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Olduvai III: Catacylsm
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Quantum, Jazz and Dada – 1

Marcel Duchamp Nude descending a staircase 1912

Ilargi: Much to my surprise, I received a mail from an old friend. Alexander Aston last wrote for the Automatic Earth in 2014. But he hasn’t been idle. Alexander is presently finishing his doctorate in archeology at Oxford, after prior degrees in philosophy and history. And for this article, he’s been thinking about how upheaval and collapse tend to lead to new insights, new bursts of creativity, in science, religion, society and the arts. A view that’s -too- rarely contemplated. It’s so long I cut it into three parts. Please don’t miss any of them.

Here’s Alexander:

Quantum, Jazz and Dada:
The Dynamic Symmetry of Destruction and Creativity

Do not now seek the answers, which cannot be given to you because you would not be able to live them. And the point is, to live everything. Live the questions now. Perhaps you will then gradually, without noticing it, live along some distant day into the answer.”
– Rainer Maria Rilke


This paper is not about Quantum, Jazz and Dada per se, but rather a meditation on those radical bursts of human creativity that occur during historically destructive moments. Ultimately, my thesis is quite simple. Barring the possibility of extinction, humans are on the precipice of the most radical social reorganizations in the history of the species. In navigating this process of transformation, if we wish to create a world worth living in, it is necessary to understand the interactions between energy, ecosystems, cognitive development and social organization.

Without a grasp on the interdependence of these relationships there is no hope for shaping our world in a healthier manner. What is historically unquestionable is that periods of radical upheaval result in drastic reconfigurations of belief, meaning and knowledge.

…click on the above link to read the rest of the article…

Wake up. Stop dreaming!

Wake up. Stop dreaming!

Wake up, stop dreaming

“The sun is in the sky again
There’s a hole in the ocean
And water’s pouring through.
Oh, wake up stop dreaming
And wipe the sleep from your eyes.
Are you frightened of heights?
Are you falling”?

-Wang Chung song lyrics.

“One of the penalties of an ecological education is that one lives alone in a world of wounds,” wrote Aldo Leopold in A Sand County Almanac . “Much of the damage inflicted on land is quite invisible to laymen. An ecologist must either harden his shell and make believe that the consequences of science are none of his business, or he must be the doctor who sees the marks of death in a community that believes itself well and does not want to be told otherwise.”

I fell in love with woods, pasture and creek living on my grandparent’s farm when I was a child.  After my family moved to the nearby small rural community I found my dose of ‘nature’ walking down a dirt road to the lake, where I would sit with my back against a giant cotton wood tree and look out over the water.  Someone loaned me a copy of the geologic history of our community’s lake.  I was fascinated to learn that it was a remnant of the last ice age; the basin formed from an iceberg that calved off the retreating ice sheet and buried in sediment where it slowly melted over decades.  During a particularly bad drought in the ‘30’s the shore had retreated and farmers plowed the lake sediment.  The lake had existed here for thousands of years and we often found arrow heads in the nearby land.

…click on the above link to read the rest of the article…

Degrowth: A Call For Radical Abundance

When orthodox economists first encounter the idea of degrowth, they often jump to the conclusion that the objective is to reduce GDP.  And because they see GDP as equivalent to social wealth, this makes them very upset.

Nothing could be further from the truth.

I reject the fetishization of GDP as an objective in the existing economy, so it would make little sense for me to focus on GDP as the objective of a degrowth economy.  Wanting to cut GDP is as senseless as wanting to grow it.

The objective, rather, is to scale down the material throughput of the economy.  From an ecological standpoint, that’s what matters.  And indeed some orthodox economists might even agree.  Where we differ is that while they persist in believing (against the evidence) that this can be done while continuing to grow GDP, I acknowledge that it is likely to result in a reduction of GDP, at least as we presently measure it.  In other words, if we were to keep measuring the economy by GDP, that’s what we would see in a degrowth scenario.

And that’s okay.

It’s okay, because we know that human beings can thrive without extremely high levels of GDP.

There are many pieces to this argument, but I want to focus on one here in particular.  One of the core claims of degrowth economics is that by restoring public services and expanding the commons, people will be able to access the goods that they need to live well without needing high levels of income.

Take London, for instance.  Housing prices in London are astronomically high, to the point where a normal one-bedroom flat can cost upwards of $1 million.

…click on the above link to read the rest of the article…

A Sufficiency Vision for an Ecologically Constrained World


Owing to the limits of eco-efficiency and the need to liberate environmental space for the global poor, new policy instruments should be designed to bring about ecological fair sharing between countries and a new economy based on the concept of sufficiency.

EU economic policies should pursue an equitable downscaling of Member States’ environmental ‘throughput’, namely the rate at which they use energy and raw materials. Since a constant increase in the transformation of natural resources into goods and services is ingrained in our current economic system, this downscaling challenges the dominant economic belief in the feasibility and desirability of infinite economic growth. This implies a new direction for societies, one in which they will organise and live differently from today.

The sufficiency transformation would mean that people work fewer hours in paid employment, share jobs and services, and lead more social and less materialistic lifestyles. Although economic activity would be more localised, the state would have an important role both to limit material and energy use, and redistribute income and wealth. Many new policy ideas for an economic paradigm shift have been developed and discussed at the academic and grassroots levels in recent years. And finally NGOs have started talking about this too with Friends of the Earth Europe recently publishing the booklet Sufficiency: moving beyond the gospel of eco-efficiency which includes several policy proposals to advance the debate towards a post-growth economy.

Why the economics of enough

We live in a world where more than 2 billion people still live on less than 3.10 international dollars per day. While the global share of people living under this poverty line has been in steady declinefor the past few decades, there is very little hope that this trend can continue without a change of paradigm.

…click on the above link to read the rest of the article…

An Engineer, an Economist, and an Ecomodernist Walk Into a Bar and Order a Free Lunch . . .

An Engineer, an Economist, and an Ecomodernist Walk Into a Bar and Order a Free Lunch . . .

Photo source NASA Goddard Space Flight Center | CC BY 2.0

Humanity’s and the Earth’s prospects have been dimming for the past year and a half. But they’ve been bleak for a long time; as little was being done about the global ecological crisis before January 2017 as has been done since. Neither then nor now has the national or world power structure acknowledged that deep reductions in human resource use and economic activity, but with sufficiency for all, are necessary. Instead, the most popular proposed “solutions” would double down on human ingenuity and market forces, the two factors that have been central to creating our predicament in the first place.

. . . So the bartender says, “OK, I’ll start you a tab and bring out your lunch”

With the political-economic road to an ecological civilization seemingly blocked for now, too many of our allies are following detour signs toward dubious industrial and post-industrial fixes.

The mother of invention is the quest for new markets, and, as Thorstein Veblen once quipped, it’s invention that’s the mother of necessity. If a technology will sell, society is obliged to accept it. In this new century, Silicon Valley and Seattle have weaponized the invention of necessity, and innovation for innovation’s sake has become the driver of the human economy. Material and energetic limits are wished away; money, human brain power, and soon, artificial intelligence will miraculously transcend all limits.

That’s all hogwash, of course. The ecological economist Nicholas Georgescu-Roegen, in his 1971 book The Entropy Law and the Economic Process, and those who followed him have shown that no technology can repeal the Entropy Law—that there is not and will never be a free lunch. Today, those realities are being studiously ignored by innovators, disruptors, and other perpetual-motion specialists.

…click on the above link to read the rest of the article…

Ecology: The Keystone Science

Ecology: The Keystone Science

Photo by U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Headquarters | CC BY 2.0

A missing piece from most critiques of modern capitalism revolves around the misunderstanding of ecology. To put it bluntly, there will be no squaring the circle of mass industrial civilization and an inhabitable Earth. There is no way for energy and resource use, along with all the strife, warfare, and poverty that comes along with it, to continue under the business as usual model that contemporary Western nations operate under.

There is also the problem of constructing millions of solar panels and gigantic wind farms to attempt to bring the entire world’s population to a middle class existence based on a North American, or even European levels of energy use. All of the hypothetical robots and artificial intelligence to be constructed for such a mega-endeavor needed to enact such a project would at least initially rely on fossil fuels and metals plundered from the planet, and only lead to more rapacious destruction of the world.

The dominant technological model is utterly delusional. Here I would urge each of us to consider our “human nature” (a problematic term, no doubt) and the costs and the manner of the work involved: if each of us had to kill a cow for food, would we? If each of us had to mine or blast a mountain for coal or iron, or even for a wind turbine, would we do it? If each of us had to drill an oil well or bulldoze land for a gigantic solar array next to many endangered species or a threatened coral reef, would we?

My guess would be no, for the vast majority of the population. Instead, we employ corporations and specialists to carry out the dirty work in the fossil fuel industries and animal slaughtering, to name just a few.

…click on the above link to read the rest of the article…

Systems Thinking, Critical Thinking, and Personal Resilience

As a writer focused on the global sustainability crisis, I’m often asked how to deal with the stress of knowing—knowing, that is, that we humans have severely overshot Earth’s long-term carrying capacity, making a collapse of both civilization and Earth’s ecological systems likely; knowing that we are depleting Earth’s resources (including fossil fuels and minerals) and clogging its waste sinks (like the atmosphere’s and oceans’ ability to absorb CO2); knowing that the decades of rapid economic growth that characterized the late 20th and early 21st centuries are ending, and that further massive interventions by central banks and governments can’t do more than buy us a little bit more time of relative stability; knowing that technology (even renewable energy technology) won’t save our fundamentally unsustainable way of life.

In the years I’ve spent investigating these predicaments, I’ve been fortunate to meet experts who have delved deeply into specific issues—the biodiversity crisis, the population crisis, the climate crisis, the resource depletion crisis, the debt crisis, the plastic waste crisis, and on and on. In my admittedly partial judgment, some of the smartest people I’ve met happen also to be among the more pessimistic. (One apparently smart expert I haven’t had opportunity to meet yet is 86-year-old social scientist Mayer Hillman, the subject of this recent article in The Guardian.)

In discussing climate change and all our other eco-social predicaments, how does one distinguish accurate information from statements intended to elicit either false hope or needless capitulation to immediate and utter doom? And, in cases where pessimistic outlooks do seem securely rooted in evidence, how does one psychologically come to terms with the information?

Systems Thinking

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Only ‘collective intelligence’ can help us stave off an uninhabitable planet

Only ‘collective intelligence’ can help us stave off an uninhabitable planet

Humanity needs new tools to overcome the global crisis of collective insanity

Published by INSURGE intelligence, a crowdfundedinvestigative journalism platform for people and planet. Support us to report where others fear to tread.

The world faces an unprecedented convergence of crises. The ecological crisis, which points to a near uninhabitable planet by end of century if business-as-usual continues, is perhaps its most apocalyptic dimension. But the ecological crisis is intimately bound up with the business-as-usual political, economic, and cultural structures of industrial civilization-as-we-know it.

The crisis

Last year, I reported on an analysis by British investment firm Scroders, which concluded that at our current rate of burning fossil fuels, global average temperatures would rise by as much as 7.8C by 2100. The catastrophic collapse of GDP at this point, by more than 50%, would be the least of our problems. Also unleashed would be uncontrollable amplifying feedback processes that would lead to the loss of most of the world’s coral reefs; the disappearance of major mountain glaciers; the total loss of the Arctic summer sea-ice, most of the Greenland ice-sheet and the break-up of West Antarctica; acidification and overheating of the oceans; catastrophic sea-level rise swamping major cities from London to New York; the collapse of the Amazon rainforest; and the loss of Arctic permafrost; to name just a few.

The ecological crisis is, then, bound up with both our civilization’s addiction to oil, gas and coal; and its addiction to endless economic growth. The imperative to continuously grow our economies has pushed forward an escalating hunger for hydrocarbons as the fuel for that growth. And yet, with every year, we encounter increasing evidence that we are depleting the planet’s natural resources at unsustainable levels — beyond the planet’s capacity to renew itself.

…click on the above link to read the rest of the article…

The ninety percent and the tithe

The ninety percent and the tithe

I think it likely that 90% of our working time creates what we don’t need and also damages work to preserve what we do need. That is: most of our time is not only wasted but destructive. Of course, I’m speaking of the so-called First World and of the mass of what it does. First World economies could be renamed Last World economies. If First World people want to be constructive – to become Possible World people, then we must shrink our GDP to just that 10%. No government can or will even attempt to achieve that. I cannot think of a single powerful politician (even in the Green Party) who would consider it. Only the household can do it. Politicians may then follow the fashion.

Money-flow through wages and profits follows (or should follow) the same trajectory as energy-flow. Let’s consider that 90% of energy-flow – of what people do – is powered by fossil fuels. So, then we can say that wasted time, destructive time and soul-sapping futility are also directly related to fossil fuels.

Remove fossil fuels and we can easily produce what we need, while also dramatically reducing ecological and economical harm. 90% of our time will be freed to devote to new, regenerative and more appropriate cultural activity. Removing fossil fuels will prove beneficial, not only to climate change, but to the conviviality and durability of culture.

Yes, cultures were often destructive before the use of fossil fuels. Even so, reliance on natural cycles will mean engaging with natural cycles, whereas those millions of years of sequestered photosynthesis lay supine for the plundering by the worst of our opportunistic human nature. Now we may find our better selves. That’s the moral – we may or may not do so. We need moral conversation.

…click on the above link to read the rest of the article…

Hierarchy, climate change and the state of nature

Hierarchy, climate change and the state of nature

We can start building new tools for a democratic and ecological society once we understand hierarchy as the central problem

The Sumerian Standard of Ur is 4,600 years old, showing the king in the top middle, standing taller than any other figure. Image: Wikipedia
We briefly mentioned the problem of hierarchy as the shared root of many systems of oppression in our first column two weeks ago.  In this article, we want to expand on the meaning of hierarchy—a system of obedience and command backed by the threat of force—and ground it in history. If we are to understand what we face and avoid reproducing it in building a new society, the social roots of hierarchy deserve a more thorough exploration.

In Western society, there are two prominent ‘origin stories.’ One is that of the Hobbesian ‘war of all against all,’ in which humans are innately vicious and violent, and only the introduction of strong authority could keep people’s natural state in check.

The other story is that prior to the existence of civilizations, humans lived in egalitarian and mostly peaceful bands enjoying the natural abundance of nature. In this version, it was only with the development of agriculture and centralized societies that we fell from grace and became the violent and hierarchical creatures we are today.

The destruction of our environment is not some natural, vicious drive of humanity, but something that emerges from the very inequalities created by hierarchy.

Both stories share an assumption that pre-civilization humans can be painted with a broad brush, and that hierarchy – whether good or bad – can be traced to a natural evolution point in human history.

…click on the above link to read the rest of the article…

Foresters vs. Ecologists

Foresters vs. Ecologists

Photo by Andrew Malone | CC BY 2.0

There is a huge difference between the Industrial Forestry worldview and an ecological perspective. Many people assume that foresters understand forest ecosystems, but what you learn in forestry school is how to produce wood fiber to sell to the wood products industry. I know because I attended a forestry school as an undergraduate in college.

Assuming that foresters understand forest ecosystems is like assuming that a realtor who sells houses understands how to construct a building because they peddle homes.

Foresters usually view ecological disturbance from insects, drought, wildfire, and disease as undesirable and indications of “unhealthy” forests. That is why they work to sanitize forests by removing dead and dying trees and attempt to limit with thinning influences like bark beetles or wildfire.

An ecologist sees these disturbance processes not as a threat to forests, but the critical factors that maintain healthy forest ecosystems. Indeed, one could argue that natural mortality processes like drought, bark beetles or wildfire are “keystone” processes that sustain the forest ecosystem.

Where foresters seek to prevent large wildfires through logging/thinning or what can be described as chainsaw medicine, ecologists see large high severity fires as essential to functioning ecosystems.

Where foresters remove shrubs by mastication (chopping them up) to reduce what they call “fuel”, an ecologist sees wildlife habitat. Indeed, one recent study found mastication reduced bird occurrence by half.

Where foresters seek to reduce tree density to speed growth, an ecologist seeks to maintain density to slow growth because slow-growing trees have denser wood that is slower to rot, hence last longer in the ecosystem.

Where foresters justify thinning to preclude wildfires, an ecologist notes that the probability of a fire encountering a thinned stand is extremely low.

…click on the above link to read the rest of the article…

Unearthing the Capitalocene: Towards a Reparations Ecology

Settled agriculture, cities, nation-states, information technology and every other facet of the modern world have unfolded within a long era of climatic good fortune. Those days are gone. Sea levels are rising; climate is becoming less stable; average temperatures are increasing. Civilization emerged in a geological era known as the Holocene. Some have called our new climate era the Anthropocene. Future intelligent life will know we were here because some humans have filled the fossil record with such marvels as radiation from atomic bombs, plastics from the oil industry and chicken bones.

What happens next is unpredictable at one level and entirely predictable at another. Regardless of what humans decide to do, the twenty-first century will be a time of “abrupt and irreversible” changes in the web of life. Earth system scientists have a rather dry term for such a fundamental turning point in the life of a biospheric system: state shift. Unfortunately, the ecology from which this geological change has emerged has also produced humans who are ill-equipped to receive news of this state shift. Nietzsche’s madman announcing the death of god was met in a similar fashion: although industrial Europe had reduced divine influence to the semi-compulsory Sunday-morning church attendance, nineteenth-century society couldn’t imagine a world without god. The twenty-first century has an analogue: it’s easier for most people to imagine the end of the planet than to imagine the end of capitalism.

We need an intellectual state shift to accompany our new epoch. The first task is one of conceptual rigor, to note a problem in naming our new geological epoch the Anthropocene. The root, anthropos(Greek for “human”), suggests that it’s just humans being humans, in the way that kids will be kids or snakes will be snakes, that has caused climate change and the planet’s sixth mass extinction.

…click on the above link to read the rest of the article…

The Revolutionary Civilizational Paradigm Eco Villages


The vast majority of people in the world no longer live in any sort of human settlement that could be considered a village. Rather, the increased urbanization of our species and the displacement of rural communities has led to a collection of isolated individuals who have very little relationship to the geographical place where they live and the people they share that place with. During the last two decades, however, thousands of people have begun to challenge this paradigm through the creation of Eco villages.


When you fly into any major city, one of the most common sights is the neat rows of houses in suburban neighborhoods. The cul-de-sacs and streets seem to be designed with an almost super human exactness and neatness. The similar homes all with their green lawns and neat driveways are in many ways the exemplification of the American Dream.

Behind this neat appearance, however, there are serious problems surrounding the suburban neighborhood. Their reliance on huge amounts of fossil fuel energy, the need to use a car to get to work and for pretty much any other need, the lack of any true sense of community or neighborliness, and their disconnection from the natural world all make suburban communities uniquely unsustainable.

One of the defining moments of the history of human civilization was when people came together to live in communities or villages. These spaces allowed for people to work together to provide for their livelihoods while also maintaining the surrounding landscape in ecological health.

Today´s suburban neighborhood has very little relationship to any sort of village. Rather, it is simply a connection of individual homes in a certain area. Most people never know their neighbors nor share any sort of connection with them.

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Signs Of Distress

The need to change is becoming more obvious than ever
The world is edging closer to the final moments after which everything will be forever changed. Grand delusions, perpetuated over decades, will finally hit the limits of reality and collapse in on themselves.

We’re over-budget and have eaten deeply into the principal balances of all of our main trust accounts. We are ecologically overdrawn, financially insolvent, monetarily out past the Twilight Zone, consuming fossil fuels (as in literally eating them), and adding 80,000,000 net souls to the planet’s surface — each year! — without regard to the consequences.

Someday there will be hell to pay financially, economically, and ecologically as there simply isn’t any way to maintain these overdrafts forever. Reality does not renegotiate. Its deal terms aren’t compromisable.

For those who have the neural plasticity to actually see what’s happening around us, the changes are already here, blatant and frightening. Younger folks, with their fresher eyes and fewer ties to the past, can see them a lot easier than their elders.

The prosperity enjoyed by the past few generations — especially the Baby Boomers — was stolen from future generations. All the while, they pretended as if their borrowing-heavy standards of living were the result of sheer genius and intelligence; like trust fund babies who mistake being born on third base for hitting a triple.

Young people have sussed this out; and are now pulling back from many of the principal occupations of their forebears — like marriage, babies and buying homes and cars. This perplexes older folks, who are beginning to find themselves increasingly at odds with the generations following after them.

Humans can be very very smart, but the flip-side of our ingenuity is our capacity for self-delusion. We’ve very consistently preferred to look past our faults. That can work for a while, but eventually an incomplete view will lead to a complete disaster.

…click on the above link to read the rest of the article…

Going beyond the “ecological turn” in the humanities

Going beyond the “ecological turn” in the humanities

ecological turn

Photo by Aaron Vasintjan.

There’s a story about the time when Michel Foucault was accompanying his colleague, Jacqueline Verdeaux, on a car trip through the Italian Alps. As tourists do, they would often get out of the car at lookout points to observe some beautiful landscape. As biographer Didier Éribon tells it, the philosopher would then almost immediately walk back to the car, grumbling, “my back is turned to it”.

Whether this was just an example of Foucault’s cynical, dry humor or actually reflected his lack of concern for environmental issues is up for debate. Nevertheless, it’s almost impossible to imagine any major intellectual today “turning their back” to the environment. While such concerns often took a backseat in 19th and 20th century humanities, these days, even the most modest dinner-table political argument will carry an ecological thread.

Thomas Homer-Dixon’s prediction that “ecology will be the master science of the 21st century” is perhaps a bit excessive, but already carries some weight of truth. It may not be a “master”, but its influence in the humanities is now unavoidable—thinkers like Slavoj Zizek, Donna Haraway, and Bruno Latour are celebrated precisely because they are able to put environmental crises into thoughtful perspective. Today, it seems like every humanities conference call-out starts with the sentence “In the era of the Anthropocene…” and the dish isn’t complete without a few servings of “materiality”, “non-human”, “nature-culture”, and “oikos”.

This “ecological turn” in the humanities could be academic fashion—to be forgotten within a decade.

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Olduvai IV: Courage
In progress...

Olduvai II: Exodus
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