 2 comments

The game of our time is no longer chess. Nor is it truly blackjack or craps.

The game of our time is tafl.  This is a game few people are familiar with, so I will give a basic explanation.  As I am most familiar with hnefatafl, it is the example I will be using going forward.

Tafl is a game of strategy and skill.  There are two sides: attackers and defenders.  The ratio of attacker is 2 to every 1 defender, and a chief that starts in the center of the board.  Unlike chess, all the pieces move in straight lines, and can move wherever they please in these lines.  Both sides capture by wedging an opposing piece between two pieces of the same side or one piece pinning another against a side of the board, or against the center of the board which is where the chief starts.  The chief may also capture.

Hnefatafl11x11.png

An example of a hnefatafl board from Wikimedia Commons.

The object of the game for attackers is to capture the chief.  The object of the game for the defenders is for the chief to escape by getting to one of the four corners.

I see this as the game of our time economically, politically, and environmentally, and understand it as a drastic shift away from the chess understanding a lot of folks apply to how U.S. citizens exist within this country.  The simple reason is that the parameters of the game we all exist within have changed.  It may have changed for many of us a long, long time ago, or you may have been playing hnefatafl from birth.  Because of the ever-increasing poverty line, a majority of people in the United States are understanding this shift in very direct ways.  Very few of us actually ever were more than a pawn in our political or economic system.  Now, we face a future where we must escape the attackers in our midst.  Some of us have or are contemplating taking the opposite approach: taking the others’ chiefs.

The point of hnefatafl is survival rather than complete victory.  Its mindset is wholly different than that of chess.  You are not seeking to crush an opponent, or if you are, you may entirely miss opportunities to help/stop the chief escaping, or become entrapped by your opponent.  No piece once reaching the end of the board can become another, and there are no special moves.  In this way, the potential of the chief is no better or worse than that of the other defenders, save that they are the leader that the defenders are trying to evacuate.  In an interesting twist, the attackers have no leader.  They are all focused on the destruction of the chief.

Unlike chess, in order for the chief to be secure, he must move, attack, and defend himself.  Unlike in chess, which sends other pieces to die so that the king is secured and the opponent’s king captured, the chief in hnefatafl must place themselves in the same danger their fellow defenders face.  The chief in hnefatafl cannot rely on the bishops to leverage diagonal moves, the knights their L-shapes and jumping, nor the rooks their unfettered straight movements, nor the queen her omni-directional moves.  The chief in hnefatafl moves in exactly the same manner and with the same abilities as their fellows.

Similarly, we are entering a period where standing amongst one’s people and understanding ourselves not as inherently special, but as people belonging to a group with leaders rather than despots are requirements for thriving.  Peak oil and climate change render chess’ model of allocation of political/military power to rooks and knights, religious authority to bishops, despotic divine right powers to the king and queen, and all of them using the poor, the pawns as front-line soldiers, moot.  This old way of doing things is a use of time and resources we cannot afford to waste.  We may never be without kings or chiefs, but the old way of doing things that enabled chess to dominate the landscape of political thought is passing on.

The game has changed, and it is time to play.

 

Links for A Polytheist Reflection and Response to Convenience, Consumption, and Peak Oil

Part 1
Part 2
Part 3
Part 4
Part 5
Part 6
Part 7

A Response to Critiques

A Polytheist Reflection and Response to Convenience, Consumption, and Peak Oil Part -Critiques

February 4, 2016 8 comments

My post here is written in response to critiques I am reading of folks in the peak oil community, and are several responses in one to common points I have seen brought up on Facebook and Tumblr today in relation to this post.

One way or another the capitalist/industrial model is, by how it is deployed in the landscape and how capitalism is interwoven with mass industrialism, doomed to failure. Both are running up against hard limits on a finite planet. The simple fact is sooner or later peak oil will hit. Climate change is happening right now.  There is nothing on this planet that can replace what oil does for us. Not coal, not natural gas, not any of the systems of electricity production such as solar or wind, and certainly not nuclear. There is no infrastructure in place on a national scale ready to bear the weight of all the needs United States citizens have now, let alone need to keep that infrastructure operating far into the future. Neither system of economy or production has the ability to address the hard limits being placed on them, whether one looks at the limits to growth in an infinite-money paradigm as capitalism has right now, or the ‘technology can solve all our ills’ on the other.

I absolutely agree this needn’t be an all-or-nothing deal, but technologism, much like critiques of scientism, is part of the central critique of folks like JMG and myself. If capitalism fails, with the way it is interwoven into the technology industries, it will take many, if not most of the technology industries with it. Technologies by themselves cannot allow us to live on if we continue to use the technologies we have in the ways we are right now, especially as dependent as it is on the resources that are becoming increasingly scarce in order for them to be viable in the first place.

The idea of ‘seize the means of production’ sounds like so much pie-in-the-sky thinking to me, not because I think capitalism is invincible or that we could not actually seize them, but because I cannot see how seizing the means of production actually will help anything if all the feedstocks for, say, my diabetes medication, fall right along with the production of the meds themselves.  How many means of production can we realistically seize and kept running? I don’t see how ‘seizing the means of production’ will actually help anything, either as a narrative, nor do I see a practical application of this idea. Unless folks who want to seize the means of production can also seize provide upkeep for the means by which production is maintained and kept running in the first place, and can keep the people fed who do the maintaining and producing, and so on, there’s little point in my mind of engaging with the idea.

If we look at the ‘seizing the means of production’ from socialist countries or Marxist literature, this may be a good model to start with, but it runs into the same problems sooner or later. These are finite resources and we have no plans for what to do when they run low enough where the cost to produce goods and services exceeds the ability of the resource to provide energy and/or end product(s). Once a given thing, whether oil, natural gas, neodymium, etc., hits peak and begins decline nothing we do to extract, refine, or design more effectively will stop the decline of the availability of the resource. The hard limits problem must be dealt with, or anything proposed ignores the outcome of diminishing resources and at the end of the day is not realistic.

Technology is not a monolith. A stone arrow is a piece and product of technology as much as a smart phone is. Both requires certain resources, skills, and time to fashion. There are technologies which require significant investment of resources in order to make viable. If the neodymium mines which allow our hard drives to be built start running out of neodymium, 90% of which are located in China, how would we seize the means of production in order to keep our computers’ hard drives, and all the things that rely on good, working computer systems to function? This is my issue with these kinds of narratives. The baseline resources required to pull this idea off actually belong to someone else, and are only viable so long as production and refinement of these resources is able to maintained at a certain level.

As I said in Part One of this series:

“This really gets to the heart of the challenge of peak oil, though: if so much stuff is required to keep me alive, at what point does it become too expensive for me to live? Take this to mean me personally, or the capitalist/consumer culture at large, and the question of ‘at what point can we actually maintain this?’ becomes a question that is about life or death. If the apparatus by which I retain my ability to live starts to dry up, what do I do? My response to peak oil is not just a sentimental notion, then. It is about answering this question on a practical basis. If I can no longer get insulin or metformin, can I live? Well, in the short term the answer is no. However, as Archdruid John Michael Greer notes in his interviews on Legalize Freedom, overnight collapse of a civilization happens in Hollywood movies, while it takes 100-300 years for it to fully run its course historically. I and future generations have time to put things in place so that, while I may not have as long a life as a non-diabetic, the disease doesn’t kill me outright or over time through kidney failure or diabetic ketoacidosis. I can’t count on the cure for diabetes to be found, affordable, or resilient enough to survive the Long Descent. So, I won’t. ”

If anyone here read any of JMG’s books or watched his talks on this subject, I would think it would very quickly put to bed the notion that he thinks this is some kind of utopia. It won’t be. There will be suffering, whether it is because people refuse to come together and put what technology they can put theirs hand to into use, or because they refuse to understand and/or act until the hard limits of reality come knocking, or because communities do not do the hard work to prepare for peak oil and climate change now.

The Long Descent is not some fantasy I want to have happen. I’ve looked at what evidence is out there, what I understand lies before us, and accept that I may well die because the means of producing the metformin, insulin, and other medications that keep me alive will cease to be viable economically or technologically because of resource depletion.

I am not telling people to reject technology, nor do I believe others who I identify with the peak oil and permaculture crowd such as JMG are. I am saying we need to understand the limits to growth, especially within the paradigms technology operates, and what these things allow to occur without significant personal investment for other means of making and operating the technology we rely on. I do not understand JMG to be saying that we should simply accept out of hand the suffering that is coming.

What I do understand is that peak oil and climate change are real, occurring right now, and there are things we can still do to prepare for it, and things that are beyond our reach.

As I have written about this previously, I don’t think top-down approaches will allow us to survive climate change or peak oil. I do not put much stock in theories and ideas which do not have a practical application. Much of my issue with much of the Marxist, anarchist, and other ideas currently out in the public sphere right now, is that there is no one saying “This is how to practically apply these ideas”. I can look at JMG and those of his ilk and see the solutions in action. I can do them myself. More to the point, I am enacting the changes in my life and learning the skills that will allow my family and I have a good chance at surviving peak oil and climate change. It is entirely possible I haven’t run across places, books, and other resources where anarchist and Marxist ideas on how to address climate change and peak oil are being applied. There are overlaps between folks in the anarchist, Marxist, anti-capitalist, and other communities in the peak oil and permaculture communities, but I have yet to see this as centrally addressed in the anarchist, Marxist, anti-capitalist communities, as in the peak oil and permaculture communities.

One of the things that gets hurled around in some of the posts I have been reading is how privileged it is for folks to be talking about looking for alternatives to factory-produced medicines and the like, which require great amounts of resources. I’ve actually taken time to respond to the notion of my diabetes killing me because of the challenges of climate change and peak oil.  I have also noted on this blog and elsewhere, that I make an hourly rate just above minimum wage, and I qualify for Medicaid.  To me, looking for and engaging with alternatives to mass-produced medicines is as much part of the overall idea of surviving and thriving in a powered-down future as growing my own food is.

I’ll be honest: I’m getting tired, damned tired, of privilege being used as a club and thought-stopper when there are folks, like myself, with these diseases and issues who are working through the understanding of “Yes, I may well die from lack of access to medicines I need”.  There are folks like myself who, knowing this, recognize that climate change and peak oil need to be addressed, and that a powerful response to them is to build community ties, personal and communal skills while developing human-scale technology on the ground level to deal with these challenges as much as we can.

I recognize that I may not survive if, say trade or the medical industries that produce my medicines are hard-hit by peak oil or climate change.  That’s not the fault of green activists, permaculturists, transition town communities, or the like.  As I have said before, there’s not a lot any of us can really do about it.  Like it or not, the means of getting these medications will become harder and harder as peak oil and climate change continue.  This is not a call to ‘revert’ or go to a primitivist lifestyle, though that may be the answer for some, but to take what technologies we have right now, and do all we can to prepare for a future where these things are hard to access, if not cut off from us. This is not a zero-sum game, and it does us and our descendants no good if we bury our heads in the sand and ignore reality.

Capitalism, technology, and science are not monolithic, and are not untouchable.  We live in a world where the ability to pour massive amounts of money and resources into projects that do not further the survival of our species is being left behind.  We need to look at whether or not certain ways of using our resources are actually worth our time. This is not anti-science nor is it anti-technology, though in many ways it may be anti-capitalist. What it is, at the end of the day, is the use of discernment.

The process of coming to grips with peak oil and climate change, and how we live in this world becomes even more important to the animist and polytheist. Our world, and all of the things within it, carry the potentiality, if not the actuality, of being Gods, Ancestors, and/or spirits.  The working with and/or caring for the Beings around us, treating them all as Beings, including what we usually think of as ‘resources’, is a dynamic shift in thought. Look at oil as the distilled essence of the lich of the Dead which comprise it, and your relationship to this object which permeates our lives takes on new meaning. Look at Fire Itself as the Eldest Ancestor, and your relationship with all things Fire, whether the fire that burns the coal, natural gas, etc. that heats one’s home or powers one’s electronics, or that enables us to travel by bus, takes on a new dynamic.

We never stopped relying on all these Beings. What we have done is find new ways for them to inhabit our lives, and use more of the bodies of the Dead and the Earth than we ever have before.  What Westerners especially have done is taken and demanded more from the landvaettir than They have hope of giving while maintaining Their own homes.

Technologies, for all the ills we have wrought with many of them, are not our enemy. Using our knowledge of and expertise in technologies is part of how we can address climate change and peak oil.

I think that this person’s concerns need to be addressed directly, as I have seen variations of this come up.  I do want them to know I’m not picking on them personally.

This kind of anarchic tribalism mentality growing in, let’s be real, mostly English-language-dominant radical & occult circles, is seriously troubling to me. Part of the problem is, as you said, lack of consideration for all the horrific suffering that medical technologies and research either keep just behind the door or completely shut out. Anti-establishment thinkers in North America, the UK, and the European-dominated Antipodes have lived with the unacknowledged benefits of vaccinations, advanced sanitation, and disability aids for so long that I honestly think we don’t comprehend anymore that our life spans of 80+ years borne out in relative ease are because. Of. Science. Not natural immunity. Influenza anyone??? Yes let’s develop this the “““natural”““ way by letting viral infections wipe out 1/3 of our national populations every 30 years or so, GREAT PLAN.

Medical technology and therapies have given rise to immense advances in healthcare, no doubt.  I don’t think, though, that there is a lack of consideration for suffering.  We simply don’t have answers.  If oil becomes cost-prohibitive, as it will in a peak oil future and Long Descent, then very basic questions come up in regards to developing and maintaining medical infrastructure. How will we transport medicine?  What will the containers the medicine comes in be?  What kinds of medicines will be able to survive in such a future?  There are a myriad of questions, and very few good answers come to mind.  Sure, we can hang to what infrastructure we have for awhile, and maybe it could last a generation or two.  If we’re careful, the infrastructure we have, or better yet, develop, could last even longer, but that would require we start doing that now.

Here’s the truth though: the only reason a vast majority of folks are alive is because of cheap, abundant fossil fuels, and a climate that allows regular food/medicine production, trade, and storage.  It isn’t a pleasant truth, but it is the truth.  Without the infrastructure, from roads to bridges, from trade networks to universities that do the research for a lot of the medical products in the first place, the only thing that keeps a lot of folks alive are the same fossil fuels that are polluting the environment and causing CO2 levels to rise.

Not everyone will get out of this alive.  Actually, a good number of us will die, or our descendants will because of the effects of peak oil and/or climate change.  No human gets out of life alive, but that doesn’t mean we need to treat The Long Descent as a Vale of Tears either, because it needn’t be that way.

By the way, when The Collapse happens, say goodbye to literally everyone in your little clan with a hereditary predisposition and / or environmental exposure to cancers that weren’t classed as surefire killers before.

This is so simplistic as to be ridiculous.  Not everyone with genetic predispositions develops a given disease or disorder.  Peak oil and climate change by themselves aren’t going to increase the cancer rates.

Corporate greed and pollution did its damage to your locale and your body’s cells long before you became politicized over it. You can’t undo that no matter how many animals / plants you “naturally” harvest & prepare yourself.

This is true of chemicals like lead, but this is not true of all cancers or diseases.  This is why most of the literature I have seen on the subject deals in probabilities rather than certainties. There are ways foods can reduce the impact of lead, noted by Michigan Radio here, and the Massachusetts Department of Health and Human Services here.  There are people seeking to reduce the impact of lead in communities hit by the Flint lead poisoning by getting good, fresh foods into the hands of Flint kids.  It isn’t a total fix, but it will at least help mitigate the damage.  This person is right, in that sometimes the impacts are out of our control, but once we understand these factors that are involved, that means that what remains is within our hands to work with.

That’s another blind spot, the idea that literally the day after you start back-to-nature living, you are magically (pun very much intended) cut off & protected from the ongoing damage caused by ill-used & unregulated technologies.

This actually isn’t a blind spot that I see in these circles except in all but the most naive. For example, when I talked about the plans I and my fellows had, the Strawbale Studio folks actively warned against the idea that living as they do would magically fix all the problems.  The idea that back-to-nature and living off the land can occur in our cities and towns is an idea that has taken root in permaculture, urban gardening, and natural building communities.  The tiny house movement has, in part, exploded because of the need for small, developed parts of land within cities.

If people abandon towns & cities en masse for the idyllic countryside, unmaintained lead pipes will poison waters & wreck ecosystems downstream for decades, if not centuries. The Pacific Garbage Patch will still be there, and oceanic fish will still build up particulate plastic in their bodies long after our grandchildren grow old. If we go off science & technology cold turkey, we will only be less equipped to deal with the fallout from the Industrial Age frenzy & late-capitalist lawless exploitation.

Because we are human we will never ‘go off of science and technology cold turkey’.  What is happening and will continue to happen as the Long Descent goes on, is that the technologies that require great amounts of energy to operate that are required for our complex societies to keep chugging along will get harder to come by, and thus, more expensive.  The sciences that requires great inputs of energy and material may keep on getting funding, but we thought that by now we’d be on Mars.  The NASA manned space program is pretty-much dead.  Maybe Space X, Boeing, and others will pick up the slack, but again, the EROEI (Energy Return On Energy Invested) of these missions will come into question as time goes on.

There will be a point at which the cost-benefit analysis will tell us there’s only so much we can afford to put towards getting this resource, like oil, or that material, like copper, and still break even, let alone make surplus of the resource or material, or a profit off the sale of them.  There’s a reason folks are relearning and reskilling for a powered-down economy, and it is not because we don’t like our laptops, phones, and other modern conveniences.  It is because these things require energy and materials that are getting increasingly rare to build and maintain.

The lead pipes are already breaking down.  The ecosystems are being poisoned right now. We can only do so much to stop this, especially with the major infrastructure systems unable or refusing to address these issues head-on.  Lack of regulations are not the only problem.  Collusion and cooperation between private businesses and government agencies is as well.  The MI Department of Environmental Quality stepped aside when Graymont sought 10,000 acres in the Upper Peninsula for development of a limestone mine.  The MI DEQ failed, or intentionally did not stop the poisoning of Flint citizens.  Citizens are left with few means by which to stop such things when our representatives and state workers step aside, or intentionally stop doing their job for us, the people.  It actually makes sense, for those who can afford to, to get the hell away from all of this infrastructure which is falling apart inside folks’ communities and homes.

I think part of the reason this “run away into the woods” reaction is so strong in the previously mentioned demographics is that we’re so used to having that choice. And still having some power to curtail the consequence of that choice. Don’t like your 9-to-5 city life, dominated by glowing screens and pointless work for the benefit of companies you resent? Form an “intentional community” and keep out the technophiles & corporate shills. And coincidentally the lower class neighbors who can’t afford to build an eco-friendly straw-bale home 2 hours’ drive from town on 3-day weekends they don’t have.

This is the other part of a lot of permaculture, transition town, and similar efforts though: staying where you live, stick it out, and make something of your home.  For some, going to the country is their answer.  For some folks, and I include myself here, I won’t make it in a city.  I’ve never lived in one for longer than a few years in my life, I don’t much care to visit them, and I don’t feel right in them.  Some folks thrive in cities, and that’s why they live there.  I don’t think the back-to-land movement, permaculture, transition town, gardening, and other folks have an all-or-nothing mindset as a whole.  Some folks do, like myself, because we’re just not suited to city living.  Some folks are all about city living and couldn’t see themselves living in the country.  Neither of these approaches are bad in and of themselves.

I lived in Flint for a few years, and I really, really didn’t like it.  Flint itself was not a bad place to live.  I just did not get city living and felt really out of place.

The downside to city living is that unless the infrastructure is in place, food access, recycling and reuse, and energy production are big issues.  Add to this aging infrastructure that struggles just to have basic maintenance because of budget cuts, and the pressure gets even harder.  Cities and towns can compound the issues because of how close everything is, but then, transportation between people can be a lot easier because its a matter of walking, biking, or taking a bus, whereas living in the country or even suburbs in America requires a car and all the attendant costs.

There are downsides to country living, but I find myself feeling better out here, and this is where I would prefer to live.  I don’t deal well with the compact spaces, the alleys, all of the noise of a city.  The city spirits are nice enough to me when I visit, but after getting lost in Ann Arbor a few times and making plenty of offerings to Her just to find my damned car, it’s safe to say this isn’t the place for me.

But another part of it is, I think, the sheer density of despair that we’ve grown up with. At least, this is my experience, and my internal struggle regarding the current state of science & tech as commodities under global capitalism: this system has deeply entrenched itself in my country. You only get the benefits of scientific advances in medicine, materials tech, and automated services if you can pay for them. Human life is a utility, and will be cut off without a second thought if you get too behind on your bills. And that’s if you were born into one of the categories of people the ruling party WANTS to survive. The rest are consigned to ghettos and the prison-industrial system.

I understand how you only get the benefits of scientific advances in medicine very well, especially when I didn’t have insurance and had to buy, or ask my folks to buy, for my insulin out of pocket.  Holy fucking shit.  I need this medicine to live and it costs $260-$470 per vial, and that vial might last a month.  Survival being a function of what you can afford is baked into how we survive.  It isn’t a specific evil of capitalism, though how capitalism sharpens that knife on the bones of the poor is especially egregious and vile.

My culture has already imagined dozens of future-Earth settings for entertainment purposes where the capability to live comfortably and to improve one’s basic living is actually a universal right, in deed & not just in words. We have the means to achieve that before I breathe my last breath on this Earth. But I won’t see that world, or be able to give it to my successors, because an oligarchy of national figureheads and business leaders have decided they want to win this ridiculous numbers game that is capitalism, which has tied itself to all human activities in order to effect a stranglehold on humanizing endeavors.

This assumes a top-down structure that would be able to stay intact for future generations, though, and I’m not sure that is going to be the case, or could be even if everyone did get on board with universal healthcare.  What makes socialism work, just as much as capitalism and communism, and any other modern mass societal organizations that I am missing here, is the cheap abundant fuel to make all of the programs, companies, and so on able to work in the first place.  The assumption that we would have the means to provide such a future is in deep doubt where I am standing.  This is also why, while I am a huge fan of Star Trek and Star Wars, I doubt we will have such a future.

There’s a deep despair in my own mind and likely the minds of a lot of comrades who see tech companies colluding with fascist governing bodies to spy on political dissidents & community leaders, or to remotely slaughter brown & black civilians of other nations because they’re on the wrong side of a war over toxic fuel for outmoded machinery. It’s so hard to believe that we can wrest science out of the hands of entrepreneurs and energy barons who have become indirect warlords via the reach that sophisticated data & communications tech gives them. Our media is bent on national distraction & playing all sides against each other, another abuse of communications science that’s become background knowledge taken as given by most Americans I know under the age of 50.

I want to touch on this part in particular: “It’s so hard to believe that we can wrest science out of the hands of entrepreneurs and energy barons who have become indirect warlords via the reach that sophisticated data & communications tech gives them.”

We cannot beat them at their own game.  This is why I, and those in my family, alliances, clan, and tribe, are looking at going off-the-grid as soon as I can as much as I can.  They have less control over me the less control I give them.  This is why we need to reweave local industries with locally produced goods.  If we’re not beholden to giant corporations for the wool for our looms, then the power to produce them lies in our hands.  If we’re not beholden to conglomerates of companies for the foods we need to live, the power lies in our hands.  The more we empower our own the less power we give to them. Its full effects may not be seen within our lifetime, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t worth striving for.  A given community member may not see the full impact of a community garden on their community before they die, but that does not mean these roots are not worth planting.

We’re constantly reinforced in the belief that with technology comes commodification – if you can fly or drive an oil drill or fracking rig there, you can exploit anyplace to ruination for profit. We don’t get widespread coverage on, to give a recent example from the Paris climate talks, other countries in the Americas approaching 50% or more of their energy needs met with sustainable sources. The rest of the world outside of the villains given top billing in the U.N. are actually taking their stewardship responsibilities seriously, are both curtailing and evolving their technological sectors to mitigate harms perpetrated mainly by the Big 8. One can’t help but foster the impression that if we could just… just kinda sorta blast ourselves back into the Stone Age, the absence of the U.S.’s corporate-funded political maneuvering alone would leave so much more room for positive change.

I think that fostering the impression that ‘if we could blast ourselves back to the Stone Age then the US’s corporate-funded maneuvering would leave room for positive change’ is another form of delusion.  Countries like Japan, Brazil, and China, a few among many, snow the reality of things as we do.  China’s markets are coming unraveled, and yet the nationalist spin machine can’t twist the message hard enough that progress and good things are yet to come, even as the industrial economy takes a huge beating.  Brazil’s energy production is, in no small part, made possible because of massive damming operations which destroy indigenous peoples’ ways of life, and threaten the Amazon Rainforest Itself.

The problem with the sentence here, “50% or more of their energy needs met with sustainable sources”, is that it belies what is actually going on.  It isn’t 50% or more of their energy needs being met, it is 50% or more of their electricity needs being met.  The cars still require 7 gallons of oil per tire, the roads still require diesel to power the equipment and make the materials that makes and maintains roads, lighting, signage, and so on.  Actual costs of maintaining many ‘clean energy’ grids are actually quite environmentally destructive, and they’re stopgaps at best. When our usual methods of getting cheap abundant fossil fuels are moot, what then?  We’re largely no longer dependent on what was called conventional reserves, like the big oil fields that were in Pennsylvania and Texas and sustained us through our own production peak in the 1970s.  The Bakken shale oil fields started being tapped at high rates because they were positive in cost-benefit analysis when oil prices were high.  At $25 or so a barrel of crude oil, that evaporates.  There are only a handful of shale oil, tight oil, and other similar plays that even make sense to exploit, and the EROEI is relatively small compared to historical levels.  Hydraulic fracturing, aka fracking, and related fields of technology are not new.  They just were less expensive than other options for a little while.  The only way a lot of companies are making any money in the fracking business is leasing, and it’s a matter of time before this glut dies a horrible death in a bubble/bust not unlike the housing market.

We’re going to go to a time where less cheap, abundant energy and less convenient material goods are the norm. The questions that arise from this understanding, then, are:  When we will get there?  How will we get there?  Will it be voluntary?  What actions can I and my community take now to prepare?

Technology makes dissent & better world-building possible – Twitter and Tor relays are among the best tools of anti-establishment & radical organizers. The Internet is the only reason many of us know what goes on in other countries, what progress others are making with science & conscientiously deployed technologies, while we wax faux-nostalgic about “simpler” lives.

I cannot wax nostalgic about a time I’ve never known.  If anything, folks like me get accused of being romantics, Luddites, and similar things.  As I said before, technology is not a monolith, and I think we need to be more clear about what kinds of technology we are talking about.  Food-oriented technology such as those used in GMOs’ processes are different from other food technology and distinct from mechanical technology like combines, and permaculture techniques that use earth movers are using different technologies.  Natural builders using axes, chisels, snap lines, and rules for roundwood timber framing are using different technologies as well.

With the resignation of four top executives, Twitter may well be going away, and that needs to be watched since so much activism is done on its platform.  What kind of technologies will be called on to replace it, and if it will have the ability to do the work for activism Twitter did, will be a hard question needing answering.  Part of Twitter’s success has been that it is accessible by non-activists, who can spread the word through the media conglomerates attached to it.

Winamp Internet TV streaming is how I found out about peak oil in the first place, and I do a lot of research online. Computer technology is how I do a lot of communication, and I include my phone in that technology camp since my phone operates more like a computer with phone functionality than a straightforward phone.  I would mourn the loss of such technology, but I also understand that living with it less is becoming more and more a survival skill as cell phone companies cut back on maintenance, and State and local money is less inclined towards basic infrastructure.  It’s part of why I am working on retraining my handwriting skills, which, especially compared to my typing skills, are atrocious.

What enables utopian-monolithic understandings of ‘Technology’, especially ‘green future’, medical, computer and communications-based ones, are the myth of progress.  It’s a very nice image, but it is a poor map of a very beleaguered territory.

And as much as the nihilist in me would love to see the total collapse of bloated Western wealth machines & all their tech & infrastructure, I cannot in good conscience wish for, work magic towards, or participate in radical subcultures that turn away from the misery and death such a collapse would unleash primarily on people who were only captive to this system, not its architects.

I think that if a given person’s morality calls for this that is fine, but I hope that they, and the others who contribute to the ongoing conversation, understand that it no longer matters what our wishes are in this regard.  Sooner or later the fuel will cost more than we can put towards pumping it out of the ground.  Saudi Arabia is looking to sell off parts of its nationalized oil company, and it is the country with the largest oil reserves in the world.  Saudi Arabia has been doing more and more offshore drilling.  That is incredibly expensive, environmentally dangerous, and should push people to take note.

Sooner or later the resources for production will cost more than we can put toward extracting it out of the ground.  Copper mines are a great example of this and Chris Martenson explores this idea pretty well in this video.  This is keenly seen in places like the Bingham Canyon Mine in Utah, which is 2.5 miles across and 0.75 deep.  It’s a strip mine, the largest copper mine in the United States, and the deepest in the world, producing 0.2% ore concentration.  This means that, per 500 pounds of ore, you only get a single pound of copper.  This is simply unsustainable.  No, really, go look at the environmental damage in the Wikipedia article that the damn thing does to its surroundings.  Think on what Martenson says in the video above: look at how much energy and how many resources we are pouring into getting such little amounts of copper in return.  How long can we continue to justify these expenses?

It no longer matters if you are working towards dismantling the system.  The system is falling apart.  What is of utmost importance, in my view, is working towards building up communities that will last during and beyond the Long Descent.  Rather than staying tied to such a system, I am trying to mitigate the damage it will do to my tribe, my clan, my family, and my allies.  I cannot hope to save everyone, and I can only do what is within my quite limited capability to do.  Whatever I can do, though, is worth it.

This Greek proverb is part of the vision I hold for the future:

A society grows great when old men plant trees whose shade they know they shall never sit in.

We cannot do everything, but there is no reason for us not to do all that we can.

Learning the Skills and Getting to Work

January 26, 2016 2 comments

I just got back from a weekend at Strawbale Studio, taking the Rocket Stove and Earth Oven workshop this last week, and the Roundpole Timber Framing workshop with Sylverleaf, gifted to us by her mother.

There are some things where you just need to do them to know you can do them, and this would be one of those.  Like a lot of things we’ve fallen away from doing, building our own structures can garner a quality to it that makes it seem only able to be done within the realm of professionals.  We forget that our Ancestors used to build their own homes from the ground on up.  We disconnect from the understanding of knowing the land, and our place in helping to keep the trees, the forests, all of that healthy, by being collaborators with Them.

This is not to say I’m an overnight expert; hardly.  What it does mean is that with very simple tools and techniques, what I have learned can empower me and mine to build a house.  Given enough people, a community could raise several homes if we put our minds to it.  A small build team supported by a community could do the same if there was need or desire for it.

That is part of the power of places like Strawbale Studio.  You not only can learn the skills and get guidance on where to go from there, you understand in a real, in-person way that you can do these things.  It goes from a conception or an idea of the thing, into hands-on experience with the skills and techniques with the tools and materials.  It goes from feeling so far away, to very here.

I found myself at several times thinking, or saying aloud, “Oh wow.  If we had land/space to build on, this could easily be a reality.”  Every time I went to one of the classes, or watched the Roundwood Timber Framing DVD by Ben Law, I could feel the push that the Gods, Ancestors, and vaettir were giving us were actually able to be achieved.  That the dream our family and friends have can quite readily become reality.

We were taught what kind of growth we needed to look for in our wood, and when seasoned vs. green wood was useful.  With teams I helped to make roundwood joints that, with a bit of refinement, could hold up a roof or become a support beam.  I learned how to use a sawhorse and draw knife to debark wood, and also to make square pegs into round pegs.  After drilling out a hole and inserting the peg into or behind a joint, then splitting the peg and inserting a small wooden wedge into the peg, it would hold them together tight.  All of these were simple building techniques that utilize the wood harvested around the place we were learning.  I went to the chainsawing demo, because even though I do not currently own one, learning the basics of tree felling is a skill I may need.  Granted, if I need a chainsaw I’ll be taking a safety course on that as Mark Angelini recommended.

There was a deep communication with the wood I was working with, and it’s not dissimilar from working with the body of an animal.  After all, the tree’s bark is the ‘skin’, and the wood is the ‘flesh’ and ‘bones’ of the tree.  It once lived.  Learning to work with a tree by shaping its with a chisel is a very different experience of that tree and working with its body, and its spirit.  It’s similar to when I skinned a mole; it is one thing to work with an object in which leather is part of it, like a book cover or a drum, but a whole other thing entire to work with the skin before it becomes anything.  Same with the wood before it becomes a mallet, a peg, or an a-frame.

I had a similar experience this last week in working with the rocket stoves and forming the earth oven.  As with the previous workshop, I would catch myself thinking and saying “If we had land/space to build on, this could easily be a reality.”  Sylverleaf and I have a few books on our shelves, one of which is the Cob Builder’s Handbook by Becky Bee, and we picked up The Hand Sculpted House by Ianto Evans, Michael G. Smith, Linday Smiley, and Deanne Bednar. As part of the workshop we received a copy of Rocket Mass Heaters by Ianto Evans and Leslie Jackson.  It’s one thing to read these books, and a whole other thing to experience their contents.

The books can only describe so well how good cob feels in your hands for making the earth oven, how the slip layer for insulation should feel and look.  While I find it fairly easy to learn by sight, most of these things can only be learned by doing.  For instance, I was having a really hard time visualizing how the dividing bricks between where the feedbox for the firewood is and the chimney were supposed to be put down.  Seeing it done and helping to do it put it together made things click in a way I just couldn’t wrap my head around looking at the diagrams.

During the workshop on the second day I was the only person who took their shoes off to feel what the cob should feel like as you work it through the stages of adding water to the mix, which will be helpful when we do it outside in the spring or summer.  After doing that, I can hardly blame the other folks.  The cob was so cold my feet were aching till I put them near the rocket stove and scraped the mix off of my feet.  It was a lesson in why cob is used for mass thermal storage, though.

I really, really wish we could have finished off the earth oven.  From what I understand the drying process can take most or all of a day, depending on how big it is.  All we would have had to do was apply the insulation and the plaster layer, and we could have started making bread or pizza.  Albeit, since we made the earth oven at half scale, it would probably be more suited to breadsticks.  When we go to make our own we’ll be putting down foundation for the first time, since the model we worked on we really couldn’t put down a foundation as our diagrams depicted and all work on forming it.

One of my big takeaways from the weekend was that we really can put our hands to making a new world with the things around us, and do so in a respectful manner with the Gods, Ancestors, and landvaettir.  As with the coppicing, working with the materials around one’s home or locally sourced materials harvested with care worked very, very well for the work we were doing.  Having actually seen Strawbale Studio’s full-size earth oven work, and what’s more, tasted the amazing pizza that came out of it, I appreciate the art of making it all the more.

As with the roundwood timber framing, what I deeply appreciate and enjoy about natural building materials is that working with them is not some locked-off secret no one can access.  It’s the accessibility of the material and the building process that is really the key to it all.  The natural building techniques and skills I have learned require relatively few tools, almost all of them simple ones.  Most of the tools I was able to pick up for less than $100 all together.  Some day I will commission or make my own.  Especially when I sit and watch an episode of HGTV or DIY with the folks and see how much it takes to even remodel a kitchen using contemporary building measures.  What galls me about watching these shows is how often the turnaround time comes for needing to gut them and remodel them.  There are wattle-and-daub structures that still stand 600 years after their construction with relatively little input.  With cob thatched roof homes, the thatching needs replacing every 20-30 years, but do not required reconstruction of whole sections of the home.  The multigenerational aspect of working with the land, multigenerational homes and home ownership has been lost in going for materials that have built-in breakdown times, planned obsolescence, and we’re worse for it.

OthilaOthila or Othala presents the idea of odal land, ancestral land, and it is this concept that, in part, inspires me to learn and to pull together all these skills and to work with those in my family, clan, tribe, and with those in alliance with us.  It is why I am looking at working with those already in the community and doing these things, and it is why I encourage folks to take the steps for making firm ties now.  Putting our hands to crafting our own homes and things, or supporting those who do, strengthens our ties as community, and our resilience together.  If you get the chance to do something like this, formally or informally, I would take the opportunity with zeal.  If you’re not in the Michigan area, check around!  More and more folks are engaging with natural home building, reskilling, and networking with those willing to learn.

If you are not sure where to start, I am putting together a post which will give a general start for folks to work with, including basic internet resources, books I have read or worked from, and video links to get started.  There is a lot out there, so if you find or have done work from a source, let me know either in the comments section or by email, and I can add your recommendations to the list.

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