Finding the energy to change the hypocrisy infecting the political domain is something that seems to elude most citizens. I say this in the face of this weekend’s outdoor rallies organized coast-to-coast of “Canadians against the Prorogation of Parliament”. I wish today to speak neither for or against the termination of the Second Session of the Fortieth Parliament of Canada, which was to continue today. There are arguments one can raise in favour of a Third Session, and arguments for having continued the previous Session. There are arguments one can raise in favour of skipping the planned two weeks of sitting before rising for the balance of February for the 2010 Olympics, leading to a resumption in March, and arguments in favour of having those eight House sessions (and two committee Fridays) — and definitely arguments in favour of our MPs and Senators ignoring the Olympics as irrelevant to the business of any Parliamentary session. Despite the din of media (formal and informal) on all sides, however, the reality — whether anyone likes it or not — is that Prime Ministers control the schedule of Parliament, and tradition — whether anyone likes it or not — is that a new Session is initiated (through prorogation, whether for a writ of election or not) whenever a major policy shift is expected.

No, rather today I should like to turn my philosophic attention to the sheer and utter ineffectiveness of all this sound and fury, whether in person, on the screen, on the airwaves or in print. Indeed, let me suggest that all of it has the effect of extending the hypocrisy and institutional rot in Canadian Governance, whether from those who stand with the Government or those who Oppose it.

This is (I imagine) a difficult point to follow. Am I suggesting that those who support a point of view — or oppose another one — have no right to express themselves? Hardly! We are human beings: we break out of our internal dialogue into inter-subjectivity through communication. Whether that be calm and reasoned, or placard-waving and shouting, we must communicate to move beyond the power of one inherent in ourselves.

What I am saying, however, is that the process that has unfolded since the prorogation announcement, and through this past weekend leading to today’s planned photo-ops on Parliament Hill, has indeed been only to preserve the status quo. In other words, the wrong problem was tackled.

By focusing on a minor procedural matter instead of deeper structural concerns, all of the parties involved — Parliamentary parties, political party staffers, media (reporters and “personalities”, “analysts” and “contributors” alike) and the army of letter-writing, blog commenting, lamp-post postering and rally marchers) — have added to the dysfunction of our institutions at a time when we very much need them to function well.

No policy revelations have come from the Opposition. Indeed, the rhetoric is very much “any situation is not our problem” and “we don’t have to answer for it”. Alas, dear Opposition, you do. A functional set of Parliamentary institutions would see Governments-in-Waiting, expressed via clear alternative priorities, and proposed strategies for dealing with same. It is quite true that an Opposition Party need not speak to the Government’s sense of priorities: it may well propose that issues be treated with more, or less, import than does the Government of the day. But it must, to be authentic in its role and genuine in its pronouncements, offer its own positive views along with its critique (which, to avoid inauthenticity and/or a lack of genuineness, must be grounded in reality and not simply be soaring rhetoric, such as ranting for the sake of the sound-bite).

At the same time, the Government owes the Opposition and the citizenry similar respect, being clear at once with its programme and schedule. Political authenticity turns not on the management consultant’s “PowerPoint reveal” of one bullet after another only when “ready to move on”, but with saying clearly what is wanted and why. The very act of the “reveal when pushed” simply makes everything appear disingenuous — and leaves the taste that, if the pushing hadn’t happened, nothing would have been said.

As for the professional media, the behaviour of constantly blowing the trumpets — through polls with biased questions designed to lead to headlines which, in turn, allow biased questions to continue to fan a story (and the ignoring of all context and history in doing so) — shows simply how corrupt the entire process has become. The task of the journalist is to dig out and expose truth, not to be as inauthentic as any article and doctored photograph in those “newspapers” sold at checkout stands in grocery stores. A day’s ratings is purchased through the further erosion of what little is left of integrity in our political institutions, aided and abetted by a winner-takes-it-all framework found in the political parties’ operations. It is behaviour like this that make cynics of us all, and when the result is (amongst others) the creation of photos suggesting assassinations or Hitlerian references, bird droppings on shoulders and the like, all of which are designed to wipe out the humanity of the person in the image, it is clear that our sense of moral behaviour in public has been cashed in on to the point where the till is empty and the account overdrawn.

Do you wonder why nearly half your fellow citizens roll their eyes and ignore election day? Do you wonder why newspaper circulation is falling, radio and television news and current affairs ratings disappearing down the drain? I don’t: it is a very common-sense response to endless manipulation and hypocrisy.

So, the response is to lay down the challenge. Earn my support. Within the last ten years alone I have supported every party except the Liberals federally — yes, I have voted Green, NDP and Conservative — and frankly, at the moment, my support for the Prime Minister that gets expressed occasionally is limited to decrying the excesses in attribution that come his way at the hands of others who simply “hate” his presence, his existence, or his party.

Support is able to be earned by stopping the cycle of playing for the cameras and denying your own responsibilities. Support is open to be gained by engaging not with friendly audiences or party faithful alone, but by actually reaching out and asking those who are not in your camp what they think; what they would do, and why. Support is open to be gained with common-sense policy that takes tomorrow as well as today into account.

Reaching out “via the media” won’t reach people like me: we tuned it out ages ago. We’re not interested in the horse race aspect, or the process-centric games that they believe is “the only thing that matters”.

The temptation facing all the parties at the moment is to keep driving the unpredictable voters out, reducing the electorate only to their most fervent supporters. Keep that up, and the country will go with it. When dealing with long-term trends and philosophic principles, there is little worry that Party B or Leader Y takes power from Party A or Leader X, for these manoeuvres only shift questions of intensity and timing.

Our national future truly is in the hands of the clowns and jokers. Let’s hope they reform themselves, for as always it is we who will pay the price if they don’t.

In 1997 I had the pleasure of visiting a well-preserved ruin of a Roman villa in Yanworth, Cirencester, Glocs. in the UK. It took quite a bit to find in those days — it seemed that every crossroads had a sign pointing back the way just travelled pointing to it, yet no villa in sight — yet it was well-worth the trouble, especially when the covering over the mosaic floor was turned back and its beauty was revealed.

A delight though this villa is — if you’re ever in the Cotswolds, spend the time to find it — my point today is more about how societies decline.

I got off on this line of thinking as I’ve lately been reading commentaries and critiques of Oswald Spengler and his magnum opus Der Untergang des Abendlandes (The Decline of the West). Many professional historians and philosophers reacted then, and react still, negatively to this work: the historians “for the lack of detailed scholarship” or “liberties taken in interpretation” surrounding one point or another; the philosophers in response to the deeply metaphysical approach taken (which really fits no other recognized “school of thought”). For all that, this book was deeply appreciated (in that best of all possible means of appreciation, by being purchased and discussed, despite the economic difficulties of early Weimar Germany with its hyperinflation) and, as Northrop Frye noted in his essay “Spiritus Mundi”, this has set the intellectual tone in philosophy of history ever since its publication, even amongst those dissuaded from ever cracking its covers.

(If you are unfamiliar with the work, the essence of Spengler’s argument was that cultures are akin to living organic bodies, in that they are born, grow, thrive, reach their adult potential, then decline into senescence and die out. Each culture, pace Spengler, is a self-contained unit, with its own core idea, key arts, scientific approach and the like. Our own Western World was, in his view, entering its dotage, having had its culture ossify into a civilization, and our future, from his time of writing, would be one of wars, economic decline, tidying up of loose ends in science, and ever-more subjective art. Caesarism was imminent. Moreover, this was a matter of destiny — our lifespan as a culture was more-or-less determined, and we could, as with the Imperial Romans, the New Dynasties in Egypt, etc., do no more overall than make the best of it, no matter what individual triumphs we may have as human beings.)

One of the challenges this poses, to an examination in depth of our own society in 2010, and in projecting its probable futures, is that civilizations can continue for a very long time long after their life, per se has fled. If nothing disturbs such an ossified body of humanity, it continues, repeating its experience until events (typically from outside itself) knock it down another peg. Once that happens, stability at this new, less-differentiated and “lower” level, then can be re-established. (Spengler’s end state is a collapse back into raw humanity, the “eternal peasant”, which he illustrates by looking at Egypt occupied by the Romans and then by Islamic states, Western Europe in the Dark Ages, China today, etc.)

What makes so many people react negatively to Spengler’s position, yet be unable to refute it and knock it off the field of intellectual combat, is precisely that “up to the end” the life of the society appears to continue more-or-less in “health”. The villa I opened this piece with was probably constructed sometime in the late 200s or early 300s CE — which is a period where, culturally, Classical Culture was well and truly mouldering past its best-before date and a pseudomorphosis in reverse of the rising Levant was imposing its culture on the lands of the Graeco-Roman Civilization as far north and west as the Roman province of Britannia — yet it shows no sign of that, being another classical villa with its tributes to the civic gods of Roman society. It was gracious country living, in the form retired soldiers and administrators throughout the Empire had followed for (at that point) nearly three centuries, and would, in various parts of the Empire, for as long again.

Britannia was not brought low by barbarian invasions — no Goths, Visigoths, Vandals or Huns burnt its cities. Rather, as economic decline continued to unwind and the Romans became unable to maintain their holdings, the decision was taken to simply abandon some of the more far-flung provinces. Britannia was one such: in 410 CE the decision was taken to withdraw the Legions to defend older parts of the Empire. Many of the villa-holders left at the same time, worried about Celtic incursions from beyond the borders in never-Roman Ireland, Wales and Scotland. Others were themselves impoverished, with the long-dying and long-drying up of Roman economic life. (Much as with Britain’s nobility today, many had been reduced to living in just a portion of their homes, in much-reduced conditions, but without the saving grace of operating tours through the now-unaffordable main body of a manor or castle.)

For those that remained, little of Roman Britain other than ruins remains. Within two more generations Britannia was nothing more than a fellahin land of undifferentiated peasants, as a backwater cut-off from “civilization”. Two more generations saw the Angles, Saxons and Jutes begin their invasions. The road toward the English had begun. Rome was no more.

It would, I think, be fair to say that here, in the Cotswolds, this villa — located close to the edge of Britannia (the Roman province: look at the dyke structure and evidence that Wales extended as far as central Wiltshire and across Gloucester until the High Mediaeval saw the consolidation of English resources capable of first forcing that boundary with the Celts westward, and then ultimately absorbing Wales as a Principality of England) — would have, at the time of its construction, been a land grant for a retiree that was still near the end, but not past, of supply lines connecting it to the Empire at large. As the 300s wore on, the villa’s inhabitants would have been more and more isolated, depending more on local items (or doing without) and less on goods brought from the Continent via Londinium or other other trade routes. Continued peaceful conditions would have seen the quality of life slowly slip, and stories of how “life was better when I was a child” would have had truth, but the changes would have been hard to see.

Then, abandonment. It matters little whether the villa was abandoned before Rome left the province, with that withdrawal across the Channel, or afterward, when maintaining life “in the middle of nowhere” became too difficult. Whenever it happened, this region became too difficult to continue Roman life in. Further habitation would not be civilized for many more centuries.

Here, I believe, we do find ourselves. Our technological “brilliance” suggests to me that our collapse is likely to be rapid, when it comes — there are too many interconnected systems, too many parts that must operate well, to deal easily with events today. (In isolation, yes, still — not with a cascade of failures, and increasingly it takes less to initiate such a cascade, and harder to come back from it.) We may be gifted with a century or two, or we may find our interdependencies crushing much of “the world we know” within a decade or two. Within this, further “advances” are not precluded — but the trend will be toward losing what we have, not gaining on it, or, to put it another way, we are at the point where coming generations do not live as well as we have (even though some few may well do better for a while yet).

What makes the future opaque to most is the reality that little of the decline is readily seen. Currency debasement and an increasing draw upon capital and operating incomes to fund government programs — a Roman problem in its day, aka panem et circenses, no less so that today, with the “untouchable welfare state” and the endless demands for ever-more intervention common to all Western lands — do not immediately trigger collapse, but they do hollow out the society and weaken it, consuming the ability to rebuild when an event does occur. Up until that moment, however, an impoverished society still appears rich. So, too, with services: they may degrade somewhat, and become prone to breakdown, but by and large they continue until the moment comes when they cannot — at which point they also are generally incapable of being restarted. To take but one example: Roman communications, along well-mainted post roads, were taken as given (and did work) until the end of the Empire. Within two decades these roads lay broken, being mined for materials. It took a millennium for something as simple as letter carrying became routine again — outside of the realm preserved by St-Benedict and his peers, who deliberately created a “society within a society” in the monasteries before the final collapse, in order to preserve the Church in a world where Roman services and Roman order had failed.

I have no expectation of persuading anyone who believes that technology holds the answers to our problems, who believes that our current apparent strength is unchallenged, who believes that only through further intervention can society “progress” or who thinks “God will provide” (to take but four common objections to the dark Spenglerian world-view). Nor is that my point, either. If Spengler is correct, our down-going will occur regardless: our free will may accelerate or decelerate parts of it, but the unwinding is destined.

It is to that question of destiny, to the isolation of cultures, and to the question of preserving Western thought and accomplishment for the future, that I believe we should turn. Let us neither hide nor roll over and die: let us do what Western society has done all along: deal with the esoteric and universal and face the world not as we would imagine it to be, but as it is.

In the past few years I have noted a trend which has passed into “majority country” (that is, most people I deal with regularly show the behaviour): poor understanding from reading while multitasking.

Let me begin by making something clear: I am not a neuroscientist, am not running experiments under controlled conditions, and am not pitching anything here. This is simply an often-repeated observation, where the contrary observation is falling off. Also, although I get to “go back over the material” much more readily with things written, I observe exactly the same pattern occurring in telephone usage, even in meetings.

Observation: An increasing number of people are “getting things backward”.

This observation shows up again and again with simple things, such as misinterpretation of what is written (or said). Examples are:

  • I’m asked, in email, when, “later this week”, I can meet for coffee. I answer “anytime but 1-3pm on Thursday”. Over 80% of the time, I’ll receive a meeting invite for coffee for 1.00pm Thursday. There’s less misunderstanding if I answer “Thursday at 3.00” — but more than 90% of the time the reply to that is “can’t do it, pick again” — yet attempts to short-circuit four to six exchanges trying to find a common time by offering broad windows seldom work, either.
  • I receive a request to call someone. They are in a different time zone, so, when I call (and get voicemail) I leave two numbers: my work number “good to 2.30 your time” and my home number “good after 4.00 your time”. More than 75% of the time I’ll come in the next morning to find a message left in the evening at work, or come home the next day to find my home was phoned during the day. By the way, whether I do the time conversions or not, there is no difference in the pattern.
  • I write something — from a tweet on Twitter to a long post here to an email — and the reply immediately indicates that something not said was seized upon and treated as the central point of the whole thing. (You can see that in the comment chain for yesterday’s post.) There are certain subjects I’d expect that for — writing in support of a politician or policy will do that for you when a partisan is the interlocutor — but this occurs over the smallest things, and routinely.)

I could go on, but that establishes the types of things I’m talking about.

Most of us are forced into “multitasking”, even if we consciously set out to avoid it. Our computers are generally set to alert us if an email is received, for instance. That little “bing” (no matter how innocuous the sound) or flashing box in the corner of the screen saying “new message” for a moment or two is a distraction: it breaks our concentration.

Short-term memory — what we have just taken in or just thought — is fragile. (People who have trouble remembering the names of people they meet, for example, often have no trouble remembering the name of one new person, or even two or three encounters in the course of the day. Constantly meeting new people during the day, on the other hand, wipes out most of the names. Memory seems to require a period of consolidation — which we typically find in sleep, from short naps upward, or in meditative time — to retain the short-term inputs. This becomes more important the older we get: a young person’s eidetic or photographic memory converts into an equally bad memory as everyone else’s as the years pile up. As the average age in the population has risen, it does not surprise me that in general the evidence of short-term memory deficiency is getting more obvious.)

As I write this post, for instance, the sound is turned off. So is the “Growl” message system. As is the phone — call forwarded to voicemail — and all other applications. No music, closed door. Absolutely no Blackberry or iPhone pushing things my way! Writers can find periods to do this. Most people do not have work that allows for that degree of isolation.

The typical person, at work in an office, has their email application open, a phone and a cellphone with pushed messages, and, depending on the nature of their work, a Twitter feed picking up new tweets and other social network messages (e.g. Tweetdeck, which will hook up to LinkedIn and Facebook as well). In turn, alerts and information boxes are popping into sight and fading out, and soft chimes and beeps announce new events. Not only does all this interfere (this is an observed phenomenon) with sustained effort, it interferes (again, observed in others) with simple information, like reading an email or listening to a voicemail whose purpose is to communicate a contact point, a time option, etc.

The Effect of “Sort Of” Understanding

In an office setting, the net effect of all this is to slow work down. Meetings take longer because the participants are constantly interrupted while in it — and they interrupt themselves (again, an observed data point) from “lack of stimulus” if they are required to “check all technology at the door”. We have apparently given ourselves a good case of Pavlovian conditioning and require a new pellet periodically to tell us to “run the maze” one more time!

What the apparent outcome of all this means is that the average person is losing — or has lost — their ability to focus their attention for long periods of time, take in complex matters, and do sustained intellectual work. Given a book that requires serious attention to be more than just “words passing before the eye” — say a work of philosophy or a nineteenth-century novel — most people today cannot sustain themselves through long passages, remember the point made a few pages earlier and include it in the author’s point being made now, or, later, separate the essential from the accidental to communicate the content to another person.

There was a book I picked up in the UK in the late 1990s entitled 108 Tips for Time Travellers. It was a collection of technology columns written for a newspaper. Each chapter was thus two pages long: a typical 700-word column length. Even then, a decade ago, before social networking and the BlackBerry-style expectation that an email sent should be responded to immediately had fully set in, I knew many people who read that book — over fifty to one hundred days! They could cope with no more than one chapter at a time. Reading a second (especially if the topic changed) meant they could remember nothing from the first one!

These people were all senior executives, in charge of budgets ranging from $100 million to $10 billion, with hundreds of employees and complex sets of portfolios of activity on the go. How well were these being managed, if recall was that impaired?

What I observe taking the place of actual comprehension is “what I thought he said”, instead. I have sat through innumerable meetings where the discussion was deadlocked because the various camps represented were all dealing with “false memories” of what they thought they’d read or heard. I have watched people, when presented with the source document, deny it said what it said — they couldn’t focus enough to hold their impression and the new reading side-by-side long enough to evaluate the differences.

Are Younger People “Different”?

There’s a constant theme in the work-a-day world now that the younger generation that has grown up chatting on MSN, listening to iTunes, playing a first-person-shooter game, and writing a paper (with Google providing multiple “reference” sites) all at once can cope with the distractions of multitasking in ways those of us who grew up in a world of books can’t. I certainly see the switching speed, and the ease with which the entire visual field is treated as a unit, “seeing” everything all at once.

Seeing the understanding is much harder. I am not convinced that the apparent comprehension level is anything more than (a) a tendency to gather in information through video rather than reading, (b) far lesser expectations in schools and (c) the advantage of youth in retaining short-term memory “just long enough” (if they couldn’t, cramming wouldn’t work, yet it obviously does).

And, in almost all cases, the ability to actually read a book that thirty years ago was considered “age appropriate” is very hard to come by. Does this help explain why texts are less common in universities and ring-bound sets of short papers, handouts, etc. are the prevalent form of class-required reading?

I do know this: if I put the world down, I can handle much more complex material — and generate it. This is why I’ve been busy purging “feeds”, no longer subscribing to RSS because it “might” be interesting. I killed my push life — I no longer even have a cell phone. Aging requires me to “jot down” or “check again” to handle short-term memory, but the ability to chew through and understand complex material — almost lost, comparatively speaking, two years ago! — is back.

You may want to experiment for yourselves. I sincerely doubt those who praise, and those who decry, our current connected, multitasking world will shift their views, no matter how many experiments are run. But you might find what level and depth of interruption impairs you — and what level opens you up.

There was a saying I learned early in my working life. The role of the salesperson, I found, was not to argue for the positive virtues of their product of service quite as much as it was to spread fear, uncertainty and doubt about “making a decision for the other guy”. Later, I learned the corollary: shovel loads of guilt and emotion about “making no decision at all”.

That which I learned watching the sales operations of mainframe computer vendors, midrange computer vendors, software package vendors and the like permeate our media-soaked culture today, creating great distortions in the body politic.

I was asked by a friend in mid-2000 what life was like on the west coast, when I moved to the Vancouver area from Toronto. “Is life as laid back there as we’ve always thought?”, was the question. To which I answered:

Oh, yes, people are laid back, compared to what we’re used to. At the same time the airwaves scream constantly. Here’s a culture where taking the day off because the golf course, sailboat, hiking trail or beach beckons, and where spending half the day having coffees is apparently quite all right, and yet public discourse is conducted via the media at 120 decibels. Everything is a screaming match.

I don’t think I’d take back a word of that despite the many hard-working and sensible folk I met in a decade out on the coast — although I must say the screaming match syndrome has gone national in the intervening years.

I want to tread carefully here. I don’t want this post to be about “where I stand”, unless what we’re discussing is about the whole “calming of the waters and calmly examining the situation” motif that comes from being rational, not rationalizing. I want to drive the guilt and emotion out of the equation; I want the fear put to rest.

This morning, on Twitter, I posed a question:

Who amongst the opposition parties is demonstrating future competence as a minister if their party forms government (as opposed to who’s on air a lot)?

It’s part of the whole FUD(GE) of our media-drenched culture that issues actually tend to disappear from view. They are reduced to sound-bites out of which fear can be spread, and which are expressed with a high emotional index. This is appropriate if we are dealing with the world as entertainment; where we, the audience, are expected to roar for our side, and boo the other(s). The analysis or “in depth” reporting then devolves to the Roman Emperors of old, turning thumbs up or down based on the noise of the crowd — a noise which, often, they are responsible for unleashing. The question the culture puts forward, instead, is:

Who amongst the opposition is giving good FUD(GE) and thus worthy of being on air, regardless of whether they’ll be good or bad if given office?

It’s not, of course, that this is new. At any point in time in the life of every democratic society, it’s probably fair to note that deep simplification of complex issues was a part of the game; attracting citizens to be citizens and not merely consumers required the marketing techniques implied in FUD(GE); the mediators (the original sense of media) have not only reported and analysed dispassionately, but taken sides and tried to have their chosen outcome occur; and the most media-friendly “public face” has fronted the people behind them and thus been given power not on merit or ideas but on appeal.

Still, it is rationalizing to substitute party labels for having a political philosophy; it is rationalizing to love, or hate, a leader or spokesperson because of their media skills, telegenic face, or frequency of appearance; and it is rationalizing to ascribe fear (e.g. “hidden agenda”), uncertainty (e.g. “just visiting”), doubt (e.g. speculating about the reasons for an action in the absence of factual knowledge), guilt (e.g. “only a fool would vote NDP/Conservative/etc.”) and emotional manipulation, both via questions and responses, both by interlocutors and interviewers alike.

Given that as human beings we should be attempting to be reasoned in our responses instead of giving in to rationalization (a perennial temptation), we have a duty to ourselves not to simply react, but to think events through and draw conclusions. Quickly, the few who try this discover not only that they gain insight into the type of community they may wish to create, or affiliate to, and why. They also quickly discover that they become a “bad partisan”, being issue-oriented and judging the character of individuals presented to them rather than simply “toe the party line”. Often they may — as apparently a growing number of citizens have! — decide that the whole political realm is so corrupt, so filled with FUD(GE), so hypocritical in its institutions, that abstention is the only reasonable course.

That last, unfortunately, comes with a separate moral consideration: by leaving the field (a conclusion of reason) an important source of negative consequences to one’s life, and to the life of loved ones, is allowed to further devolve. There are arguments, of course, for allowing corrupt institutions to carry out their own “life journey” unto death. There are also strong arguments for standing up to reform them, limit the damage, restore what may have been lost, demand improvement in the public ethics of politicians, civil servants and media alike. (Here is yet another challenge of finding the middle way, for both of these allow rampant radicalism to take root: ask any of the many dead citizens of National Socialist, Stalinist and Maoist regimes [to cite but three] whether, in retrospect, earlier involvement in reform might just have kept such regimes at bay. Ask, as well, about whether élite accommodation isn’t just another form of this — less obviously violent, perhaps, but no less destructive for all that.)

To discuss our current situation involves — as well I know from previous posts and their comments — the risk of deep resignation or deep anger (and please recall that “depression is anger, turned inward”). To fall back to simplicity — to rationalize one’s desire to just set coming to know our situation, its issues and lacunae well enough to judge what to do in the face of it — is tempting.

It is also a path leading to increasing rates of public depression, suicidal tendencies, radical behaviour, frustration, and the like. It may well — as has happened elsewhere (and, yes, “it can happen here”) — lead to starvation, enslavement, death, if not for ourselves specifically than for our loved ones, our neighbours, our friends. Worries about that, in turn, lead to more radical “solutions” to “protect” the groups who are seen as affected by such possibilities; demands that we change our behaviour “or else” without options or reasoned application; increased criminalization of activity previously left unmonitored and unregulated and its corollary, increased presumption of guilt through surveillance, “security procedures”, laws banning questioning of authority or banning discussion of issues created by groups in society.

I shall close this by noting one thing. Recent days have seen a mass fanning-of-flames to “protest” the prorogation of Parliament until March. The claim made is that this move was “undemocratic”. Yet the real democrat would be far more concerned about the failure of rational citizenship, and its increasing isolation in our society. That is, perhaps, less easy to express in a FUD(GE) fashion; less able to entertain with. But it is the core of our societal crisis — in our neighbourhoods, municipalities, regions, provinces, nationally and internationally.

We sit on the edge of a knife blade: gambling on whether we’ll fall to one side or the other is hardly a rational course of action.

What presumptions do you carry in your “natural faith” about the world — and which of these is likely to rise up and create a problem for you in the years ahead?

We all have a body of presumptions which we act upon without identifying and thinking about them. Indeed, this is hardly a bad thing: having to stop and work out the short- and long-term consequences of every individual act would find us, at bedtime, still metaphorically pulling on our clothes to leave in the morning, as Heidegger noted in Sein und Zeit.

Some of these presumptions are unprovable and are truly a matter of faith. (Lest you turn to the claims of rabid atheists that “the alternative is science”, I will merely point out to you that all Western science fails in two ways: first, it answers what, “all other things being created equal”, should be expected in situations of this type [not “what will happen in this particular case”, as Levantine/Islamic science tried to do] and that, second, our “scientific laws” and “established theorems” make operational statements that manipulate terms which we use, but do not fully understand — consider whether we have anything other than the name to understand when we say “Strange Quark”.) All of us operate this way. We do have an implicit obligation to update our presumptions in the face of new information, but the “perfection” of “complete” knowledge is beyond us.

There are also statements that act as presumptions which we have taken in which are “unanchored” but taken as truths. These may be the inherited pre-judgements, or prejudices, of others, and again the mix of home, school, friends and relatives are likely to see us, as young children, take one or more of these on. Again, we have an implicit obligation to examine these as we discover them — as with all matters of memory, we “remember” because we are stimulated, our minds not being a filing cabinet with a cataloguing system opening up whatever category of ideas we search for and pulling up all relevant “hits” in response — and to update or replace ones found to be lacking after that examination. (This is the point of Socrates’ injunction the unexamined life is not worth living, for this examination and updating was the living of the human life of theoria and informed praxis.)

Then, too, in our “natural faith”, are elements which are “detached” or “unhooked” from its other elements. This is how you can (for instance) have radical dichotomies in a person’s thought: in full favour of human liberty and freedom of action in all cases except for a pet passion, such as “banning gays from marriage”, for instance. We owe it to ourselves, once again, to either “connect” these, grounding them in a web of concepts and ideas properly worked into a systematic integration or to refine or replace those which cannot be so integrated when discovered.

Anything less indicates a desire to live not as a rational animal — the Aristotelian definition of the human — but as a rationalizing animal. That we will almost assuredly fall into rationalization due to our natural faith as it exists at any point in time does not remove the obligation to become rational when presented with the evidence of the need of same. (We should, in other words, live up to the possibilities of our nature, not default to a lowest common denominator and scrape by.)

There is little question, to anyone following the news, that a number of warning signs of probable and serious inflections of change lie in our near futures:

  • The demographic shift in the “developed” world means that the population bulge known as the “baby boom generation” approaches its “retirement” point, where those involved begins to want to sell assets — shares, bonds, real estate — in order to fund their elder years. Just as prices for financial assets rose due to this group bidding against itself as well as the generations that follow at the time of asset acquisition, so, too, the boomers will “bid against themselves” during the disposal, suppressing prices. Coupled with the poor state (in general) of pension funding where pensions apply, this implies a “new poor” just as …
  • The percentage of resources that come from sources easy to extract and process of all types, but especially in the area of liquid fuels, continues to decline, thereby reducing the energy returned (or resource returned) per unit of energy invested in the extraction and processing. Paradoxically, higher prices for resources do not spell a solution: economies are integrated systems where some parts’ price growth can make the products lose demand where other parts lack pricing power, or are actually declining. (We appear to be close to, if not at, this point now.) The hope is for technological breakthroughs and alternative sources, but …
  • Years of financial capitalism has put a premium on making “rents” from assets as opposed to developing them. The financial assets of a firm — its shares and bonds — benefitted from outsourcing knowledge and capabilities, locking in practices with lower labour costs overseas, while cutting investments in innovation, research, and development (relative to past years) and dealing with uncertainty by making structures and processes have less slack capacity and more rigidity in operations. This chronic underinvestment has not only hollowed out employment possibilities, but it also has led to the expectation that government should subsidize these activities (“innovation agendas”, “industrial policies”, etc.) in the national/provincial interest. Still …
  • Governments are bankrupt. The global debt collapse — which has only seen its first wave — is eating into government “revenues” through taxes and fees at the same time that demands upon programs has accelerated. “Stimulus” to avoid the deflation of a debt-based economy (which has at best “held the line”) has crowded out private activity, and global demand for capital to meet government deficits for the years ahead appears to be on the order of US$ 200 trillion for several years to come — or more than twice each year than the available capital pool. Waves of currency debasement and sovereign debt default will be required to wipe out this charge on the future, which will both show up as reduced or eliminated benefits and a lack of investment in the future and higher taxes, thus further impoverishing the economy. Add on top …
  • The usual round of “emergencies”, Haïti being only the most recent; …
  • The pre-existing commitments and demands already made, each of which has its interest groups to support it; …
  • The concerns about urban regional transport, community building infrastructure, reduction of carbon wastage in economic processes affecting the ecology, and hundreds of further issues; leading to …
  • An inability of politics to maintain its institutions in the face of ever-more-raucous demands, leading to Warlordism and Caesarism, all of which will further collapse the value of assets and reduce economic activity …
  • and all this without questions of climate change, shifting military power, rogue states and terrorists, demographic decline in various countries, a new round of the “wars of religion” and many other factors which are longer-term in nature and not being met.

I don’t know — and you don’t know, you only believe you know — how many of these will come to pass, on what timeframes, and what the cascade effects will be. I don’t know — and you don’t know, either, despite your beliefs — what to do about more than half of these and probably almost all of them. Yet all of us — those with the power to act, and those who vote, and those who just try to carry on quietly — will be living through decisions and their outcomes.

This suggests, to me, that if there was ever a time to examine to dig out as much of our own natural faith as possible and subject it to examination it is now, so that we, as much as practical, do decide with reason and do act with reasonable consequences in mind.

Alas, for most of us, there is a sheer denial of the need for that. Willfully, we often believe that “somehow”, “someone” will fix things, whether by technology, policy change, “taxing the resisters into submission” or forcing action upon people. We expect that the market will go up yet again, if only so that we can sell; that what we buy will turn a profit even when the long-term trend is against that; that we needn’t change our lives but yet the planet’s problems will be solved, etc.

Many more act unconsciously: knowing, for instance, that their city, province or nation is broke, they reflexively vote for more spending because “cake today” or “my passion satisfied” weighs larger than asking hard questions about “how” it will be done, “how” we will pay for it, and what the consequences are of these decisions. We vote for politicians because we “like the leader” or “am of this party”; we detest others because “we dislike the leader” or “am not of this party”, instead of shifting our support based on the specific, conscious, rational path to the future we are working toward.

We sacrifice ourselves, our loved ones, our neighbours and friends, in short, for the comfort of not disturbing our pre-conceptions.

Where in the past this might have meant a year or two of hardship, and then resumed “progress”, the price tag the real world is likely to impose on those who insist on being rationalizing animals could be much, much higher. Affordable resource unavailability, for instance, can well show up as highly decreased food availability — and a corresponding reduction in numbers back to the carrying capacity of a planet operating at a much reduced rate of output. Unaffordable pharmaceuticals bring back the former norms of early death from chronic conditions. Will a debt-based economy built on endless consumption yields a dog-eat-dog destruction of individuals to maintain institutions one day longer, and will the lack of new employment opportunities financial capitalism created mean those thrown out into the street may never claw their way back?

Will it be your child who dies in this possible world to come? You get to decide. That’s the stakes you play with, when you decide to be unconscious or willful with your natural faith.

Three recent posts on the subject of community —John Michael Greer’s “The Costs of Community”, Sharon Astyk’s “On the Problem of Community”, and Rob Hopkins’ “Why ‘Community’ Might Not Need ‘Organising'” — coupled with an exchange of comments in recent days on this blog and on Facebook over applying the principle of subsidiarity and moving much decision-making lower down the governmental/organizational food chain have got me reflecting today on what kind of action, if any, we should be working to make happen in our communities.

Actually, to be completely fair, the “we” in that sentence means “each of us as individuals” and, yes, each of us belongs to multiple communities.

Our Multiple, Fractal Identities

For Dominion Day, 2008, I wrote a short essay on the multiple identities each of we Canadians find within ourselves. Recalling David Hume (who held that our notion of “being” a persistent person [or ‘identity’] through time was an illusion of memories alone), the notion that you, yourself and I, myself, are a collection of identities is not completely strange. On the one hand, I am myself; I perceive myself as persisting through change; I see myself as the same person no matter in what setting I find myself, nor what role I play (parent, manager, coach of the ball team, amateur philosopher, you name it). Yet, at the same time, we recognize (ask anyone interviewing a short list of candidates to join their organization!) that the pattern of experiences a person has lived through — a combination of where they’ve been and what roles they were asked to play — makes for differences between one person and another that matter to the decision no less so than their “personality” or credentials. The person, for instance, who has been an entrepreneur and returns to take up a profit-and-loss managerial role brings a quite different “identity” to the game than the one who has climbed the managerial food chain in a number of very large organizations.

So if we (to use Dave Snowden‘s well-known coinage) are fundamentally Cynefin, then it is a reasonable inference that not only will we bring different fragments of our “selfs” to different communities (work, sport, volunteer, protest, etc.) we affiliate to, but we will, in turn, find that our “selfs” begin to shift in response to the role we play in each community, and the impact of that community in support of, or as a distraction from, other roles we play in other communities. (The “involved person”, for instance, must take time from her or his family or relationship, just as any “political family” adjusts and subordinates its members’ behaviours in support of the politician-family member.) What’s equally important to remember in this is that some of those fragments are no longer roles being played in communities — they are inherited from natural faith (see Thomas Langan, Being and Truth), from upbringing, from systems of thought adopted by the individual (whether integrated with other facets of the individual or not), and from prior roles played but no longer in “force” (e.g. playful child, student, previous careers, etc.).

Why “Municipality” Isn’t Enough

Much of the thinking on subsidiarity, moving power closer to the people by rendering decisions at the “lowest” effective level, has focused on moving power down to municipal levels where, it is generally asserted, people stand the best chance of coming together as a community and having real influence on the decisions that affect their community’s future. I don’t want, for a moment, to suggest that municipalities offer no hope. But think for a moment: the municipality I live in — Toronto, Canada — has more seats in the Canadian House of Commons than seven of the ten provinces do (one of those anomalies that emerge with concentrated populations in urban areas and a lower chamber based on representation by population). That base population in excess of 2,500,000 exceeds the population size of 83 countries (out of 223). Yet many of the issues in creating a viable, sustainable community require a larger structure — to integrate transportation, for instance — not a smaller one.

You may say that communities the size of Toronto aren’t what’s meant by “community”, and I imagine that each of Toronto’s 22 wards are bigger (at an average size of 113,600 people each, or 93% of the estimated 2009 population of the province of Prince Edward Island) than you mean, too. Most people who write on community at a municipal level — a “living place” level — tend to focus on village-sized units, and thus on neighbourhoods when the municipality itself exceeds village size. Indeed, in cities, we see “residents’ associations” and “business improvement associations” sized precisely thus, to walking distances and populations of 1,000-5,000 depending on density. Yet these — when the village is not a “true” village habitation — tend not to have a political structure.

Subsidiarity matters, and moving decisions down from central and remote governments is worth striving for. But most municipalities people live in — and with roughly 50% of world population now urbanized there are many countries where urban dwellers exceed 75% of the total national population — are larger than “communities”. (I note in passing that the United States and Canada are shown to have roughly similar urbanization rates at around 80%, although anyone familiar with both countries knows that on both coasts of the USA the spaces between cities and their suburbs — the “statistical metropolitan areas” — tends to be filled with “exurbs”, whereas in Canada the similar space is filled with open farms and forests, coupled with true villages and small towns that are not part of the commuter shed. Statistics alone — as always — don’t tell the whole story!)

Communities of Ideas, of Practice, of Intention and of Action

Many claims have been made as well for the creation of other kinds of communities, and, indeed, as social media tools have spread, so, too, the ability to create facet- or fractal-based communities has been touted as the way to bridge the gap between municipal size and decision effectiveness. (Indeed, long before the tools came along, communities were built by round-robin letters or scheduled meetings — think of how science was done in the seventeenth century, both by letter between practitioners and with the formation of entities such as the Royal Society. Then, too, many have noted that our primary interests today are seldom as strong with those who happen to inhabit the same block of flats, or streets, and more often with those who are part of our profession, or work at our firm, or via the activities we take part in. (There was nothing as rewarding as a Little League baseball season, to watch lawyers, management consultants, air conditioning installers and salespeople for radio advertising come together and simply be ball fans, coaches and scorekeepers, as they sped up their adjustment from “work” persona to “parent” or “fan” persona. Fragment-shifting is not automatic! — something every employer decries when “family matters” get in the way of “work”.)

There have been many successes, but no group has as of yet solved the most important problem: is this organization capable of achieving its goals without “going political”?

Let me define that: “going political” means overcoming the fact that we play multiple roles, live as fragments, have fractal identities, etc. and therefore may not be involved, or, if involved, be passionate enough to contribute much, to the community — and so our participation is legislated, through required actions and/or fees. (Note that communities that act to lobby for, or agitate for, established political authorities to provide said “legislation” on their behalf, must be judged appropriately. When Gandhi put pressure on the British to leave India, he required nothing of them than that they stop legislating and administering Indian life. He asked for no favours, no special treatment, no “positive” actions. This is quite different from the community that “demands”, that “requires”, that requires mandated support (e.g. KAIROS and its government subsidy, now cut), and the like.)

Those that don’t require this certainly are true communities, although they may struggle in the face of the many to succeed. Some will make some real progress (e.g. the Bowen Island, BC, citizen eGovernment movement) and then fade into the background or die out as initial objectives are met or the process goes longer than intended. Others will continue years of operation (most community activities and community-led social services, such as Crisis Centres), with or without subsidies, but with no strategic change from one year to the next. (This is not necessarily a bad thing — one does want certain things to be continuously delivered! — but it can make renewing leadership and participation a challenge at times, and, if subsidized, the avoidance of demanding legislation to enforce the subsidy is a constant challenge.)

The technology has allowed for non-geographic communities to operate at least as fast — and often faster — than “ground”-based communities, especially in growing! But numbers — as the various Facebook pages and Twitter hashtag communities have shown — are minimal levels of involvement, and seldom if ever lead to the achievement of anything other than “we hit our number”. As the work world has shown, social networks in professions and organizations that already exist can be valuable sources of action — consider crowd-sourcing a technology strategy at the UK Department of Work and Pensions as an example — but many relationships between these people in some of their roles and facets were “mined” to help this along. In other words, the technology can amplify the community, but it far less often does much of meaning without either a leadership cadre setting the terms for the “members” — or human relationships within it and the time to discuss action.

Community, then, is truly a double-edged sword, ready to cut into the principle of community on the one side by forgoing subsidiarity to the personal member in favour of power relationships and the exercise of higher authority to achieve ends, and on the other by falling afoul of Dunbar’s Number if true human relationships are to be depended upon. (Technology might make for a doubling of the mild acquaintance category … but I don’t think “much more” is currently possible.)

This does not mean “ignore the whole thing”. Those who call for community to deal with the transition of our society, who worry about health and welfare, who are concerned about energy, our economy or our ecology, have not invented their concerns, no matter how much the “true believers” for resonant and grating causes alike one to believe that! (Nor, too, are their opponents to be so easily dismissed — few matters are as “settled” as their proponents or opponents claim. To take but one example, those who promote dense public transport systems claim “the future of the suburbs is to die”. The availability of affordable energy may well tend in that direction, and building the transportation system takes sufficient time that a decision to proceed must be made years ahead of a crisis. Yet we, as a society, have invested much of our capital in the suburbs, and should be trying to put as much of it to work as we can, which may well lead to ways to maintain the “suburban way of living”.)

As always, finding a middle route between force and despair, and coming closer to who we are (human nature), offers us the most opportunity to succeed.

The Haitian earthquake and its aftermath has been much in the news these last few days. There’s been no shortage of calls for help — and a speedy response of aid workers and materiel has been forthcoming. (There’s also been the usual whinge that “it’s not enough” or “it’s not fast enough”, but this time, in general, there’s little to complain about on that front when you really look at the speed with which a meaningful response was able to be mounted for an unanticipated event.)

However, at the same time, I read a work of semi-speculative fiction by William Forstchen, Professor of Military History at Montreat College in North Carolina, entitled One Second After. The science in this work is grounded not only in his discipline, but in effects that have been known throughout most of the twentieth century, and which were first made popular knowledge during the 1980s in connection with former US President Reagan’s “Star Wars” initiative.

What this book asks is: what happens, if the technology dies? I don’t want to spoil the book — this is a page-turner, and a cracking good story, one that brought me to tears several times as events unfolded for one character or another — but I’ll summarize it simply by saying that within a year without the technologies we know and depend on available the North American population has shrunk by 75-80% — or, to put it another way, in the forty-eight “continental” American states, the remaining fifty million have buried two hundred fifty million of their family members, neighbours and friends. All this, mind you, without losing a single city or town.

Over the past several years, in connection with research work I was doing on our energy profile, our approach to regional planning, our infrastructures and the warning signs in the economy that the dénouement of the dominance of financial capitalism (the degenerate form of industrial capitalism) was at hand, I have given much thought to how sustainable life in our cities, our suburbs, our exurbs and our independent rural villages and small towns would be. I have modelled population possibilities based on local availability of resources. The scenarios for “good places to live” that resulted from this, and an assessment of how urgently one would need to consider uprooting and moving if you didn’t already live in “a good place” for the future, ranged from an uplifting future to a set of grim options.

But nowhere as grim as Fortschen paints: and the surprise (which it ought not to have been!) is that the only speculative part in this entire work is would the triggering event take place. Everything else derives from “facts on the ground” that are right out in the open, waiting for us to see them: for them to be “present to us”, as Heidegger said in Sein und Zeit, rather than us looking at the world solely through the technological framework’s preference for “ready to use”.

I am kicking myself in part because I’ve read Dmitri Orlov’s Reinventing Collapse and listened to his Long Now Foundation lecture: his analysis of the last days of the former Soviet Union and the collapse of society in the former Soviet Republics pointed out many of the same problems Fortschen lays out — and Orlov further pointed out some of the “saving graces” in post-Communist society that a post-collapse American society wouldn’t have going for it as readily.

Here’s the problem in a nutshell: we depend on almost everything that matters for life to be transported over longer distances than a person can walk, or a horse and cart can manage. That’s about 6 km (4 mi), in case you hadn’t thought about what that distance might be. (One of the items to look at is the distance between grain elevators on the Prairies, as these were built with the coming of the railways: farmers needed to hitch up the team of horses to a wagon/cart and ride to the elevator to sell their production, then return home, with nearly all the trip occurring during daylight hours. In October, that meant a round-trip time of about 10 hours. With unloading time — let’s assume the cart is loaded the day before, although in many cases trips had to be taken repeatedly to get the harvest to market — at the elevator, that meant a maximum of 3.5-4 miles’ travel one way. That’s why the elevators are spaced, regular as clockwork, at those distances. Similar placement occurred in the East, with dairy operations, although there the milk shed for the “milk run” on the rails were a little closer together, since it was necessary to employ more parallelism in labour to wrestle milk into refrigerated cars from icehouses to avoid spoilage, implying multiple trains/day and closer distances from farm to station.)

One in four people in North America requires chronic medication — pharmacies have, on average, a thirty-day supply of drugs. Your typical supermarket has two or three days’ worth of supplies of a product. Gasoline (petrol) in service station tanks or distribution centre tanks will spoil after a few months — paradoxically, it lasts longer in a usable form in the tank in an automobile — and so large scale supplies of refined products aren’t locally available.

The average distance from power source to point of consumption on the electrical grid today, in North America, is well over 400 km. As the East discovered in 2003, the system is also interlocked: there are only a handful of grids on the continent, and cascade failures (a few seconds’ time to collapse the entire grid, in 2003 three days’ around the clock work to restart it). Collapse base load and, even if parts and service people can rush to fix things, it takes time and deep coordination to restart semi-continental scale grids.

What One Second After awakened me to is the deep interdependence we have built between systems, all of which must work 99% of the time at least (and, in some cases, to five nines [99.999%] or better reliability.

The great failure of “continental scale” entities — whether this be the former Soviet Union, or the current Canada, United States, Australia, or China, and increasingly the European Union — is that the large scale “market” that emerges is an inducement to rationalizing activity across the scope of that entity. As a child, I remember routinely seeing something that I, living in Toronto, didn’t really resonate to: “Prices higher west of the Rockies”, in advertising. The reason, I later found out — especially after moving to the West Coast — is that the Pacific Coast and Intermountain regions of North America didn’t have the ease of transportation and energy flow over the mountains that the East and Prairies did. Local manufacturing, local companies, local markets persisted a generation longer in the West than elsewhere on the continent. That is, of course, long gone now.

What the inhabitants of the former Soviet Union found, as the system and then the country came apart, was that routine supplies of food, of power, of parts, etc. were disrupted. The USSR, in the name of “efficiency”, had mandated “country product mandates”. One plant produced all light bulbs, for instance, for a country spanning thirteen time zones. Another one produced all standard bolts. Yet another one processed all salted, tinned meats. Cascade failures in production began to occur even before the Gorbachev regime gave way to the independent republics. Once the borders went up, the economies collapsed further, as “rents” were charged to pay for the new governments and to “redress” grievances.

Fortschen doesn’t say it — it wouldn’t be essential to his story line — but we do exactly the same thing, and with one additional twist: for many items of daily use, we don’t even make them anymore. Industrial capitalism resolved itself to product mandate plants — Black & Decker or General Electric making all power tools here, all small electrical appliances there; all wiring harnesses made in one place for a variety of uses in the parts chains of manufacturers — to increase profits and “be more efficient”. (If you are building a modern factory, which is labour-shy but robot and numerically-controlled processor centric, this makes sense. Small plants with light levels of throughput can’t justify the technology on a economic basis.)

Financial capitalism took this one stage further. It encouraged companies to outsource, to handle their pollution or safety standard costs by working overseas where regulations permitted actions not allowed at home, all for a few cents per share extra earnings. In turn we, as consumers (rather than as citizens!) lusted after a few cents off the price of everything.

The collapse of the debt economy that is unfolding, energy security issues, high seas piracy, further strangling of transport with inept responses to terror worries while real terrorist issues are left to fester for lack of will to face reality, institutional breakdown leading to the rise of borders where none really exist, industrial agriculture’s products being behind many of our chronic illnesses — we have so many inter-tangled worries. No wonder John and Jane Average are more concerned with who will win on American Idol! Yet the prudent individual whose timespan is broader than their own immediate moment knows that lean years follow fat years.

Perhaps Cardinal Ratzinger, when elected to the Papacy, was sending us all a message with his choice of name “Benedict”, for St-Benedict, in the face of the long dying of the Roman Empire in the West realized the need to preserve and protect something for the future and look beyond the needs of the day.

I do not know, of course, if that was his motivation (the speaker of that has known him for many, many years) but it would be a prudent response nonetheless.

James Howard Kunstler, in his book Home from Nowhere, talks about Ruckytucks Farm, located in the Hudson Valley near his home in Saratoga Springs, NY. The farm must be both organic and have local buyers: there is no market with the food chains for small producer outputs, and none for industrial agriculture’s products at a local price point versus the production of massive operations in California, México, Chile and the like. He wrote about it — as he assumed food would be the one problem society wouldn’t have in his part of the world in his novel World Made by Hand — to show that it would be possible to go back. Fortschen, on the other hand, points out that none of the expertise, none of the seed stock and none of the tools to go back are likely to be present if the jump into disruption is fast.

I keep reminding myself that Fortschen wrote a novel, but the reality is that the ability to do what he talks about isn’t futuristic at all. It is very real, very accessible and very possible today (as it has been for at least two decades now). I also keep reminding myself that even if Fortschen’s event does — mirabile dictu! not occur, our society’s systems are stretched to the breaking point. We, in our comfortable Western lives in North America, Western Europe or the Antipodes, may not have everything fall down around us as Haïtians in the Port-au-Prince area did this week, but our homes will be equally useless to most of us without power that comes reliability, fuels for transport that are always available … I think you get the picture.

I urge you, if you haven’t, to read Fortschen’s One Second After; Orlov’s Reinventing Collapse; Kunstler’s The Long Emergency, World Made by Hand and Home from Nowhere; Jane Jacobs’ Dark Age Ahead; and to then do the following:

Walk. Learn how a world made intensely local would work for you where you are now.

The time to start thinking about “what happens next” isn’t “one second after” — it’s years ahead of the need.

Thinking back on the conversation that emerged around older technologies and the joy of slow and manual things caused me to find the time to take a look at some of my other recent writing, both by pen and on the screen. One of the things I do regularly is compose a haiku and post it on Twitter. I don’t pretend for even a moment that these are of any poetic value (since I don’t confuse “retweets” and positive feedback with literary merit).

However, in looking through these, I discovered that my subconscious had evidently been busy in the background — so I’d like to share the subconscious observation that was the unknown spark behind each of these haiku from 2010:

“Opinions ‘R’ Us”
I will keep talking until
you take one to like.

Hidden behind the whole notion of Opinions ‘R’ Us is a sense of what informal media has become, triggered by the columns of Rick Salutin (The Globe and Mail).

I can agree, from time to time, with Salutin; more often, I disagree, but that’s not the hidden thought. The hidden thought was that to do something I will do here — praise him for his writing — would, for the vast majority of readers, come across as me saying “I agree with Salutin”. Moreover, their response would be formed out of whether they did, or didn’t agree with that position: responding to him as a writer would almost never happen, although the responses will take the form of doing so.

This, in turn, corresponds to something that’s quite observable daily by looking at the comments attracted to a newspaper article on a paper’s web site, or the comments a blog post attracts. Few people either try to judge the position of the author and respond to it. They respond instead with their preconceptions and beliefs. (Almost no one tries to contribute to the author with new information on such sites.)

Go one step further. Google Reader, for instance, allows its users to share their list of RSS feed and turn it into a consolidated feed. I’ve asked many people for such feed links — seldom have I been turned down! — with an eye to seeing how widely cast is the net of reading. Over 85% of the feeds received have been highly concentrated, with little “dissent” included. This may be comforting, but it means we talk past each other most of the time.

One last buried thought that emerged while writing these words: it was noted back in the early 1980s that people who quoted statistics were assumed even then to “support” the finding. (In other words, to quote the lasted political poll that shows a shift in support is to support the party that benefitted from the shift.) How we are supposed to learn without dealing with facts, data and information without assuming the author’s stand is something we had better (re)learn quickly, because without it we will tear our society into actively hostile fragments that can’t be forged into a new whole.

World’s not black and white
Neither, endless shades of grey
Yin/yang complements.

Back in the late years of the Western Roman Empire, the tail end of a major struggle for control of the social order emerged between the Orthodox Christian Church — the filoque debate was still a half a millennium in the future and so the Orthodox/Catholic split had not yet emerged — and the Manichaeans. The followers of Mani — whose birth was celebrated on December 25 — were a reformed derivative of the Zoroastrians and carried into the religion of Mani the intense dualism of that faith. One of the great thinkers of Manichaean belief converted and became a Christian and the only Church Father of note to write in Latin: St. Augustine of Hippo. All of Western Christianity — Latin Orthodox, Latin Catholic, Roman Catholic and the various Protestant communities — can (as per Lawrence Brown in The Might of the West seen as the tension between the Celtic Christian forms of Pelagius, which does not take a dualist form (and therefore ignores “Original Sin” as a predestination) and the dualism inherent in St. Augustine.

“Either/or” thinking has been the heart of Western thought ever since. As we are learning, however, many problems are not black-and-white, or either/or, in nature. Whole classes are “both/and”. The Pelagian-derived saying “there are only endless shades of grey” tries to get at that.

I have come, however, behind this to see that when one such as Aristotle (and his successor, St. Thomas Aquinas) held that evil was not an opposite to good, but merely a sign that “good was missing” left residual oppositions in place that don’t reflect reality. Instead, under it all, we have complementarity (with appearances of dual pairs of opposites being extreme/special cases seen only partially, in a profile, but not holistically).

The most famous complement is expressed in the Yin/Yang symbol, in which the other is embedded in and a critical part of whichever one you are looking at, but the most important part is that these aren’t dualistic. This is far closer to “original Aristotle” (I say “original” because much of Aristotle as we have his writings today was edited by dualists during the late Roman Empire (east and west) and in the Islamic civilization of the Caliphs and our only indications of this is the odd reference quoting Aristotle elsewhere, plus patterns of interpretation of text starting with Spinoza and through the Higher Criticism of the 19th century). Aquinas did not question the dualism, since he was also concerned with not negating Augustine.

The more we think in opposites — including the blending together of factors in an effort to be “politically correct” and “not offend” — the more we miss reality.

To be becoming
you need only be human,
destined unto death.

When I wrote this, I was recalling my best friend’s aphorism, “Man is constantly in a state of becoming”. Yet, buried underneath, was the sense of time as destiny rather than a field of causality that I take from my view of history as a field of cyclical units in play, with lines of progress and regress working through them as differentiation is gained and lost, and as the balance of complementary domains shifts the horizon of interpretation in which “truths” are found.

I plan, at a future point, to spend more time on the sense of destiny. But it is a sense of Time as History (George Grant’s Massey Lectures of 1969) and of the big picture. Not only do we die individually, but eventually the functions we cast loose into the world to continue to exercise our plans, will and structures into the future also wear down, under the hypocrisy of institutional deviation. At the large scale, this is the death of whole civilizations.

We are in a time when the bigger structures that have formed us are sliding toward death, even though we as individuals may be growing, prospering, becoming. Some of these structures, in turn, shift to complementary forms that allow them to continue on with new growth. Others tip toward failure. Their scope, in turn, determines how many others fail in their wake.

Our destiny is part not only our dasein, but our Being Dasein, the ultimate character we play in our lives.

Global Arctic spell
From Borealis’ fury
Gods, deliver us.

So many who have been seized with the Anthropogenic Global Warming, Radical Climate Change, etc. messages (whether to worry about them and support radical action to forestall or minimize them, or to deny them in favour of an “I’m All Right, Jack!” approach) use weather patterns to argue for their view. Yet climate is in many ways a statistical abstraction.

The amateur “big picture” geologist in me knows how much of our sense of climate is formed from the geological record, where we do see shifting averages and that which a scientist calls “catastrophic” change (i.e. sudden changes from one stable state to another). Our world has at one point in its past been “Snowball Earth”, apparently totally glaciated and iced over; at another point it had a green sky and subtropical trees grew abundantly north of the Arctic Circle. Evolutionary die-offs and new pulses of evolution can be correlated with these (and other) periods. The sense that time is fleeting that animates the “we must dictate change” view is easily supported by this.

Yet things are not as settled as they seem: the Mediaeval Warm Period was a time with — according to the rock and ice core records — less “greenhouse” effect than in the Little Ice Age that followed it. To make the “hockey stick” temperature graphs work wiping that Warm Period out of the data (and Wikipedia) was an essential. (How one wipes out the obvious archaeological sites at L’Anse aux Meadows, in Greenland, etc. is another story.)

This (Northern Hemisphere) winter has started with an Arctic Oscillation that has placed cold winds, ice and snow in bulk in regions that usually fare better; a solid (although not record-breaking) El Niño in the Pacific, and an apparent suppression of part of the heat transfer via the Gulf Stream to the North Atlantic-Norwegian Sea region. That neither supports nor opposes the thesis of climate change. Weather is (as always) merely a daily grumble and data point to later enter into the averages. The Mediaeval Warm Period, in turn, brings the anthropogenic portion into question — not a “proof against”, but something to devise other tests “for”.

All this adds up to the old English hymn and prayer, recalling the years of Viking invasion and raid that destroyed much of the residue of Celtic and Anglo-Saxon culture and wiped out the residue of learning from Celtic Christianity, summed up in the line “From the fury of the Norsemen, Good Lord, deliver us.” The role of the older Scandinavian and European Gods in the lives of the Vikings and the predecessors of the Anglo-Saxon invasions, along with the constant surprise found in Britain when truly adverse weather shows up, gave rise to this line of thought.

Oh, yes, what was the buried thought? The usual British Rail, London Tube, etc. PA announcement that “the points have seized due to leaves/wet/whatever on the rails”, as though leaves didn’t fall in the autumn, it never rained, etc. The willingness of officialdom of all types of avoid simply saying “it broke down, sorry, here’s what we’re doing about it” gave rise in Britain to the grumble “wrong sort of leaves”. I guess this winter has given them the “wrong sort of snow”.

Spending some time with your own thoughts — doing a little writing or sketching, then seeing what lies behind your creations — may give you some surprises, and joys, too.

It is not generally my desire in this blog to spend much time commenting on current affairs. Nevertheless, following up on my classical—mixed—radical categories of political analysis, I’d like to use the current angst in the media, in partisan blogs, and amongst (chiefly) the Liberal Party and its spokespeople over the current prorogation of Parliament, to point out that the hypocrisy of supporting the radicalization of any institution one day will — and sooner than ever expected — come back to bite the radicals involved.

Let me be clear up front: this post is not a defence of prorogation as it has occurred. It is not a defence of Stephen Harper, his decision in this matter, nor of things favourable to his party. But neither is it a defence of the claims being made about it, e.g. “destructive of democracy”, “being used to thwart investigations”, “disrespectful to the institution”, and so on.

My own view (for the record) is:

  • Prorogation was required if recognition of the change of control of the business of the Senate with new Senatorial appointments to fill vacancies, and the composition of Senate Committees thereunto, was to be achieved, as there was no sign a voluntary reorganization would be carried out,
  • It is, in our Parliamentary System, appropriate for such changes of control to be recognized (regardless of whether they favour the Government or the Opposition, they should be allowed to occur at the earliest feasible date), and
  • Parliament should have been resumed on its regularly scheduled date in late January, as the extended period without sitting is not in the interests of our tradition of governance (Queen-in-Parliament, with the Ministry responsible to the House and Senate).

and that

  • Most of the “lost” legislation was poorly formed radical attempts to socially engineer outcomes, and should not have been passed in the House in the first place,
  • The “Afghanistan investigation” is a cynical attempt to claim the Government is responsible for the actions of another sovereign government, a set of conditions established by the previous Liberal Government of Paul Martin and honoured as a commitment of Canada by the current Conservative Government, and that despite the outcome keeping party differences in Canada is part of our traditions, (or that we renegotiate these terms openly, not simply make administrative decisions).
  • The decision to adjourn the House for the 2010 Vancouver Olympics (previously scheduled) is a piece of public pandering and idiocy. The rest of us will be at work and — thanks to the wonder of time zone differences from Ottawa’s Eastern Time Zone — will have no trouble taking an interest in the Games in the evening, should we care to. Our MPs and Senators can, too.

but none of these in and of themselves justify waiting until March to resume with a new session of this Parliament.

I trust my readers can keep in mind that my views are not what is at stake here, but rather the impact of radical change years earlier.

How Parliament Lost Responsible Government

Just as the Canadian Income Tax was instituted in 1917 “for the duration of the War” by Act of Parliament (amazing, isn’t it, that we still have it, given the Remembrance Day Holiday established to mark the end of the War in question?) so too the shifting of Ministers from being responsible to Parliament to being responsible first to each other and quickly to the Prime Minister is a legacy of World War II. It served the interests of the governments of Mackenzie King and St-Laurent to carry on with this, of course. As they held majorities, the Members Opposite — Progressive Conservative, CCF, Social Credit/Créditiste and, at one time, a Communist — could complain but not effect change. It was the sheepish “taking of the Whip” in the interests of their own Liberal Party by Government Members who failed to demand that their own Government’s Ministers be responsible to the House and Senate that caused the Canadian invention of Responsible Government to be lost in Ottawa.

Having far more members in the Commons might well have forestalled that, as I have many times in the past decade published. The fact is that it happened, and that the hypocrisy of making a radical change to Parliament without consideration of the consequences in future years has warped the institution. Today, demands that responsibility return are so much whinge: the original change and its persistence through to 1957 was more than enough to give any future government the ability to ignore the requirement of a responsible Ministry — and make it stick.

How Parliament Lost Ministerial Responsibility

The next major erosion in Parliament came with the arrival of the Trudeau Government. This is the period in which the PMO became the key force on Parliament Hill, and in which the independence of Ministers began to erode. A response little noted at the time to challenges to Ministers was the beginning of Prime Ministerial rebuffs to Ministers resigning — as was the practice of responsible government — when an event occurred “on their watch”. At first only accountability for minor events was rebuffed, with Ministers stonewalling Parliamentary Committees (House and Senate) and remaining in office for former “resignation” situations. (By the time of the Chrétien Governments of the 1990s-2000s even major events were rebuffed, and whether in defence of a Minister or, as in the case of Paul Martin, to remove one seen as being insubordinate, Chrétien made it clear to all and sundry that his Ministers served at his will, with no other considerations. One reason we remember the first Mulroney Government as “scandal-ridden” was that Mulroney reverted, in his first term, to the notion of Ministerial Responsibility, something which, in the defence of his own Government, he ultimately had to abandon.)

The Erosion of Parliamentary Committees

During the Chrétien and Martin years, the effectiveness of Parliamentary Committees was eroded as well. During a majority government this served to stifle disturbing agendas. In the Martin minority the arrival of committee majorities held jointly by the opposition parties, and indeed committees chaired by opposing MPs, intensified the whipping of government members to “stand together” and to use procedural methods to frustrate committee chairs with “unfriendly” agendas. Once the party in power changed in 2006, committees became the focal point of “resistance” to the government — and, unfortunately, their frustration and marginalization through procedure has intensified as the resistance has intensified. Today the committees of the House are effectively moribund. Senate committees had continued to operate more as was intended in our Parliamentary tradition, but only due to their being held in opposition hands. Starting in the next session, it will be interesting to see if the Senate can maintain its traditional committee effectiveness, or if the Senators who are neither Conservatives nor Liberals become engaged in the frustration of the effective operation of Parliament.

The Effective Operation of Parliament

That last phrase — “the effective operation of Parliament” — is the key to understanding how changes can undo the institution by bending it to immediate needs. Committees in both House and Senate were never intended to be arms of the Government of the day. Instead, they were intended to treat Parliamentarians as true contributors — true legislators loyal to their individual moral cores and as representing their ridings/regions. The responsibility of the Government (the Ministry) to the House and Senate was intended to be carried out under the watchful eye of committees of Members exercising judgement, not taking the whip of their party.

Thanks to whipped members giving up their prerogatives as MPs and Senators and turning their institution into something organized to benefit their party and leader, it is no longer possible for Parliament to mean much if anything. It has become a rubber stamp, whose actions are controlled solely by members slavishly following orders, regardless of their own promises, convictions or judgement. Couple this to the effect of television coverage of the chambers, where “victory” (truly, notoriety) goes to the loudest, most strident, most quotable and media-savvy and the Chambers are otherwise almost empty during the hours of “debate” (for even if a mind is changed, a vote is not), and the Parliamentary tradition has fallen to the “friendly dictator” approach first named for Chrétien, but applicable to Martin and Harper as well, while most Canadians believe that we pay too much for what we get from our MPs and Senators.

In a world dominated by parties, Prime Ministers and whips, we do. But that does not imply we should cut — it implies we should remove the roadblock of abrogated power and make it difficult to return.

Every change willingly entered into by the party in power at the time aided and abetted its immediate interest. That that party now finds the shoe on the other foot, and chafes at it, full of sound and fury but accomplishing nothing (including being able to capitalize on their own noise) makes the point that failing to consider the harm done by a change matters, since complex adaptive entities such as our political system cannot simply be “reset” or “rolled back” if we don’t like the longer-term outcome. If Mulroney — with this country’s most massive Parliamentary majority and a true majority of Canadian votes cast (not merely the traditional plurality) — was unable to put it to Canadians that reversing the Trudeau-era reduction in Parliamentary power in the face of a few members of the “Rat Pack”, an expression of similar “will to change” today is equally likely to be undone by the power of the system as it now is. This is why I have called for a Re-Confederation process, to reinvent our institutions — for piece-meal patches will only emphasize the concentration of power that exists.

If the anti-prorogation crowd had been concerned about the erosion in the system, the part their idols have played in it, the part their quest for “a better leader” plays in it, and so forth, I might have been more interested in listening. As it is, they offer only (at best) more of the same but with them in power, and (at worst) promises to further strip away the residue of responsibility and the last shreds of our Queen-in-Parliament system if handed the keys to the kingdom.

When one has cancer, cosmetic surgery should be the least of one’s concerns.

We live in a society — especially true in North America but generally true throughout the West — that puts a high premium on “the new thing”. This “technological framework” — and by this I mean our practices, processes, methods, etc. just as much as I do our gadgets, computer systems and the like — forms a horizon that limits many, if not close to all, of us into a set of presumptions that favour new developments, new tools and new inventions.

(Let me interrupt here: those who dramatically oppose such developments are not better. In many ways the proponent and the opponent depend on each other. They are as complementary as are yin and yang. The more interesting opponent is the one who can escape the framework once in it, not the one who reinforces it in their “opposition” to it.)

In his seminal essay, “Die Frage nach der Technik” (from 1947, and published first in 1954 in Vorträge und Aufsätze), Martin Heidegger explored the way our beings are formed by life inside this framework. As a horizon of interpretation, certain questions and types of formation are closed and excluded just as others are aided and abetted by it. Heidegger worried about the effect of this concentrated frame on our beings.

I’ve made my living for more than three and a half decades now from operating near the coalface of modern information technologies, and from the überbiegende Technik of management theory and practice. Beyond that, I’ve been an early adopter of many technologies, from usable (i.e. non-programmer-skill-based) computing to social networks and their offspring. These are not things and ways of acting that I’m purporting to give up, nor have I changed my belief structure to suggest that I’ve become a “technological ‘atheist'”. Rather, what has become clear is that older ways of doing things have not lost their utility in the face of the new — and that they may offer their own forms of beauty, truth and goodness that are harder to find deep in the technological milieu.

Take writing, for instance. Today I sit in front of the computer screen, typing the characters that make up this short piece into a window on a webpage. Highly modern, indeed — and easy to make changes in. I don’t, for a moment, think that we are unable to write well with such tools. Clearly those of us who care to write well can write well here. (Perhaps one might object to the vast sea of bad writing these tools and this medium bring forth, but the option to bypass these works remains with us, and it is only by making one’s bad writing better through ever-more writing and criticism that we improve, so bad writing’s prevalence does not worry me.)

Alas, this experience is missing some elements. When I pick up my fountain pen, and pull out a journal with acid-free paper, and go to begin to put my thoughts down, my internal dialogue is generally far more engaged in the task of writing than it is where cutting-and-pasting, backspacing and typing over, etc. are the norm. That one can stroke through material and rewrite it on the page in ink does not change the feeling that one ought to do a better job of forming the work, for the page shows everything from the ink splotch from lingering with the nib, to the obvious turns in direction kept in to avoid such edits, to edits themselves. There is an exposure on what feels a personal level — through these signs, through the evolution of one’s handwriting, to the style of handwriting one affects, and the use of the page space and colour of ink, for instance — that is less obvious in the computer-driven networked space. It is not that we can’t colour our digital “ink”, introduce our editing thoughts, etc. — but it is not the normal worry, and so there is a sense of distance.

Do I work on my handwriting, trying to form letters and words clearly? My handwritten work will show you this and allow you to infer it. Me, too! — instead of “multitasking” by attending to the open Twitter client, Skype chats, emails arriving, etc. while attempting to write a piece that says what I want to say and that’s worth reading by you, I am instead “multitasking” by attending to the potential beauty in physical form, to my change in this over time, etc.

None of this is exhaustive, of course — but worries about the beauty of the physical form, or the change in form produced over time are outside the technological frame. They are part of what can and is often lost.

Other ways of including these persist, of course. Choosing to style a well-known and oft-translated work such as “The Question Concerning Technology” by its original German title could be an insistence on the author’s form — a recognition that what ‘Technik’ means in German is more than what ‘Technology’ means in English — a preference for the German language — a desire to find reasons to use italicized text for its appearance — and more. So it is not that “the old” has beauty and “the new” does not, but the motifs do differ, and the easy recognition of the figure against the ground by the reader of inherent beauty, inner truth, expression of natural faith, objective goodness and subjective value may differ significantly.

In the newer online world, what matters — despite the ease of the author’s publishing his or her work! — is the reader. As was said in a Facebook comment on yesterday’s posting here, “I want all the comments assembled in one place”. (The author of that statement went on to conclude with the name of a newly-launched tool purporting to do just that: the search for a technology to “do more”.) Fair enough. I, too, would “like all the comments in one place” — but I do recognize that the answer is not necessarily to be found in a new technology, yet another place to go or thing to do in the course of a day.

For I also value the feel of the heavy pen in my hand — the feel of the ink flowing onto the page — and the slower pace involved (for I do type at a goodly speed), especially when attending to my handwriting so as to maintain its clarity and legibility and, dare I say, potential beauty — and think it good in an objective sense that it gives me the time to play with words in a different and (in my case) more fulfilling way than typing here does. In both cases, incidentally, I must have the bulk of the work in my mind before I begin: it remains a blank page whether on the screen or in a book until that has happened. So the “time” issue does not translate, for me (it may well for others), into “time enough to do a better job” — but the slower pace (as with “slow food”, walking rather than driving, etc.) allows much more of the world to “be present” and to presence itself to me in novel ways. That is worth my praise of older ways all in itself.

So I do not think technology and technique will be our saving grace, and not because we’ve left some problems too long (although we have). Rather it’s because, as Carroll Quigley ably pointed out in his The Evolution of Civilizations, of the six major axes of human endeavour he pointed out any of Man’s civilizations, at any point in their time, lives to emphasize some of these over others. It’s because, as Eric Voegelin, pointed out in his five volumes of Order and History, that we can lose the maximal differentiation of experience developed (in these axes) in de-emphasizing that axis and pushing another forward. This is what Heidegger was getting at.

I believe, in this twenty-first century, the technological framework has driven so hard in a few directions that we have lost much on the other axes — and I worry that our ahistorical way of looking at the world means that, should we want to “go back” and pick up some of these past axes of interest, we will not be able to without a long period of reconstruction and redevelopment, a (as Jane Jacobs argued in her last book) Dark Age Ahead. There are other times in history where this has happened before. It is worth worrying about.

If this worries you, consider trying a few older techniques for things. Become a craftsman at something. Pick up a nib-style pen and write. Fix, not replace, a small electrical appliance (don’t overlook buying an old one to see how tools from two generations ago were designed for repair, unlike many of today’s). In other words, try and move outside the realm of “the new”. You may shift your own horizons by doing so.

That, indeed, will make you better prepared for troubled times if they come. For the one truth about pushing any techniques too far is, in the words of Joseph Tainter’s book, The Collapse of Complex Societies.