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I Am an Animal!

Thursday, February 2nd, 2012: Musings, Society.

In David Lynch’s film The Elephant Man, when cornered by an angry mob, the title character cries out “I am not an animal! I am a human being!” Socially, it’s a powerful and poignant moment, but in the larger context of ecology, it’s an unfortunate choice of words. Human beings, of course, are animals in every sense, and our urge to differentiate ourselves from other animals is one thing that leads us astray.

But in another sense it’s a powerful comment on identity and labeling, and how people who are insecure in their own identities use labeling to assert control over a social situation, empowering themselves and bullying or manipulating others.

In the mid-90s, I was fortunate to witness a moving performance by the brilliant transsexual media theorist Sandy Stone, in which she dramatized her life journey from male to female. The experience had all the more impact on me because I had never heard of Stone and didn’t know she had been a man until it was revealed in her performance. I followed up by reading her book, The War of Desire and Technology at the Close of the Mechanical Age, which discussed the ways in which people were beginning to use online avatars to craft new personal identities. In her view, new media and communications technologies were empowering people who had previously been victims of labeling.

I was surprised by her treatment of personal identity as a discrete phenomenon, because for me, identity had always been boundless, timeless, and in continual flux. One self with manifold manifestations. Labels were often convenient in specific contexts and discourse, but I never took them seriously unless others were using them to manipulate. In childhood, I was bullied and called “peewee” and “Tiny Tim” because I was small. Growing up, I ignored the warnings of my elders about “Jack of all trades, master of none.” To continually varying degrees, I was a passionate “artist” while I was making art, a gardener while gardening, a carpenter while building, and so forth.

My favorite example is the label “engineer.” At the end of my second year in college, I had just finished an intensive studio art program and had been accepted at a handful of art schools, but the economy was in a deep recession, and coming from a family with very limited financial resources, I was under crushing pressure to find a reliable career. My math and science skills enabled me to finish an engineering degree, although my heart wasn’t in it and I rebelled after graduation, rejecting job offers and becoming a vagabond and manual laborer, camping for a while in the hothouse environment of CalArts, broadening my horizons as an artist and playing in a band.

Desperate for financial security, I did eventually take a day job at an engineering firm, but only worked as an engineer for two years before moving into a part-time administrative position that allowed me to put most of my time and energy into the arts. Even so, I kept quitting, going broke, and begging to be rehired. That, and my education, are now decades in the past, and I could never resurrect that tentative beginning of an engineering career without going back to school. My expertise consisted of book learning that was quickly and carelessly forgotten.

Yet my father, who spent most of his working life as an engineer, would never let me forget it, nor will some of my old friends in the arts, to my dismay. My father, like all fathers I suppose, clung selectively to his favorite parts of my past. According to him I had made a terrible mistake by not marrying Victoria, and an even worse mistake by throwing away my potential on the arts instead of engineering.

Ironically, my artist friends have tried to diminish me from the opposite direction. Perhaps envious of my manifold skills – which truthfully have been a mixed blessing – they tell me smugly, again and again, “But you’re an engineer!” or “But you could go back to your engineering job!” Implying that they’re the real artists and I’m just a poser.

Of course, those are people for whom commercial success in the arts has been as elusive as it has for me, and they depend on day jobs they would equally resist as labels. But in the stratosphere of the arts, Damien Hirst spent as many years as a construction worker as I did as an engineer, and Moby has probably spent more time waiting tables, but no one would now call him a waiter.

Labels should never be used as a cage or a putdown, and identity is always relative to context. I am not an engineer! I am an animal!

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Space Tourists vs. Future Farmers

Saturday, February 18th, 2012: Musings, Society.

Taking the sporadic glance at my junk mail folder, I discovered that I’m on the self-promotion mailing list of the ex-girlfriend of an old pal. The ex-GF is a former self-styled internet “product evangelist” who has now elevated herself to the role of “futurist” and philosopher. She proudly proclaims herself a member of an international network of young futurists, many of them university-educated in “future studies.” The email linked to a recently completed video commercial based on her work.

In the slick commercial, four fashionably dressed young urban professionals are finishing a meal in a generic-looking upscale restaurant. One woman enthusiastically describes her recent trip to space. The waiter arrives with a handheld electronic bill/scanner device, and our yuppies proceed to divide up the price items in futuristically convenient ways, paying with various forms of scannable credit, including credits toward space flight. The implication is that technology is giving young urban professionals more personal freedom, including of course the freedom to travel in space.

But not all of us are yuppies. Human life doesn’t reach its full potential in the sanitized context of spacecraft or upscale urban bistros, and electronic credit is ultimately only a symbol which disguises our dependence on physical resources that are extracted from earthly ecosystems by rural communities. The freedom of the ex-GF’s “integrated mobile payments, credit cards, private coins and corporate space currency” is also the freedom from having to grow your own food, build your own shelter, make your own clothes, chop your own firewood. And this personal freedom, sometimes more patriotically termed “liberty,” is also a dependence on the labors of the rural providers, and an exploitation of them by means of a market economy that remotely, and unaccountably, manipulates their labors and their natural resources.

For a more balanced and realistic take on space travel, check out the poignant but even-handed 2009 documentary film Space Tourists, which shows an American billionaire enjoying her trip to the International Space Station on a Russian rocket, while peasants, out herding their flocks on the steppe below, collect discarded rocket parts to use as temporary shelter from the earthly elements.

I had my own fling with futurism as a teenage science fiction fan. What it all boils down to is adolescent insecurity – a craving for power and speed; adolescent rebellion – a need to distinguish yourself from your elders; and a fear of death resulting from urban society’s avoidance and denial of the role of death in the community and ecosystem. The primary themes of futurism are space travel, immortality, and a continual increase in personal power and convenience through technological progress. Any social or ecological consequences of these personal advantages can presumably be solved through engineering, in the same way that Nazism gave us the master race and nuclear power gave us unlimited cheap energy.

In the language of the Occupy movement, futurism is for the 1%. But statistics can be made to tell any story. The 99% is supposed to stand for the rest of us who are not rich, but one thing most of us have in common with the rich is that we’re primarily consumers of resources originally produced by rural farmers and miners under perennially exploitative conditions. And I’m not talking about Apple’s factory workers in China, who are also primarily consumers striving to increase their “quality of life,” meaning increased consumption of manufactured goods. You can reverse the Occupy statistics to observe that in today’s unsustainable human ecology, rural providers are the 1% exploited by the rest of us.

For the ex-GF, the future means perpetually young, fashionable, affluent urban consumers taking vacations in space. For this recovered futurist, the future is today, where, in my rural community far from the exaggerated consumer dreams and temptations of the city, young farmers and parents grow food for their neighbors and help raise each other’s children to become healthy providers for the next generation.

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Learning From Cruelty

Monday, July 2nd, 2012: Musings, Society.

My weekend movie was the 2009 film Last Ride, in which Hugo Weaving plays an ex-con who makes his 10-year-old son an accomplice in an increasingly desperate flight from the law across the spectacular natural landscape of South Australia. The brutality of Weaving’s character finds one (of many) outlets at a remote water hole where he tries to teach the frightened boy to swim by throwing him in the water and holding him down: “C’mon you wuss!”

That scene instantly evoked a memory of my Grandpa Carmichael, my surrogate father, who told me he learned to swim because his father (great-grandfather Howard, who I also grew up with) threw him in the river and told him he had to sink or swim. Apparently, Grandpa had solved this childhood crisis on the spot via the sidestroke, which became his only swimming style.

By contrast, I had friendly one-on-one swimming lessons with the star of the high-school swim team, so until seeing the movie it hadn’t really occurred to me how terrifying that first experience could be. I tried to picture my great-grandfather – who was generally good with children – throwing my Grandpa in the river – a tree-shaded, muddy waterhole with low, muddy banks just like in the film – wondering what the father was feeling, what the son was feeling, how those feelings might be churning like the muddy water – or simply programmed by tradition. What sort of reconciliation would emerge later in safety, whether gratitude, respect, or lingering resentment.

People who haven’t experienced much cruelty may hold simplistic notions of what is cruel, and how “cruelty” functions in society and ecology. Richard Nelson, in his beautiful deer-hunting memoir The Island Within, reports watching a sea otter slowly devour a living salmon tail-first while the salmon watched itself being eaten. And most of us have seen TV clips of hyenas bringing down and feasting on a living wildebeest. How do humans benefit by condemning some behavior as “cruel,” and how much of this depends on the context?

The “cruelty of childhood” is an old cliche, and I certainly experienced childhood as the cruelest phase of life. I was one of the smallest boys in town and was bullied all the way up to my senior year of high school, first because I was small and later because I got good grades. The jocks and the tough boys were always verbally abusing me, threatening to beat me up, chasing me, punching and kicking when they could catch me. The neighborhood bully once found me out in the country in the woods by the riverside and shot me in the leg with his BB rifle. That’s when I found out I could run faster than other kids – I ran all the way home, leaving him in my dust.

My Dad tried to compensate for his absence by packing intense parenting into short visits. One of his favorite father-son activities was the old Scottish tradition of roughhousing, fighting for the sheer love of it, which in the old days often led to casual maiming and blinding. Dad was in his view trying to teach me to be a man, but he was huge and obese, so the contest was patently unfair and traumatic for me.

One of my ex-girlfriends grew up in a family where a lot of physical violence occurred and was mostly tolerated. They were all big, strong people with violent tempers. She told me of her younger brother throwing a cat off a bridge into a river, waiting for it to swim to shore and throwing it back in again, over and over. In some sectors of our society – sports and the military – bullying and brutality are considered essential to learning toughness and endurance. If you grow up isolated from cruelty, you may end up unprepared and powerless when you do meet it.

So where and when is it appropriate to learn about intimidation and physical force?

Or maybe the right question is how. In Last Ride, the father’s brutality really came out in how he treated his son – the same vicious way he treated the victims of his crimes. I don’t see my great-grandfather treating my Grandpa like that – I envision a firm but encouraging act. And in The Island Within, Nelson evokes the traditional hunter’s creed of respect for the prey – which raises the question of how and why we are different from the sea otter. I don’t buy the conventional answers to how humans are different from other animals; I’ve heard about the Asians who relish eating animals alive, and I can’t condemn them, not having the full picture.

After his first (failed) swimming lesson, the boy in the movie appears traumatized. And in the end, for other reasons, Last Ride won’t end up on my list of favorite films. But the glorious final scene shows how, in a cruel world, a hard lesson may be transformed into a moment of liberation.

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How the Middle Class Destroys the World

Tuesday, January 31st, 2017: Musings, Society.

The Accountability Problem

You depend on many resources, products, and services to survive and stay healthy and happy: clean air and water, nutritious food, clothing, shelter, heating, cooling, communication, transportation, healthcare, and security. Do you know where all these things ultimately come from?

If not, how do you know whether someone or someplace is being harmed to provide for your basic needs?

The urbanized middle class – the bourgeoisie of Marxist theory – is considered the foundation of stable, peaceful society in the modern nation-state, and it’s what the lower classes aspire to. I was raised to join the middle class, and all my peers are raising their kids to be middle class – who wouldn’t?

But whereas the foundation of traditional societies is the local workers who provide basic needs, the modern middle class consists of consumers who depend on a global network of products and services that is so complex it is virtually untraceable and unknowable – and hence unaccountable.

In fact, you don’t know whether someone or someplace is being harmed to make your lifestyle possible.

How the Middle Class Destroys Society

Intimidation, Punishment, and Slavery

The security of the middle class depends on a nuclear arsenal capable of rendering the planet uninhabitable, a global military empire intimidating and sometimes practicing covert warfare against foreign civilians, a largely covert arms industry dominated by U.S.-based multinational corporations, and a domestic security apparatus resulting in mass incarceration of citizens, who are largely hidden away from public access in high-security prisons.

Military bases, defending the economic empire of American consumers, are imposed on the populations of much less powerful, economically disadvantaged societies, resulting in intimidation, economic dependency, and resentment.

Defending the middle class: Pakistani children killed by U.S. drone strike:

The U.S.-dominated global arms industry profits from violent conflict and human suffering:

U.S.-made weapons commandeered by ISIS:

Throughout history, traditional communities practiced restorative justice, which helps the victim and heals society. But middle class consumers depend on the punitive justice system of the modern nation-state, which harms society without helping the victims. The punitive justice system and its prison network reinforce ethnic and racial inequality, perpetuate domestic slavery, and foster social dysfunction.

Growth of the U.S. prison system during the past 40 years:

Work crew at Angola Prison, Louisiana:

Economic Imperialism

The middle class consumer lifestyle is sustained by mass-produced products and services made affordable by large corporations and long-distance distribution networks exploiting economic inequality. Products are manufactured, and services are directly provided, by blue-collar laborers whose labor is generally valued far less than that of middle-class consumers, and who live in poor neighborhoods with a lower quality of life. Middle class waste products are transported to, and imposed on, poor neighborhoods for processing and disposal.

Since major products like food, fuel, clothing, phones, computers, appliances, cars, and building materials are typically manufactured in poorer foreign countries from components and raw materials which in turn come from other, even poorer foreign countries, workers sometimes live and work in virtual – or even actual – slavery. And the supply chain for consumer products is virtually untraceable.

MarketExample of U.S.-Based MultinationalAnnual SalesCEOAnnual Compensation
FoodMonsanto15 BillionHugh Grant11 Million
ClothingNike32 BillionMark Parker48 Million
FuelExxon Mobil269 BillionRex Tillerson (outgoing to become Secretary of State)33 Million
ShelterPulte Group6 BillionRichard Dugas8 Million
TransportationGeneral Motors156 BillionMary Barra29 Million
CommunicationsApple53 BillionTim Cook10 Million

Raw materials for consumer products needed by the middle class come from distant rural communities all over the planet, where workers and their families endure dangerous conditions, toxic environments, war, or slavery:

Mining for the electronics industry in the Congo:

The urban middle class depends on services – housekeeping, childcare, food service, transportation, repair and maintenance, waste disposal, etc. – provided by lower-class workers living in poor, often gang-dominated, neighborhoods.

Gang members in East Los Angeles:

Social Division, Fragmentation, and Isolation

A college education, one of the defining requirements of the middle class lifestyle, is intended to lead to a professional career, freeing the consumer from manual labor.

Thus the primary function of “higher education” is to train young people to become office workers – people who work indoors at a computer, an inherently unhealthy artificial environment – and to condition them for a consumer lifestyle which is dependent on a disadvantaged lower class of manual laborers and service providers and the destructive global network of manufacturing and distribution. Higher education is an integral part of the vicious cycles in which dominant societies deteriorate from generation to generation.

Middle class youth are generally expected to leave home for higher education, then to migrate again, possibly multiple times, in pursuit of a professional career. The move to higher education deprives them of their roots and deprives their family and home community of their social services; henceforth they are “floaters,” generally uncommitted to any local, face-to-face community. They rarely get to know their neighbors, and become temporary members of cliques of similarly isolated peers, without the intergenerational commitment and accountability that ties real communities together.

Technologically-assisted communications – email, texting, voice phone, and social media – likewise encourage the dispersion of individuals from their families and communities of origin, by allowing an impoverished form of remote interaction that takes the place of face-to-face interaction. Without the support of extended family and a tight-knit community, urban consumers fall prey to stress disorders and mental health problems such as depression, self-medicating and enriching the multinational pharmaceutical corporations. Thus are communities fragmented and disempowered, and individuals isolated and rendered vulnerable, by education, mobility, and communications media.

How the Middle Class Destroys Natural Habitats and Ecosystems

Habitat Destruction

The media have taught urban consumers that climate change is the biggest threat to our environment. But habitat destruction, which often results in species extinction, is the primary form of ecological damage resulting from the middle class consumer lifestyle. Climate change is only one long-term form of habitat destruction – other forms are much more catastrophic in the near term.

Urban Sprawl

Urban sprawl, providing housing for the middle class and the blue-collar workers they depend on, is one of the most extreme forms of habitat destruction, in which productive ecosystems are completely destroyed and replaced by machines and impermeable surfaces which concentrate wastes and toxic materials, increasing erosion and spreading the damage to the surrounding areas.

Since cities are dependent on a network of infrastructure delivering resources from the surrounding countryside and other distant trading centers, their damage extends outward globally to infrastructure and industry located out of sight and out of mind.

Industrial Wastelands

Industrial sites such as dams, mines, commodity farms, and factories, created to provide resources for consumers, also completely destroy productive natural ecosystems, replacing them with concentrations of toxic materials.

Tesla “gigafactory” destroyed a large area of wildlife habitat in the Nevada desert:

Infrastructure Barriers

The infrastructure required to deliver resources to urban areas and facilitate communication and mobility between them results in transportation and communications corridors which become toxic wastelands and barriers to wildlife.

Toxic Innovation, Toxic Materials

The continual improvement of middle class comfort and convenience through technological innovation results in a short product life cycle and rapid obsolescence. When obsolete products are discarded, few are recycled, and many, such as batteries and electronics, add toxic materials to the environment. Innovation is incredibly wasteful.

…high-tech products are usually composed of low-quality materials–that is, cheap plastics and dyes–globally sourced from the lowest-cost provider, which may be halfway around the world. This means that even substances banned for use in the United States and Europe can reach this country via products and parts made elsewhere….They can be assembled into, say, your treadmill, which will then emit the “banned” substance as you exercise. (William McDonough & Michael Braungart, Cradle to Cradle)

One of the most revolutionary scientific inventions of the past century was disposable containers which were intended to be dumped in landfills after a single use. As time went by, these containers came to be made almost exclusively of plastics, which take centuries or even millenia to degrade. Since the 1950s, the use of plastics has accelerated, especially by the middle class, in the form of food packaging, shopping bags, clothing, storage containers, disposable water bottles, phones, toys, furniture, appliances, cars, etc.

As these items age and erode, often imperceptibly, into the environment, they break down into microscopic particles or “microplastics” which spread throughout aquatic and ocean environments and are ingested by wildlife, interfering with animal and plant life cycles in unpredictable ways. The microplastics catastrophe is just beginning and may eclipse other problems we are now more concerned about.

Microplastics disperse in the aquatic environment:

Microplastics damage aquatic life:

Toxic Mobility

Technological advances in human mobility – travel and distribution by land, water, sea, and air – ensure the rapid spread of disease and invasive species, accelerating ecosystem damage and habitat destruction worldwide. Most destructive species are spread accidentally, but many are introduced intentionally: rabbits in Australia as a source of meat, pythons in Florida and bullfrogs in the American West by irresponsible pet owners.

This map of global ship traffic shows how invasive species have been spread from continent to continent historically, as nations and empires have used technology to enrich themselves and subject native ecosystems to collateral damage:

Container ships delivering products and raw materials to American consumers also bring destructive invasive species:

Scientists estimate that technologically-enhanced human mobility has historically delivered 4,300 destructive invasive species to the U.S., ranging from Burmese pythons driving native species extinct in Florida to nutria destroying native habitat in Louisiana, from feral hogs devastating ecosystems in the South to European starlings starving native birds nationwide. The economic cost of damage by invasive species in the United States is estimated at $120 billion per year and will continue to grow as a result of technological innovation increasing human mobility.

I lived in the San Francisco Bay Area for 30 years, and during that period, like most residents, I came to accept a landscape dominated by invasive plant species as “nature.” Invasive eucalyptus trees covering the hills, invasive ice plant along the coast, invasive yellow star thistle blanketing the inland meadows. It was only after I moved to southwest New Mexico, far from the coast and its ports, that I began to experience relatively intact, and far more diverse, native ecosystems.

Cheatgrass, an Old World species introduced to North America in the 19th century, has spread across most of the U.S., displacing native plants, encouraging destructive wildfires, reducing the nutrient quality of rangelands, and impoverishing native ecosystems.

Contemporary distribution of destructive Asian cheatgrass:

Rangeland devastated by fire after cheatgrass invasion:

Asian zebra mussels have been spread across North America by boaters since the 1980s:

Crayfish encrusted with zebra mussels:

Energy Consumption

Technological innovation and consumers’ insatiable demand for gadgets ensures ever-accelerating consumption of energy, resulting in increasing destruction of natural habitat for mining, manufacturing, and the siting of energy production. Fossil fuels and nuclear energy require oil fields, mines, raw materials and manufacturing for plant components, industrial sites for energy plants, and disposal sites for toxic waste. Solar and wind energy require mines, raw materials and manufacturing for plant components, industrial sites for energy plants, and disposal sites for toxic waste.

This solar power plant in the Mojave Desert destroyed many square miles of wildlife habitat and continues to kill thousands of birds and pollinators:

False Hopes of the Middle Class

Politics

The centralized nation-state is made possible by a hierarchy of wealth and power. It functions primarily to enrich and empower elites, and is inherently destructive. And when the fundamental institutions of society – the ecological and social values and practices – are destructive, as described above – then political reform is like rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic. Middle-class society depends on the global economic and military empire maintained by the elites, and to give these up would be class suicide for either group. To paraphrase Karl Marx, politics is opium for the masses.

Green Energy and Electric Cars

So-called “green” energy is an industry like any other. Its function is not to save the planet, its function is to enable middle class consumers to continue consuming more and more energy with their devices – devices which rapidly become obsolescent and are discarded and replaced, devices whose operations add waste heat to the environment, devices which concentrate toxic materials in the environment, devices which harm society in many ways, some of which have been described above.

Electric cars are machines assembled from thousands of components whose global supply chain is untraceable, via a manufacturing process and distribution network which are energy-intensive and wasteful just like that used to produce conventional fossil-fueled cars. The function of electric cars is not to save the planet, it’s to perpetuate the already destructive mobility of middle class consumers while making billionaires even richer.

Recycling

As technological innovation accelerates, more waste is produced. The vast majority of our waste is not recycled, and when it is, recycling degrades the quality of the materials. It also requires more energy and labor on top of that required to manufacture the original products. So recycling increases our already destructive consumption of energy.

As we have noted, most recycling is actually downcycling; it reduces the quality of a material over time…the high-quality steel used in automobiles…is “recycled” by melting it down with other car parts, including copper from cables in the car, and the paint and plastic coatings…Downcycling can actually increase contamination of the biosphere. (William McDonough & Michael Braungart, Cradle to Cradle)

Space Colonization

Some tech billionaires, and many engineers and science fiction fans, believe that we should, and will, save the planet we’re destroying by abandoning it to colonize other worlds. This fantasy results from their ignorance of ecology and human social behavior. Who gets to emigrate? Middle class American consumers? Agribusiness billionaires? Mexican farm workers? ISIS militants? It’s our dysfunctional behavior that’s destroying the earth – transplanting that behavior to another world solves nothing.

Even if some colonization happens, it won’t be sustainable. A healthy environment for humans isn’t engineered from scratch, by “terraforming” another planet. It evolves with the participation of uncountable wild organisms in a terrestrial ecosystem, and humans adapt to it just like their nonhuman partners. This is the only planet we have, and it will survive with or without us.

There is some talk in science and popular culture about colonizing other planets, such as Mars or the moon….But the idea also provides rationalization for destruction, an expression of our hope that we’ll find a way to save ourselves if we trash our planet. To this speculation, we would respond: If you want the Mars experience, go to Chile and live in a typical copper mine. There are no animals, the landscape is hostile to humans, and it would be a tremendous challenge. Or, for a moonlike effect, go to the nickel mines of Ontario. (William McDonough & Michael Braungart, Cradle to Cradle)

To me, the human move to take responsibility for the living Earth is laughable – the rhetoric of the powerless. The planet takes care of us, not we of it. Our self-inflated moral imperative to guide a wayward Earth or heal our sick planet is evidence of our immense capacity for self-delusion. Rather, we need to protect us from ourselves. (Lyn Margulis, Symbiotic Planet)

 

How Local Providers Renew the World

 

Producers Not Consumers

Dominant, large-scale, centralized societies are destructive by nature. They have their own life cycle and exist primarily for the short-term benefit of the rich and powerful. They are not successfully managed or reformed for the benefit of local communities and ecosystems. The best we can do is minimize our dependence on them, transitioning from globally-dependent consumers to locally-accountable providers.

The best we can do for the earth and its people is to become successful producers and providers of basic needs for our local communities, conserving and re-using as much as possible of what we do consume, learning to do all this sustainably, and sharing what we learn so that future generations will succeed as well as us.

Local Heroes

Wherever we live, we can usually find people and organizations that are focusing their efforts on providing locally for local needs: farms, food co-ops, childcare centers, healthcare clinics, restorative justice services, churches, etc. These are the groups and people we should support and emulate, to rebuild our communities and thus take the load off the rest of the world.

Small-town farmer in New Mexico shows school kids how corn is re-seeded:

Urban youth learn to serve their community with restorative justice in Kansas City:

Traditional aboriginal skills are needed by the community to adapt to environmental crises, from crop failure to fire, flood, and war.

Students learn to process meat from an animal they killed on an indigenous skills course in Utah:

Peaceful Societies

While our dominant society destroys itself, there remain many little-known peaceful societies that offer the best hope for a sustainable future of humanity. These societies exist in the margins where they have been more or less successful at resisting the dominant society’s destructive impacts, perpetuating time-tested traditional practices and adapting to crises while our society continues to innovate and engineer itself to death. They are our best teachers.

Amish farmers in North America resist the destructive effects of technological innovation:

Unlike American middle-class consumers, the Piaroa of South America manage their natural resources communally and sustainably:

Instead of leaving their families to learn to be office workers and consumers, Ju/’hoansi children of southern Africa join their parents on foraging expeditions, learning to be providers for their community:

Like whales and other ecosystem partners, the Ifaluk of the South Pacific fish communally:

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A Life in Business Cards

Friday, August 9th, 2019: Arts, Dance, Music, Musings, Society.

We all collect business cards. A few of them are creative. Most of them are boring.

Here’s a random sample of cards from the 1970s through the 2000s – including a few of my own – that suggest some of the eclectic worlds my life path has intersected with, and the differing ways in which people from those worlds introduce themselves to strangers.

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Treasure the Relationships That Don’t Last

Wednesday, September 11th, 2019: Musings, Society.

(Note: None of the couples shown in these photos are still together…but their relationships made all of our lives richer)

The Problem of Marriage

Can you be single and happy? Our society doesn’t seem to think so.

A recent article in The Atlantic Monthly is subtitled: “A course at Northwestern University teaches students about what makes a healthy relationship.”

The first sentence of the article begins: “Research shows that practically every dimension of life happiness is influenced by the quality of one’s marriage….”

The article never questions the institution of marriage in our society – the author takes it for granted that young adults are going to get married. The primary focus of the Northwestern course is to enable students to marry successfully. What they teach is, in a nutshell: figure out who you are first, then find someone who shares your worldview.

It’s good to see someone in national media talking about worldviews, after I worked for years to clarify what they are, and to convince people of their importance. But how accurate are the worldviews of 18-year-olds? Wouldn’t it be better to partner with someone whose worldview is radically different, someone you could learn from?

And what about happiness? What do we mean by that? If we mean contentment and self-satisfaction, isn’t it more important to learn, to grow, to change, to see the world clearly for what it is – which can result in discomfort, even pain?

Statistics show that roughly half of adult Americans are unmarried, and 40-50% of marriages end in divorce. These statistics are mirrored among my own friends and family. Should we conclude that up to 75% of Americans are unhappy, mainly because they failed to achieve a lasting marriage? As someone who is single late in life, has never been married, and has no ambition to be married, should I consider myself a miserable failure, or just totally irrelevant?

Actually, I suspect that many of my married friends might consider me a failure for those very reasons. As a young adult, I spent years single and celibate, and felt little peer pressure to find a partner, but when I reached my 40s and found myself between relationships, I came under more and more criticism of my choices and behavior. Friends pressured me to “put myself out there,” to find a compatible partner and avoid the tragic fate of being “old and alone.”

In our society, young adults are expected to find a partner, make a long-term commitment, live together, get married, and form a nuclear family. Everything from our legal and economic systems to our architecture are based on that. Our housing industry creates privacy for isolated units of consumers, with locked apartments for single people and childless couples, and the holy grail, the fortress of the single-family home, designed for the nuclear family.

The social norm of marriage is part of our culture’s overall plan for our lives: establish a career, get married, make a home, and have children. A failure in any of those is a failure in life, condemning us to unhappiness. Conversely, those who succeed in all four are encouraged to look down on the rest of us. And they often do, like smug children who are rewarded for following the rules.

Marriage is considered so essential to happiness and fulfillment in our society that biracial couples, gays, and lesbians have fought for decades for the legal right to marry. To those who’ve been denied this right, marriage is a precious accomplishment.

Each time I came to the end of a relationship, friends called it a failure and blamed it on some personal inadequacy I needed to overcome via soul-searching, therapy, or some other form of “personal growth.” The assumption, shared by the instructors of the Northwestern course, was that these short-term relationships were just the trial runs, preliminary to the real thing. If I could overcome my own problems, I would ultimately find and keep a life partner, and that partnership would become the foundation for my happiness.

The Atlantic article is yet another example of how national media encourage conformity to social norms that few of us question. And it highlights our society’s bias against aging without a partner. As we age, the pressure gets worse, and self-satisfied conformists smugly condemn us single elders as miserable failures.

Is this fair?

Seeing Only Failure

I began life in a nuclear family, but my parents separated and divorced while I was still a child. Then my mom moved my brother and me in with her parents, and the rest of my childhood and youth were spent in a traditional, multi-generational extended family.

But my grandparents and most of the families in our neighborhood had stable marriages, and the overwhelming message from media and the society around me was that you met your personal needs by finding a partner and pairing off. Marriage would be the ultimate result of that, and it would in turn satisfy your duty to society when you and your spouse produced offspring. Unmarried adults were oddballs, objects of suspicion.

My personal needs were abundant. I was turned on by girls from my earliest memories, but I was undersize and sickly as a child, so I was harassed and bullied by other kids. I needed companionship and comfort as much or more than most.

I became an adolescent as our country entered the Vietnam War, and my generation was inspired by what has come to be known as “the Counterculture.” Many friends in my peer group agreed that marriage was an obsolete institution of a failed society. Only conformists got married. Freed from society’s shackles, we nonconformists would love honestly, equally, and respectfully, and if we fell out of love, we’d simply part ways, hopefully as friends. Liberated by “The Pill,” we also resisted having kids, partly because we didn’t feel mature or stable enough, and partly because we believed our parents’ generation had screwed things up so badly that we didn’t want to take the chance of bringing kids into such a damaged world.

Although I’ve seen much more of life since then, and have acquired much deeper insights, my adolescent introduction to relationships via the Counterculture bore abundant fruit. Beginning in high school, I’ve had a long series of intimate relationships, most of which were monogamous and lasted from two to six years. Several involved living together, either in a private apartment or group home.

As the Northwestern University course recommends, my first long-term girlfriend and I did share worldviews. But as the instructors of the course should know, our 18-year-old worldviews could form no stable basis for a long-term relationship, especially in the volatile world we found ourselves in. We were unformed adults, wildly romantic, naive and ignorant. We thought we were Aragorn and Arwen from Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings. The best that could happen was that our worldviews would change radically as we explored the world, exercising critical thinking, gaining experience, knowledge, and wisdom for decades to come. The chances of our relationship lasting through those changes was minimal. It would certainly be unfair to both of us to try to “work it out” as we both turned into different people, and it would seem unfair to society as well, especially if we’d had kids, only to separate and divorce like my parents.

My high school sweetheart and I rejected marriage, in keeping with the Counterculture, believing our bond was deeper and more sacred because we respected each other as distinct individuals. But we grew apart, and eventually broke up. And a decade later, as I turned 30, both I and society had changed in many ways. The Counterculture was seen to have failed – its critique of the Establishment may have been valid, but it hadn’t offered any viable alternatives. The world had gotten scarier – with everything from economic recessions to serial killers and nuclear meltdowns – and the future looked a lot less hopeful. And I had gone from a timid, uptight, naive, and ignorant small-town prodigy to the ambitious, aggressive leader of a big-city bohemian post-punk enclave.

My fourth girlfriend was a young professional woman from an elite college, who proudly considered herself a feminist. By the standards of the Northwestern course we appeared misfits from the start. I was immersed in my bohemian milieu, living in a communal loft in the midst of an industrial slum, experimenting with art, music, and drugs, while she was part of the newly-minted yuppie class, a compulsive shopper, living in a luxurious, frilly apartment in an upscale neighborhood. And she made it clear on our first date that she had a life plan, and getting married and having children were her primary goals. I was honest in my rejection of both, yet we fell in love and spent two rewarding years together, learning from each other, after which she married, had kids, divorced, and eventually remarried after her kids were grown up.

A decade later, when I met my seventh girlfriend, the world and I had continued to change. Some of my friends were getting married and buying houses. My long-secure day job was imploding. I’d achieved national recognition as a musician and bandleader, but I’d also become a serious outdoorsman, falling in love with the desert wilderness, studying aboriginal survival skills, dreaming of going “back to nature.” My new lover was much younger, nearly as unformed as I was two decades earlier, and I was her first really “mature” and caring partner. But whereas she wasn’t much interested in marriage, she did announce on our first date that she planned to have at least one kid.

Despite our differences, we also had a fulfilling relationship for almost two years, and I ended up loving her so deeply that she changed my whole vision of life. Toward the end of our time together I told her I wanted to work toward marriage, and if that happened, would like to have children with her. It was a momentous, scary prospect that put butterflies in my stomach. A few months later, she left me for a man her own age.

Three of my long-term relationships, including that one, have ended in anger and pain, resulting in lasting grief and disillusionment and the criticism of my peers. There were long periods of celibacy between some of them. And ultimately, after the tenth relationship ended traumatically, years went by without one, until I found myself “old and alone.” Was there really something terribly wrong with me, as some friends had suggested?

I always paid close attention to my friends’ relationships. A few of them were never alone – they were always either dating, with ever-changing partners, or in some kind of relationship. Some were more like me – holding onto a relationship for a while, going through a more or less difficult breakup, then being single for a while before finding someone new. A few of my friends achieved stable long-term relationships. Some got married, often for economic reasons. Some of those had kids, while others stayed childless.

But from earliest adulthood, I always had a few peers who were perennially celibate and frustrated, apparently due to low self-esteem. Some of them self-medicated with drugs or alcohol. Some of them had an occasional one-night stand that left them even more miserable. Those of us who regularly got laid, and those of us who were mostly in relationships, always pitied them, and if we couldn’t sustain a relationship very long ourselves, we always feared we’d end up like them. The Counterculture slogans of free love and open relationships had long been forgotten. Instead of being liberated, we were paranoid of being left alone in a world that made relationships ever harder to form and sustain.

It got worse as we got older, and more of my peers got married and had kids. The older I got, the more I saw how the solitary among us were pitied, and the more difficult it became to be single, because I felt inferior, and I was afraid it was finally all over for me – I’d never have another girlfriend, never find a life partner, let alone my mythical soulmate.

When I made perhaps the most radical move of my life – the move from the San Francisco Bay Area, where I’d spent thirty years, to a remote small town in the least populous corner of New Mexico – I’d been single, celibate, lonely, and depressed, for five years. Frankly, one thing that encouraged me to settle here is that on my first visit, I met more attractive single women than I’d met in all those years of loneliness in the crowded megalopolis.

I spent the first few years flirting with and getting to know all of those women, and the more I got to know them, the less interested I was. They all dropped away eventually, and I found myself lonely and depressed again in my new home.

Finding Myself

Before moving to New Mexico, during a long period of unemployment, I’d started a project to finally figure out who I was and what I was supposed to be doing here on Earth. I studied ecology and anthropology, and tried to make sense of powerful visions that I’d had throughout life, visions that seemed “spiritual” for want of a better word.

Venturing into the past, and into the spiritual realm, and trying to envision the future, made me aware of alternate interpretations of time – the diverse phenomena of motion and change. Our technocentric culture is ruled by the linear time defined by our machines – the strictly ordered forward progression from past to present to future, in standard increments of seconds, minutes, hours, days, weeks, months, and years. Alienated from nature, our way of life perpetually creates problems, so we envision the forward march of time representing “progress” from the problems we created in the past to the imagined solutions of the future, and we want each generation’s life to be better than the previous.

Traditional societies, which depend more directly on nature for their sustenance, tend to seek stability and sustainability rather than change and progress, because to thrive, they must stay within the finite limits of resources in their local habitats. Thus they experience time in the repeating cycles of nature: the solar day and night, phases of the moon, seasons and harvests, and the longer cycles of drought, fire, flood, and human generations. Instead of associating their past with problems and their future with solutions, they honor their past and work to make sure the future will be just as good. This may be called cyclical time.

With their deep communal memories of cyclical time, oral cultures move through a landscape teeming with potential phenomena from both past and future, so unlike us, they’re prepared to adapt to surprises. Thus they may also visualize time as a lake, in which the surface is our present consciousness, and the depths represent the continuum of experience, past and future. I experienced a powerful vision of that simultaneous time once, with loved ones from my past, as well as strangers from my future, rising briefly from the depths, only to plunge back down into the darkness again.

To make up for the lack of attractive single women in my life, I had added a few images of past girlfriends to the walls of my house, and I’d put together “scrapbooks” to memorialize our relationships. Unconsciously, I was manifesting simultaneous time. One of the unexpected consequences of aging, and my new phase of life, was that I could truly live in the past, present, and future simultaneously.

As I observed my family, friends, and acquaintances in this new light, reflecting on their experiences and relationships and comparing them to mine, I suddenly realized that despite coming of age in the Counterculture, I’d been made to feel inferior as a celibate single person, and when a relationship ended, society had made me feel worse about the breakup.

But now, reflecting on the long series of romantic relationships I’d experienced, which felt just as present and real as anything in my current life, I felt like I’d achieved more, in some ways, than people who’d married young and maintained stable lifelong marriages.

I began to see the pain and trauma I’d experienced in a few of my relationships, and in some of our breakups, as priceless inspiration for some of my best art, music, and writing. All of those relationships, from first to last, were physically and emotionally rewarding. In all of them we professed profound love for each other and shared countless moments of warm caring and tenderness. None of my relationships were abusive. I’ve loved deeply and intensely and have been loved deeply back, year after year.

By spending at least a year – a full round of the seasons – in each of those relationships, we’d gotten to know each other in the context of natural cycles, in cyclical time. And now, all of those partners are still with me every day, in my growing awareness of simultaneous time. Most of them are still friends, though we may never see each other again – and I still feel the love we shared as a daily part of my life, every bit as real as the pain and frustration of chronic injuries and disabilities that come with aging.

I compare this new awareness with the previous belief, reinforced by my closest friends, that as each relationship ended, it became a failure, proving there was something wrong with me that had to be fixed, either through soul-searching, therapy, or some other form of “personal growth.”

The revelation of this past year is that contrary to the assumptions of the Atlantic article and many of my friends, happiness can result from a long life of “failed” relationships. Far from failing in my ultimate state of singlehood, I’ve achieved deeply loving relationships with not just one, but many diverse partners, in which we lived adventurous and fulfilling lives together. Sure, there was plenty of discomfort, distrust, anger, pain, and trauma. But as an artist, rather than seeing these as evidence of an inadequacy that needed to be “fixed,” I now see them as precious raw material for my creative work.

It turns out that being an artist has determined the course of all my relationships. I’ve always had personal passions, goals, and projects that have either competed with, deferred, or replaced relationships. Some of those things I could do with a partner around, but many took me places where my partner couldn’t follow. I’ve used long periods of solitude to take chances, explore dangerous places, and get a lot of work done. Some have called me selfish. It looks like I’ve been unable to let go of my ego, unable to lose myself in something bigger, whether a one-on-one relationship or a community where the whole is greater than the sum of the parts.

That’s partly true, but hardly anything in life is ever that simple. Like most artists, I’ve had to have a “day job,” conscientiously giving decades of my life to other people’s projects and the collaborative work of teams. I started a harvest festival as a gift to a community I wasn’t even part of, and have spent 13 years volunteering to make it happen.

And while in relationships, I’ve sincerely tried, and sometimes succeeded, in giving selflessly to those I loved. You can ask any of my ex-girlfriends about that.

My newfound contentment and appreciation of my past relationships doesn’t mean that I want to restart any of them! On the contrary – our paths diverged for good reason. We are all different people now, and what brought us together originally is no longer there.

Not the Only Way

Is marriage really essential to happiness?

What about the broader notion of “partners for life?”

The nuclear family?

Are any and all of those valid goals for young adults?

Are married people successes, and single people failures? And should solitary elders regret their failure to maintain permanent relationships?

The Northwestern University course maintains that a marriage can be successful if you first figure out who you are, then find someone who shares your worldview. But in a society as patently dysfunctional as ours, and as I certainly learned, finding out who you are is a lifelong project. If you’re really diligent about examining both the world and yourself, your worldview is guaranteed to change. What are the chances of your partner making the same changes, and continuing to share your changing worldview along the way?

We should never forget that we’re animals. The survival of our communities depends on at least some of us reproducing, and reproduction requires partnership. Many of us are clearly driven by biology to find partners we can reproduce with, without even thinking about it. Most of my peers did think about it, though, at the time when we were becoming adults, and we put off having kids until very late, if ever.

Anthropologists like a teacher of the course at Northwestern should be aware that marriage in our sense is the exception, not the rule, across the incredible diversity of human societies. In many, if not most indigenous societies, men and women pair up opportunistically, stay together as long as it works, then drift apart. They may have children together, but those children are raised by the community, not by a stable “nuclear family” in a private fortress home. The lives of both parents and children take place in the context of a small, intimate confederation of people of all ages and genders who work together to take care of each other, rather than in the context of atomized families that live isolated from each other in private homes like ours. Traditional societies tend to lack the stigmatization of single people that our society perpetuates.

The evidence shows that marriage is no sure path to selflessness. Many or most marriages have a dominant partner and lead to oppression or divorce. From my point of view, it isn’t just biology that drives people to get married and/or form permanent partnerships – it’s also insecurity – the fear of being on their own and taking risks. They seek safety and security, whether real or an illusion.

My Quest

Whereas some of my girlfriends and peers started adulthood with a conventional life plan, like getting married and having kids, I left my family home in the midst of a cultural revolution in which all the rules were supposed to be broken. For years I’d been told I had great talent and potential, and college was supposed to be an opportunity for me to explore that potential, and forge a new life path. But my family wasn’t rich, so like most of us I was forced to set aside my dreams in favor of developing a practical career.

Years later, when my first serious relationship ended and my time in the ivory tower drew to a close, it was like waking up from a coma. I found a magical world around me, waiting to be explored, and I started on my lifelong quest for experience, knowledge, and wisdom. That ultimately made it impossible for me to sustain a relationship, and it’s still ongoing. Death will be just another phase of it.

My quest has taught me different senses of time, different interpretations of what we call past, present, and future: living and loving in both cyclical and simultaneous time.

It’s showed me how extended families, in cooperative communities, can provide better caring and child-rearing than the nuclear family. How parenting can be uncoupled from romantic partnerships. How group living situations can be more supportive than the private home.

It has taught me not to wish for or expect a life partnership. On my quest, I’ve experienced love and caring in dazzling richness and diversity, and feel better for it. I treasure the moments, and no longer regret that they couldn’t last.

By falling in love with women who were radically different from me – and clearly incompatible – I learned new things and discovered new worlds, I gained wisdom and had memorable experiences that made my life richer.

Unlike most married people, who are constrained by the jealousy of their spouses, I don’t have to dismiss, forget, or deny my past relationships – I can continue to celebrate them.

Healthy communities need parents and children. I feel for my friends who are parents, and for their children, who, like the rest of us, struggle to deal with the dysfunctional society they’ve been brought into. I also feel for my aging single friends, who should treasure the moments of real connection they’ve had, no matter how few or far between.

My quest can be seen as the height of selfishness, but I continue to share what I’ve learned with anyone who will listen. My art, and what I’ve learned from my quest, are my gift to my community. It’s who I am, like it or not.

I’m not your type, you’re not my kind,
and love that’s born of this encounter
surely won’t endure the future;
and we know that love is blind.

But that’s no reason not to try!
but if we tried a thousand years
we could never get it right,
we could never get it better.

And now these days that get us nowhere,
these days of stormy weather,
these are the good old days,
these are the times we will remember!

(From “Tiare’s Theme,” a song I wrote in my 20s, after a breakup)

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