Monday, September 1, 2014

On Alone Time

Three articles caught my attention, two juxtaposed on a page of the Globe and Mail Saturday, and one forwarded along on Kinsella’s blog. Doug Saunders wrote about the blur between work and leisure, Jacob Berkowitz about solo camping, and Michael Finkel about a man who lived alone in the woods for almost 30 years.

The articles spoke to me because I’m terrified of boredom. I finally finished the last project I have for my house – a waterfall and total backyard garden and studio – and already I’m a little anxious about what’s next. Now there’s just regular maintenance to do, which is tedious and takes a lot more effort to get to. I’m always more motivated to clean when the place is a disaster than when it just needs some tidying, so I tend to leave things go. A big mess is more satisfying, and I love a good project. I’ve got lots of energy that could be used for good somewhere, but, despite my offers to build people’s decks or sheds or paint rooms, I can’t seem to make that happen. There’s always Habitat for Humanity. That’ll be my plan come June. But it’s curious how much it weighs on me.

Saunders discusses the shift in our time in just the last hundred years to include spare time and the corresponding rise of boredom. “Historians have searched centuries of literature and found that being bored was not something anyone described until the Industrial Revolution came along.” But, now that we’re getting used to leisure time, things are shifting again as wired-in jobs become 24/7. Maybe it’s just as well.  Dare I say, maybe too much leisure time is a problem.

Berkowitz shares a study done in which people are left alone in a room for 15 minutes with nothing – no cell phones even – nothing but a device they could use to shock themselves. Almost half of the people shocked themselves rather than do nothing. Doing nothing is hard.

And getting somewhere alone now can take substantial effort.

We recently sold a piece of land up north – a beautiful property that I loved, but that was - I discovered - just too remote. We couldn’t go places or see people there. I thought I’d love the solitude, but, after just a few days, it made me antsy. I can only stare at the lake for so long before I need a change of scenery.

That brings me to the hermit in the woods who is my age and lived completely alone for decades, until he got caught stealing food. Now he’s dwindling in jail. He spoke of an intense need for solitude, but he could spend months (months!) watching a mushroom grow on a tree:
“Solitude did increase my perception. But here's the tricky thing—when I applied my increased perception to myself, I lost my identity. With no audience, no one to perform for, I was just there. There was no need to define myself; I became irrelevant. The moon was the minute hand, the seasons the hour hand. I didn't even have a name. I never felt lonely. To put it romantically: I was completely free.”
Boredom is likely a part of the reason people drink and do drugs and fight and hook up randomly. Just something – anything – is better than a void. Is it the case that, since this is a new phenomenon we just haven’t adjusted yet (or well), or is it the case that it’s human nature to find solitary time difficult? Unlike cats, who can stare out a window for days, people must be fed more significant stimuli. There are always people – gurus, monks, masters of their domains – who are able to sit doing nothing, but maybe that’s the exception to be admired from afar rather than emulated.

So my question is, is a love of stillness something to work towards, or something deviant to shun. Or is it just a case of ‘to each their own’?  It bothers me not being able to do something as simple as sitting still, and instead feeling tossed about by the need for constant activity. When I felt myself needing coffee to manage the morning, I quit it cold turkey. It’s harder to just sit.

According to Carr’s book, technology could be a factor in re-wiring our brains to need increasing stimuli. We’re losing our ability to be content. Now we need to be entertained - not just a few times a year, but constantly.  I can be writing, mid-sentence, and find myself checking facebook to cope with the space it takes me to choose a better word. Quiet thought is…. scary? or … painful? I’m not sure, but it’s definitely unwanted. And some students are loathe to put away their phones for the duration of a lesson – even if the lesson is interactive. A moment’s break in the action needs to be filled.

My little studio doesn’t pick up the house wi-fi. At first it was upsetting, and I started googling repeaters to solve the problem, but, after reading Carr’s book, I think I’ll leave it like that. I think it’s not a problem, but a solution. I can write read and write and think out back, then come in to transfer to a blog whatever bits I think might be readable by someone else.  And maybe I'll develop a means to accept the quiet without the interwebs interfering.

But this has been a problem long before technology. Our time with ourselves is difficult. Curious.

The Shallows: What the Internet is Doing to Our Brains

I love Nicholas Carr's book. There are lots of studies and science mixed with many stories and asides and discussions of philosophers and other great thinkers. It reminded me of reading a Bill Bryson book. You get the facts painlessly. And it presents a strong argument for keeping kids (and everyone) off-line when they work, but I'm still unlikely to  convince them to actually turn off facebook.  Reading the bare bones here doesn’t do it justice, but here’s what I don’t want to forget about my memory:

The Medium is the Message

He quotes McLuhan from 1964 – "The electric technology is within the gates, and we are numb, deaf, blind and mute about its encounter with the Gutenberg technology, on and through which the American way of life was formed” (2).  When we change technologies or tools of any kind, there are gains and losses.  It changes the way we work.  Nietzsche's style of writing changed noticeably between pen and paper and the new-fangled typewriter: “Our writing equipment takes part in the forming of our thoughts” (19).  But we forget about the losses, and just notice the gains.

When information is presented to us, how it's presented makes a difference, but we get carried away by the content and don’t notice the effect the method of presentation has on us.  In class, I've watched students glaze over at power points like old-schoolers used to with video strips waiting for the next ‘bing’ from the record to indicate a changing slide.  When they present, they often use technology as a crutch - putting their entire presentation on slides, and they lose the class in the process.  But the same kids can be captured by chalk and talk – a much maligned teaching method today - as it allows greater movement of the presenter back and forth through the room as people share thoughts and responses, and student ideas make it on the board as much as my own.  They shift from looking at the me to one another to the board and their notes to glean the basics for later review rather than focusing on a stagnant screen at the front.  Well, it works better for me anyway.

Our Dwindling Attention Spans

The more we use the web, the more we have to fight to stay focused on longer texts. It’s shortening our attention spans as we skim and scroll causing a decay of of faculties for reading and concentrating. I've noticed how students looking at a webpage will immediately scroll down even if vital information is right at the top.  They're looking for a heading to jump out at them or a video to click on.  They have to be told to stop and actually read the words on the screen.

One study found that professors of English literature are now struggling to get students to read an entire book.  They just look at study notes online, then miss the nuances of the text, and, more importantly, don’t learn how to notice patterns of metaphors and motifs, how to do deep reading, but only learn how to summarize other writers’ analysis. Cutting corners is nothing new, but it's surprising to read that lit students won't read books.

Brain Physiology:  We Become What We Think

The most interesting part of the book is how our brains work to take in information.  There's been a lot written about this lately - that the brain is affected by our environment.  It's not as stable as we once thought.

"Though different regions are associated with different mental functions, the cellular components do not form permanent structures or play rigid roles. They’re flexible. They change with experience, circumstance, and need” (29).  The brain gets accustomed to our typical activities and changes when they stop or when new activities start: “neurons seem to ‘want’ to receive input….When their usual input disappears, they start responding to the next best thing” (29).

The brain reorganizes itself after an accident or loss of function of any body part, but also after change in lifestyle. William James figured this out in Principles of Psychology:  “nervous tissues…seems endowed with a very extraordinary degree of plasticity…either outward forces or inward tensions can, from one hour to another, turn that structure into something different from what it was” (21).  Leon Dumont used an analogy to explain: “Flowing water hollows out a channel for itself which grows broader and deeper; and when it later flows again, it follows the path traced by itself before. Just so, the impressions of outer objects fashion for themselves more and more appropriate paths in the nervous sytem, and these vital pths recur under similar external stimulation, even if they have been interrupted for some time” (21).

An experiment was conducted on London cab drivers long before GPS when they had to have the entire city memorized.  They developed an enlargement of the posterior hippocampus of their brain and shrinking of anterior hippocampus from the constant spatial processing required to navigate intricate road system.  Their brain adapted to suit how it's being used.

Something really fascinating to me is that imagining has the same effect.  Researchers taught a short piano melody to people without any piano knowledge. Half the group practiced the piece for two hours a day, and the other half only imagined practicing without actually touching the keys.  There were identical changes to the brain.  It reminded me of what I do when I’m about to do something new, like build roof rafters or a waterfall.  I say I have to stare at it a few days before I can start, but really I'm walking myself through the process in my head repeatedly, apparently until my brain’s learned how to do it.
“As particular circuits in our brain strengthen through the repetition of a physical or mental activity, they begin to transform that activity into a habit…the chemically triggered synapses that link our neurons progam us, in effect, to want to keep exercising the circuits they’ve formed. Once we’ve wired new circuitry in our brain…’we long to keep it activated.’ That’s the way the brain fine-tunes its operations. Routine activities are carried out ever more quickly and efficiently, while unused circuits are pruned away.” (34)
This explains why I can do dishes so much faster than my kids – and why they should be practicing dishes regularly.

This can also explain one aspect of mental afflictions like depression and OCD – “The more a sufferer concentrates on his symptoms, the deeper those symptoms are etched into his neural circuits” (35), with implication for addictions as well.

But our brain circuits can weaken or dissolve with neglect:
“If we stop exercising our mental skills…we do not just forget them: the brain map space for those skills is turned over to the skills we practice instead….the possibility of intellectual decay is inherent in the malleability of our brains. That doesn’t mean that we can’t with concerted effort, once again redirect our neural signals and rebuild the skills we’ve lost. What is does mean is that the vital paths in our brains become…the paths of least resistance” (35). “What we’re not doing when we’re online also has neurological consequences. Just as neurons that fire together wire together, neurons that don’t fire together don’t wire together....The brain recycles the disused neurons and synapses for other, more pressing work. We gain new skills and perspectives but lose old ones.” (120)
Carr adds a fascinating history of the written word.  Socrates wasn't a fan of writing: “Far better than a word written in the ‘water’ of ink is ‘an intelligent word graven in the would of the learner’ through spoken discourse” (55). Socrates recognized that a “dependence on the technology of the alphabet will alter a person’s mind….writing threatens to make us shallower thinkers…preventing us from achieving the intellectual depth that leads to wisdom and true happiness" (55).

McLuhan counters, “The achievements of the Western world, it is obvious, are testimony to the tremendous vaues of literacy....the written word liberated knowledge from the bounds of individual memory and freed language from the rhythmical and formulaic structures requires to support memorization and recitation" (57).  But as great an achievement as writing is, as useful as it is, there is something lost when we no longer have our brains remember and hold ideas within to debate them. The underlying question of this entire book is, Is it worth the loss?

The invention of the book altered how we think:  “To read a book was to practice an unnatural process of thought, one that demanded sustained, unbroken attention to a single, static object…They had to train their brains to ignore everything else going on around them to resist the urge to let their focus skip from one sensory cue to another…applying greater ‘top-down control’ over their attention” (64). This ability represents a “strange anomaly in the history of our psychological development” (64).

As with imagining activities, one study found that brain activity while reading a story is similar to brain activity while doing the actions being described:  “brain regions that are activiated often ‘mirror those involved when people perform, imagine, or observe similar real-world activities….The reader becomes the book'” (74).  This makes me wonder what happens to the brain when people read a lot of violent books. It's not to suggest that reading about it necessarily makes us want to do it, but will it make us better at fighting just because we've read about it...or, perhaps, better at sex if that's our reading preference?

The Shift to Screens

In the U.S., adults aged 25-34 average 35 hours of TV a week and less than an hour a week of reading (87).  And there's a difference between reading on-line and reading print material as "we are pluged into an ‘ecosystem of interruption technologies,’" (91):
“A page of online text viewed through a computer screen may seem similar to a page of printed text. But scrolling or clicking through a Web document involves physical actions and sensory stimuli very different from those involved in holding and turning the pages of a book or a magazine....It also influences the degree of attention we devote to it and the depth of our immersion in it" (92).  
It's already influenced how magazines are writing articles to accommodate shorter attention spans: “Rolling Stone, once known for publishing sprawling, adventurous features by writers like Hunter S. Thompson, now eschews such works, offering readers a jumble of short articles and review....Most popular magazines have come to be ‘filled with color, oversized headlines, graphics, photos, and pull quotes’" (94).

He warns that technology encourages and rewards shallow reading.  Some see technology as only bringing benefits, but we have to be wary of the costs:
“No doubt the connectivity and other features of e-books will bring new delights and diversions…But the cost will be a further weakening, if not a final severing, of the intimate intellectual attachment between the lone writer and the lone reader. The practice of deep reading that became popular in the wake of Gutenberg’s invention, in which ‘the quiet was part of the meaning, part of the mind,’ will continue to fade, in all likelihood becoming the province of a small and dwindling elite.” (108)

“Some thinkers welcome the eclipse of the book and the literary mind it fostered. In a recent address to a group of teachers, Mark Federman, an education researcher at the University of Toronto, argued that literacy, as we’ve traditionally understood it, “is now nothing but a quaint notion, an aesthetic form that is an irrelevant to the real questions and issues of pedagogy today as is recited poetry – clearly not devoid of value, but equally no longer the structuring force of society.’ The time has come, he said, for teachers and students alike to abandon the ‘linear, hierarchical’ world of the book and enter the Web’s ‘world of ubeiquitous connectivity and pervasive proximity’ – a world in which ’the greatest skill’ involves ‘discovering emergent meaning among contexts that are continually in flux” (111).

“In the choices we have made, consciously or not, about how we use our computers, we have rejected the intellectual tradition of solitary, single-minded concentration, the ethic that the book bestows on us. We have cast our lot with the juggler” (114).
The distractions offered on-line add to the shallow-reading effect.  This makes me reconsider all the links and images I make the effort to include in each post:
“But the extensive activity in the brains of surfers also points to why deep reading and other acts of sustained concentration become so difficult online. The need to evaluate links and make related navigational choices, while also processing a multiplicity of fleeting sensory stimuli, requires constant mental coordination and decision making, distracting the brain from the work of interpreting text or other information. Whenever we, as readers, come upon a link, we have to pause, for at least a split second, to allow our prefrontal cortex to evaluate whether or not we should click on it. The redirection of our mental resources, from reading words to making judments, may be imperceptivle to use – our brains are quick – but it’s been shown to impede comprehension and retention, particularly when it’s repeated frequently” (122). 
“Difficulties in developing an understanding of a subject or a concept appear to be ‘heaviy determined by working memory load,’ …and the more complex the material we’re tying to learn, the greater the penalty exacted by an overloaded mind…two of the most important [sources of cognitive overload] are ‘extraneous problem solving’ and ‘divided attention.’ Those also happen to be two of the central features of the Net as an informational medium (125) 
“Just as the pioneers of hypertext once believed that links would provide a richer learning experience for readers, many educators also assumed that multimedia, or ‘rich media,’ as it’s sometimes called, would deepen comprehension and strengthen learning. The more inputs, the better. But this assumption, long accepted without much evidence, has also been contradicted by research. The division of attention demanded by multimedia futther strains our cognitive abilities, diminishing our learning and weakening our understanding. When it comes to supplying the mind with the stuff of thought, more can be less” (129).
In one study half of the participants had a text-only passage to read, and the other half had the text passage with relevant audiovisual material.  When they were tested on the information, not only did the text-only group do better on the test, they found the material to be more interesting, educational, understandable, and more enjoyable. Multimedia: “would seem to limit, rather than enhance, information acquisition” (130).

In another study, they had students listen to a lecture.  One half could surf web during lecture to look up relevant information, and the other half had to keep their laptops shut.  Surfers performed “poorer on immediate measures of memory for the to-be-learned content. It didn't matter, moreover, whether they surfed information related to the lecture or completely unrelated content – they all performed poorly” (131).

A final study had students watch CNN.  One group watched an anchor with info-graphics on the screen and textural news crawling along the bottom, while the other group watched the anchor without graphics and a news crawl.  The multimedia version remembered significantly fewer facts as “this multimessage format exceeded viewers’ attentional capacity” (131).

We're encouraged in schools to be cutting edge with our tech use.  Teachers are praised for using any new program.  Even if it's just a switch from Powerpoint to Prezi, it's lauded as revolutionary.  New is celebrated as better with little exploration of studies showing otherwise.  We're so worried about being the best, about getting the most kids to achieve on standardized tests, really, that we're jumping at anything shiny that comes our way in hopes it will be the magic bullet that finally motivates the more challenging students.  Carr further cautions,  
“The Internet, however, wasn’t built by aducators to optimize learning. It presents information not in a carefully balanced way but as a concentration-fragmenting mishmash. The Net is, by design, an interruption system, a machine geared for dividing attention” (131).  “In addition to flooding our working memory with information, the juggling imposes what brain scientists call ‘switching costs’ on our cognition. Every time we shift our attention, our brain has to reorient itself, further taxing our mental resources…Switching between two tasks short-circuited their understanding: they got the job done, but they lost its meaning” (133). “The near continuous stream of new information pumped out by the Web also plays to our natural tendency to ‘vastly overvalue what happens to us right now’….We crave the new even when we know that ‘the new is more often trivial than essential’” (134).  "…there are signs that new forms of ‘reading’ are emerging as users ‘powever browse’ horizontally through titles, contents pages and abstracts going for quick wins. It almost seems that they go online to avoid reading in the traditional sense” (137). 
“The more you multitask, the less deliberative you become; the less able to think and reason out a problem.’ You become…more likely to rely on conventional ideas and solutions rather than challenging them with original lines of thought….As we gain more experience in rapidly shifting our attention, we may ‘overcome some of the inefficiencies’ inherent in multitasking…but except in rare circumstances, you can train until you’re blue in the face and you’d never be as good as if you just focused on one thing at a time. What we’re doing when we multitask is learning to be skillful at a superficial level. The Roman philosopher Seneca may have put it best two thousand years ago: “To be everywhere is to be nowhere....The Net is making us smarter…only if we define intelligence by the Net’s own standards…if we think about the depth of our thought rather than just its speed – we have to come to a different and considerably darker conclusion” (141).
Reading scored fell between 1992 and 2005: “Literary reading aptitude suffered the largest decline, dropping twelve percent” (146).

On Memorization:  The brain is a muscle, not a filing cabinet.

When I was a kid, I could tell you any of my friends' phone numbers by heart.  Now I can barely remember my own.  I don't need to know phone numbers anymore because they're all programmed into my phone, but is the work computers are doing making our brains lazier?  Should we try to remember things just for the sake of working out our brains?

Erasmus thought that “memorizing was far more thana means of storage. It was the first step in a process of synthesis, a process that led to a deeper and more personal understanding of one’s reading” (179). Tech writer, Don Tapscott, disagrees. “Now that we can look up anything ‘with a click on Google…memorizing long passages or historical facts’ is obsolete. Memorization is ‘a waste of time’” (181).

To the Ancient Greeks, “memory was a goddess: Mnemosyne, mother of the Muses" (181).  “The shift in our view of memory is yet another manifestation of our acceptance of the metaphor that portrays the brain as a computer…storing bits of data in fixed locations and serving them up as inputs to the brain’s calculations, then offloading that storage capacity to the Web is not just possible but…liberating….The analogy has a simplicity that makes it compelling….But…it’s wrong" (182). The brain isn’t a filing cabinet; it’s a muscle. Using it over and over doesn’t fill it until it can take no more, but quite the opposite – it strengthens it to take in more information.

So every year when I just throw up my hands at the idea of remembering 90 students’ names in a few days, and hope the students will be forgiving of my aging brain, I’ve simply gotten sucked into a vicious cycle that prompted me to give up on myself far too soon. I have problems remembering names because I typically don’t remember them, so I don’t try, so I never do. Kind of sounds like a Winnie the Pooh poem. The implication here is that if I actually work on remembering people’s names instead of assuming that’s just something I can’t do, then I’ll actually develop the ability to remember them better for the next set of classes.  It’s why, every year when I rent a mini-van for a trip to a cottage with my family, I start the journey a bit of a nervous wreck, but over the week the van seems to grow smaller and more manageable until I’m parallel parking the sucker by the end. (Just kidding – at the end of the week I still search for drive-through spots.)  It's nothing revelatory to say that practicing improves ability, yet we don't tend to think this way about using our memory.

Getting information from short-term to long-term requires, “an hour or so for memories to become hard, or 'consolidated,' in the brain. Short-term memories don’t become long-term memories immediately, and the process of their consolidation is delicate. Any disruption, whether a jab to the head or a simple distraction, can seep the nascent memories from the mind” (184).  "The more times an experience is repeated, the longer the memory of the experience lasts…Not only did the concentration of neurotransmitters in synapses change, altering the strength of the existing connections between neurons, but the neurons grew entirely new synaptic terminals" (185). These terminals increase the more memories are formed, and then decrease again when they’re allowed to fade, but these don’t completely decrease to former numbers. “The fact that, even after a memory is forgotten, the number of synapses remains a bit higher than it had been originally helps explain why it’s easier to learn something a second time” (185).  This is why many teacher tell students to go over their notes regularly.  It actually helps.

Computers vs Brains: Some benefits of being alive.
“While an artificial brain absorbs information and immediately saves it in its memory, the human brain continues to process information long after it is received, and the quality of memories depends on how the information is rocessed. Biological memory is alive. Computer memory is not....Those who celebrate the ‘outsourcing’ of memory to the Web have been misled by a metaphor. They overlook the fundamentally organic nature of biological memory…Once we bring an explicit long-term memory back into working memory, it becomes a short-term memory again. When we reconsolidate it, it gains a new set of connections – a new context….Biological memory is in a perpetual state of renewal....In contrast to working memory, with its constrained capacity, long-term memory expands and contracts with almost unlimited elasticity, thanks to the brain’s ability to grow and prune synaptic terminals and continually adjust the strength of snaptic connections” (192).
Web advocates think, “In freeing us from the work of remembering, it’s said, the Web allows us to devote more time to creative thought. But the parallel is flawed….The Web…places more pressure on our working memory, not only diverting resources form our higher reasoning faculties but obstrucintg the consolidation of long-term memories and the development of schemas….The Web is a technology of forgetfulness" (193).

The ramifications of the brain's plasticity is that reading on-line, in a distracted way, can have an effect on our ability to read and think:
"The influx of competing messages that we receive whenever we go online not only overloads our working memory; it makes it much harder for our frontal lobes to concentrate our attention on any one thing. The process of memory consolidation can’t even get started. And, thanks once again to the plasticity of our neuronal pathways, the more we use the Web, the more we train our brain to be distracted – to process information very quickly and very efficiently but without sustained attention. That helps explain why many of us find it hard to concentrate even when we’re away from our computers" (194).
Marshall McLuhan “elucidated the ways our technologies at once strengthen and sap us….: our tools end up ‘numbing’whatever part of our body they ‘amplify.' When we extend some part of ourselves artificially, we also distance outselves from the amplified part and its natural functions" (210).

In a study they had two groups trying to solve a puzzle.  One group had helpful software, the other group didn't. In the early stages, the helped group made correct moves more quickly, but as they proceeded, the other group increased their skill with the puzzle more rapidly.  Learning a task with little help wires our brain to know how to learn that type of task, so it becomes easier to later improve on our initial learning. The group with software help, didn’t do the initial learning, so coldn’t advance as easily.  “As we ‘externalize’ problem solving and other cognitive chores to our computers, we reduce our brain’s ability ‘to build stable knowledge structures’..that can later ‘be applied in new situations’” (216).

The Need for Nature
“A series of psychological studies over the past twenty years has revealed that after spending time in a quiet rural setting, close to nature, people exhibit greater attentiveness, stronger memory, and generally improved cognition. Their brains become both calmer and sharper…They no longer have to tax their working memories by processing a stream of bottom-up distrations. The resulting state of contemplativeness strengthens their ability to control theirm mind” (219).  
In yet another study: one group walked through a park, the other walked on city streets, and both took a cognitive test. The park group did significantly better.  Even cooler, it works just by looking at pictures of nature or even imagining nature scenes!  “The people who looked at pictures of nature scenes were able to exert substantially stronger control over their attention, while those who looked at city scenes showed no improvement in their attentiveness” (220).  This makes a case for designing our classrooms with bits of nature all around or taking the kids outside to learn.

The Emotional Effect

The brain doesn't just run our intellectual requirements, but also determines our emotional reactions.    “It’s not only deep thinking that requires a calm, attentive mind. It’s also empathy and compassion” (220).
“…the more distracted we become, the less able we are to experience the subtlest, most distinctively human forms of empathy, compassion, and other emotions. ‘For some kinds of thoughts, especially moral decsions-making about other people’s social and psychological situations, we need to allow for adequate time and reflection” (221).
Carr's final caution:  “…as we grow more accustomed to and dependent on our computers we will be tempted to entrust to them ‘ tasks that demand wisdom.’ And once we do that, there will be no turning back” (224).

Chomsky's Forward to Albert's Realizing Hope: Life Beyond Capitalism

In full:   (The book is here.)

"Throughout much of the world there is growing resistance to the severe harm that has resulted from the neoliberal policies of the past generation. Latin America has progressed farthest in overthrowing this harsh regime, in recent years largely freeing itself from the grip of Western imperial domination for the first time and beginning to confront some of its severe internal problems, though many remain, as revealed recently by the mass protests in Brazil. These protests are joined by many others throughout the world, responding to local attacks on elementary rights and sometimes challenging dominant institutions and seeking to develop alternatives, escaping their fetters. They join in the effort to “realize hope,” to build a better world, to develop structures and relationships that are essential to overcoming class, gender, racial, power, and other hierarchies that relegate the many to subordination and that allow the few to dominate. But how should these hopes be realized? That question has to be posed clearly, and answered to the extent that we can.

The task is fraught with risk. One can envision too much and in so doing exceed what anyone can now reasonably assert, an act of hubris that might close off rather than enrich creative initiatives and, even worse, usurp the rightful role of future citizens in determining their own lives and relations. However well-motivated, such blueprinting would threaten coercion rather than facilitate liberation.

Alternatively, one can praise values we all share but say too little about how they might be actualized and about the kinds of institutional features that would allow people to manage their own lives with dignity, solidarity, and equity. Realizing Hope, and I am now referring to the book, not the endeavor, carefully navigates this minefield of possible dangers. It aims to provide a worthy and viable vision that is much needed in the current climate of resistance, one that can inform, inspire, and generate shared programs without going beyond what we can sensibly envision and crossing the line to authoritarian prescription. It investigates a wide range of issues, including economy and polity, kinship and culture, international relations and ecology, and even journalism, science, and education, among other topics. It seeks to provide an outline for a wide-ranging exploration of long-term aims of resistance that will provide essential tools for movements seeking to bend the arc of history towards justice, to adapt Martin Luther King’s famous phrase.

It is surely necessary to resist oppression and pursue liberation — and also to advance towards realizing hope by gaining clarity about our objectives and constructing paths to attain them."

Saturday, August 30, 2014

Piketty's Capital in the Twenty-First Century

I feel like I don't have to read this one with all the press it's getting. Maybe next summer.  This is the gist I've gotten so far:

 Michael Rozworski wrote a piece about it recently. In brief: the basic thesis of the book is that capitalism has a tendency towards the concentration of wealth in few hands.  And there's a discrimination inherent in the system that ensures whites are better able to make it at least into the middle.

In Canada right now, our distribution looks like this:
* the top 10% owns 58.2% of the wealth, up from 51.7% in 1984, and it's largely in businesses and enterprises
* the middle 40% owns 38.6%, down from 43% in 1984, and it's mainly in their own homes
* the bottom 50% owns 3.2% of the wealth, down from 5.3% in 1984

Since the bottom third owns nothing, the continuation of this concentration will come at the expense of the middle class.  If it's the case that capitalism demands concentration, then some of the middle class will move into the top bracket, but, because most middle class get there through good wages, rather than through investments in land or stocks, most of them are in danger of slipping in with the bottom bunch if anything threatens those wages.  We're doing better than the U.S. in part because of our socialist leanings. And the middle class can be saved with a tax agenda that takes from the rich and gives to the poor.

Rozworski calls for "seeing the middle class as a sputtering anomaly," and "toning down the dream of individualize patrimony, while reigniting a vision of a common wealth and a democratic franchise over it." I'd vote for that, but I have no idea how we get there from here.

But then I came across an older discussion of the book by Paul Krugman (from last April).  I've read a few of his articles about the book, but this 26 minute interview - What the 1% Don't Want You to Know - flushes it out more fully:

We tend to think of the 1% as largely self-made millionaires, but more and more they are, or are becoming, wealthy from inherited wealth:  an oligarchy, patrimonial capitalism, dynasties.  Krugman says he hadn't noticed it before, but I'm pretty sure Chomsky's spoken about all of this.

If a family has a fortune, they can live well and still put money into investments that will grow faster than the economy.  It's no longer the case - or will soon no longer be the case - that the wealthy are getting rich from high incomes and bonuses - it's just their money making money, not them.  When returns on capital are higher than economic growth, as they are now, they can pass on an even higher share to their children, until a tiny fraction of the population dominates.

Usury used to be a bad word.

And like they said in Ethos, when you have a few people so wealthy that they can buy the system, the system will serve their interests.

Piketty: "Wealth is co concentrated that a large segment of society is virtually unaware of its existence."  Krugman points out that, "You'll never meet these people - most people have no idea how far the commanding heights are from you and me."

The U.S. is more unequal than other countries. The average American makes more than the average person in France and has a higher disposable income because of higher wages, but to be in the bottom fifth in France is a far better place than to be in the bottom fifth in America because of the governmental programs.  The U.S. gets away with the inequity with mass media that "hammer against any suggestion of redistribution."

Piketty suggests a global tax on wealth, which, Krugman adds, would be feasible if the U.S. supported it which is actually possible.  PIketty thinks we only escaped from the oligarchy briefly due to wars and depressions that disrupted the system, but Krugman points out that the U.S. invented serious progressive taxation.  If we look at the history of the new deal, there was a progressive movement building for some time, and a readiness to take on inequities long before FDR was elected.

It is possible for things to change again.

On Ethos - a 2011 Documentary

Our ethos is all that we currently hold to be true. It is what we act upon. It governs our manners, our business and our politics.” -  Howard Zinn

Directed by Pete McGrain, and hosted by Woody Harrelson, this 68 minute film explores how we got here and what to do about it as we "fight for a new democracy."   It's nothing new, but it's succinct and watchable, and divided into sections which is handy in a classroom.  My notes are below, after the film in its entirety.

Like in Go Further, which is a much lighter film with weird musical interludes, Harrelson is espousing a simplistic solution:  "Dare to feel responsible for every dollar you put down."  Since our purchases can make or break corporations, we have the power to change the world by carefully choosing which products to buy.  But, how do we deal with the reality that most people are blind followers too complacent to act, or, as Chomsky calls it, "the stupidity of the average man"?

But Diamond makes the same suggestion in Collapse.  I'm not confident it'll work, but it might be all we've got.


"We don’t have a democratic society. The U.S. is a polyarchy and always has been. Nobody in power wants democracy because it challenges their power structures." - Noam Chomsky

We think politicians pander to the public, which creates the impression that the political system has problems but it’s still accountable to the public, but the reality is that politicians largely ignore public opinion.  The corporate-owned media sets the agenda, which makes it seem like we have a choice, but we don’t. Politicians are more similar than different because they answer to the same master – corporations. We don’t have elections anymore, we have auctions. Government is for sale. Money in politics gives the power to those with money, and it’s unlikely for politicians to change the system that gives them power.


"Corporations only have the bottom line." - Michael Moore

Governments have to balance the needs of the whole society including big business based on ethics and social and moral responsibility. But if corporations have more power than governments, we have to understand the effects that will have on the whole system.  Corporations are required by law to work only for the stakeholders, so they externalize costs, and they must expand, so use up more resources. The damage is terrifying and morally bankrupt. Typical corporations are extractive, wasteful, abusive, linear, and global, i.e. not under the power of any one government. They've replaced governments.  We need corporations to bring us new technologies, but the system encourages a thirst for short-term profit.


The Federal Reserve Bank of the US is owned by a private cartel, not by the government.

“The world is governed by different personages from what is imagined by those who are not behind the scenes.” - Benjamin Disraeli

“The one aim of these financiers is world control by the creation of inextinguishable debt.” - Henry Ford

“Since I have entered politics, I have chiefly had men’s views confided to me privately. Some of the biggest men in the US are afraid of something. They know there is a power somewhere. A power so subtle, so organized, so complete and pervasive that they better not speak above their breath when they speak in condemnation of it.”  - Woodrow Wilson


Our great industrial nation is controlled by its system of credit. Therefore all of our activities are in the hands of a small group of men who chill and check true economic freedom. We have come to be one of the worst ruled, completely controlled and dominated governments in the world. No longer a government of the majority but a government of the opinion and duress of a small group of dominant men.” - Woodrow Wilson - 1921

The value of money is determined by how much is in circulation. This should be controlled by the government, but it’s controlled by the Federal Reserve. If the government needs money, the Federal Reserve loans it money and the government has to pay it back with interest. The reserve was set up by some of the richest men in U.S. (e.g. J.P. Morgan).  They caused a panic in order to convince Wilson to sign and get elected in 1929.


"Because of the stupidity of the average man, he follows not reason but faith. In a military state, it doesn’t matter what people think because they can be controlled by force. When the state loses that control, and people can speak up, then we have to control what people think. That’s what media is for."  - Noam Chomsky

We tend to base our opinions on biased news. The media presents two sides of an issue, but as if it’s a narrow issue rather than offer a broad and complex discussion.

Edward Bernays, Freud’s nephew, took the new science of psychiatry and used it to manipulate the masses.  He invented Public Relations and worked for major corporations and advised political figures. He held big parties and all politicians, businessmen, and artists showed up.  He recognized that the way to sell products isn’t to appeal to the intellect, but to feelings: “You’ll feel better if you have it.” Companies can tap into people's deepest desires and deepest fears and use that for their own benefit.  Democracy is about maintaining the power imbalance even if it means stimulating the psychological needs of the masses. Democracy changed from the idea of active citizenry to public consumers driven by instinctual or unconscious desires. If you can trigger those needs and desires, you can get what you want. People need to be trained to want new things before the old are consumed. Make people want things they don’t need by linking the product to their unconscious desires.  It's all old hat now.


"The so called independent media is so lazy and controlled by interests that are commercial and political that there is no investigating reporting – it’s just repeating the lines of the people with the most influence." - Edward Said

If we’re going to make decisions about the future of our society, the single most important thing we need is the truth. The nightmare scenario refers to the implications when a powerful group of businessmen with access to the White House make obscene amounts of money whenever there’s a war.  Contractors went in to Afghanistan and Iraq to look for business deals. All of them had ties to the White House (e.g. The Carlyle Group). There's been an Iron Triangle created between military, big business, and politics. Military contractors can affect governmental policy and are rewarded financially for doing so (i.e. starting wars). Military organization can work behind the scenes without accountability and ruin careers of people who are too inquisitive or too honest. It develops the means for unprecedented global control. It’s an immensely powerful company without public scrutiny. Congress fails us because they’re paid off by the corporations. When war becomes that profitable, you’re going to see more of it even though going to war should only happen when the honest reasons for the war are laid out and allowed to be scrutinized by the public. 

In the popular media, Muslims are terrorists. In 2003, most people thought, wrongly, that Saddam Hussein was linked to 9/11. The US took over strategic positions in Iraq for easier invasions of other countries and to have the oil. War is about getting American control over the areas, not about freeing people. Freedom means allowing dissent and debate. Politics of fear dictates that the media perpetuate myths that we have lots of enemies - evil-doers - so we can never be weak. We have to be ready to fight. Government programs our level of fear without any justification. The rigged American economy can’t go on forever. The system is set up to find wars. Spectatorship is an invitation to fear. Citizenship is how we fight the politics of fear – taking responsibility, taking action, being engaged citizens. We, as individuals, drive the demand for these resources. As long as we are all aware of the fact that there’s blood in this oil, and that is the decision we make, then so be it.


We shall have a world government whether we like it or not. The only question is whether it will be by conquest or consent.” Paul Warburg, Council on Foreign Relations

Denial is understandable. The rights to freedom of speech, free assembly, and fair trial are no longer protected by law. Acts against the government can be seen as terrorism (e.g. Patriot Act and Harper’s attack on scientists and environmentalists). There's a political movement towards making citizens carry ID in the U.S. which could lead towards chips implanted in us. Will our sense of fear lead us to accept and even welcome totalitarian control by the government? Historically governments use fear to control the masses. In the War on Terror, there are no real enemies.  They've convince people it’s real in order to take away our freedoms. That which the system holds most deal is its greatest weakness.


This system cannot continue. The idea of allowing wealthy elites to make decisions is terrifying. The great heroes of our times couldn’t create change on their own. Only the will of the people can do that. Together we can accomplish anything. The way to win back democracy has just one cure, and it’s simple: We live in a capitalist system. It’s turned us into obedient consumers. This creates demands on resources so that we invade to get more. Then using wealth and power, corporations undermine democracy and justice. The ironic outcome of consumerism is it makes you, the consumer, all powerful. The way we choose to spend our money can change everything.

Wednesday, August 27, 2014

The Elf on the #ReThink Tour

I met "Sustainable Joe" (Stephen) at Hillside this year, and barraged him with questions about his ride.  I want one!  And, at $5,000, I could probably make it happen.  But he cautioned me to wait for the next model - upgrades to include shocks.

Apparently he gets hassled by the cops, but maybe in a few years they'll be popular enough to not get as much unwanted attention.  He's biking around Canada and the U.S. collecting reasons why we think we need sustainable change.

Here's my sustainable reason:

People's Climate March

Getting ready for school, I was going through files and came across an interview with Noam Chomsky for Teen Talking Circles.  In it, Chomsky answers the question, "Do you honestly think there's much hope for this world as it is?" with a "No."  He maintains hope in order to keep going on, but recognizes that "...we're just racing towards disaster, eyes open, as fast as we can."  But he suggests that if we do anything to raise awareness of affect politics, it has to happen in the U.S. because of the scope of influence the U.S. has compared to anywhere else.  We might have a chance to do just that.

There's a short film, Disruption, available for free screenings worldwide on September 7th.  I'll likely be showing it to my students to kick off discussions of social activism and global challenges.  It's really easy to host a screening.

Here's the trailer followed by some choice quotations:

Disruption - Official Trailer from Watch Disruption on Vimeo.

* "All the big social movements in history had people in the streets."
* "We have a responsibility to rise to our historic moment."
* "This is the singular issue of our time that will determine how we live, where we live, and if we live."
* "This is going to have to be the fight of our lives."
* "There is no replacement for human bodies standing as one, voices raised as one, making a political demand."

It's all a lead-up to the People's Climate March being held on Sunday, September 21st in New York City - two days before the UN Climate Summit being held there.  It looks well-organized, and it promises to be safe and kid-friendly even.  I'd like to go, but don't think I can arrange logistics with kids and work.  It would be nice to add another body to the collective, but also to be part of the experience.  But then I think of others that won't go because of inconveniences like sitters and transportation and accommodations, free-riding on the efforts of others.  Could this be a turning point?

Tuesday, August 26, 2014

On Glorifying Psychopaths

Murray Dobbin wrote a very provocative article relating our TV viewing of psychopaths to our politics.  Owen explored the glorification of psychopaths in a post discussing the article, and I commented there on the difficulty of establishing kindness in our self-absorbed culture.  I wrote years ago about the crux of the problem: that it's not cool to be kind.  When Fonzie started wearing glasses and caring about things, he lost his status with the viewers, and then he literally jumped the shark.

But the article has sparked a few other thoughts.

First of all, is two shows enough to show a cultural trend?  More to the point, how can we determine which shows are most influencing our politics - or most influenced by our politics, and how can we ever show more than just a correlation? It's an interesting thesis to posit that TV mirrors politics, but it's a difficult thing to discern.  Are the psychopath shows the most watched, or is our current culture more clearly defined by reality TV?  It's a laborious feat if we want to do justice to the concept; it's tricky business that requires a willingness for tedious analysis that's beyond my motivation level. but it's fun just to consider correlations based on the shows that stand out to us.

Dobbin suggests the 50s had movies depicting cold war paranoia during the cold war and current TV shows mirror 21st century psychopathic capitalism.  The shows he focuses on are Breaking Bad and House of Cards, and I don't know how Dexter didn't warrant a mention - nor The Sopranos.  

When I think back to the shows I watched growing up, I can't think of a single one that had a psychopath as the hero.  They were gentler shows.  Happy Days, Star Trek, MTM, Bob Newhart, Barney Miller, Family Ties, M*A*S*H, WKRP in Cincinnati, Cheers, St. Elsewhere, Hill Street Blues, Moonlighting....  There were some dark themes here and there, but for the most part, everyone worked together reasonably happily to a satisfying conclusion.  I'm not sure if they were really gentler times, or if it just feels that way through the soft focus of memory juxtaposed against the stark photos of children in Gaza, missing or murdered Aboriginal women, and so many neighbourhoods closer to home either flooded or on fire.

Beyond my typical viewing, the 80s was marked by soap operas I never watched - many of which at once idealized wealth while allowing us a vicarious delight in the destruction or humiliation of the very wealthy.  This was during the recession, when people were more likely to despise the wealthy than have any potential to join them.  The 80s ushered in this new form of capitalism: insane growth at any cost.  This new type of show we see today is getting a following, not during the height of "successful" capitalism, but after we've seen the fall of this system.  It is a time of helplessness. 

Today, we're either angry or oblivious. Too many have lost too much to money scams or natural disasters.  During the depression, movies were fantasies of a better place - The Wizard of Oz.  Now, we have fantasies of being able to beat the system.  We want to watch people get away with enacting their anger purposefully - in a way that gets them wealth or status or just offers a release to our collectively repressed frustration and rage.   They're able to stay one step ahead of the law.  Maybe it's a satisfying fantasy at a time when too many aren't at all able to stay ahead of the game.

Dobbin quotes a relevant author who suggests, "People enjoy watching sociopaths on television as a kind of compensation for their own feelings of powerlessness and helplessness."  The source of this powerlessness, according to Dobbin, is capitalist hyper-competetiveness.  He sees competition as the catalyst tearing apart families and communities.  I don't think it's the competitiveness directly causing problems - as if people are competing with their own neighbours, copying Frank Underwood's tactics to cause strife -  but the indirect result of the inability to compete, the inability to even reach the bottom stratum of the mythological level playing field. As Dobbin clarifies, "a competitiveness in which almost all but the 1% lose."

Secondly, is this level of violence and ruthlessness new or just new to TV at a time when TV is a whole new medium?  There is certainly a rash of psychpaths in shows today, characters once relegated to the bad guys in horror films.  But I don't believe it's entirely from helplessness that we watch.  We watch for the clever ways they get out of sticky situations week after week - and not necessarily from a sense of wish-fulfillment, but as an admiration of talent.  It's not dissimilar to old shows in which the bad guy set the trap and the good guy gets to foil him yet again, except the criminals and cops have switched roles.  Either way, it's entertaining to watch the set up through to the escape.  That's nothing new or necessarily tied to our politics or power.  

We've always enjoyed a bit of violence too.  As a child, with Little House on the Prairie on in the background, I ate up books on Greek, Roman, and Norse mythology.  One of my favourites was the story of Prometheus' punishment for stealing Zeus' fire:  to be tied to a cliff with his guts eaten by a bird all day, only to have them grow back during the night.  Cool!  Maybe it's the case that our shows were too sanitized and tidy.  Now we're getting a dose of the dark reality of human nature.  Does bringing it out in the open normalize it and foster mimicry, or could it instead - or also - help us acknowledge and understand evil as within each of us?  Could the evil characters be enlightening, or are these notions best left under wraps?  

Finally, does TV viewing create or just reflect cultural behaviour?  I wrote about this before but with a focus on children's programming and the types of comedies I like to watch, questioning the effects on my own behaviour: Does the crass, rude, verbal abuse that entertains me on TV make me less polite and patient with people in real life?  And if it is the case the TV affect our behaviour, do we need to balance the psychopaths with more pro-social TV shows?  When religion was strong, we had lots of pro-social TV shows.  Now that it's waning, when we need moral guidance the most, we're stuck with the Kardashians as the pivotal role models of our times.  If there is a chance that TV creates our attitudes and behaviours, shows us when to feel guilty and shame and pride, shows us whom to respect and admire, then, rather than censoring the violence, I'd opt for adding shows that model virtue, that show us how to be kind.  Dobbin offers that we should just begin to act with kindness.  I think too many of us might not know how without seeing it modelled day after day on Youtube.  But do we want popular media to be our moral guidance?  Do we have a choice?

In my classroom, if I admonish a student by suggesting a behaviour wasn't kind, some just don't care.  They don't feel ashamed that they're being unkind.  It's normal; it's the way people are supposed to be.  And I'm odd for thinking otherwise.  That's a hard, uphill battle that needs to be won.  A shift in popular media could do wonders.      

Some of the shows today are vile.  We get drawn into the intensity of the drama and the shock of evil on display.  I relished every episode of the shows Dobbin despises.  But like Dobbin, I also re-watched The West Wing recently for a bit of hope.  And lately, I'm loving Rectify for its slow pace that forces the viewer to be patient.  It allows tension to build by heartbeats. But I'm also struck by the novelty, in today's world, of the depth of the moral struggling the characters go through and some of the strikingly virtuous choices some of the characters make within grave circumstances.  The good guys take responsibility for their actions and don't even begin to try blaming others or explaining away their actions.  Weird.  And refreshing.  Maybe we'll just tire of the psychopaths soon and the pendulum will shift back to equally complex characters who do the right thing.

And maybe we'll recognize the limits to growth and competition while we're at it.

Monday, August 25, 2014

On the Titanic and Tolstoy

I've heard this before somewhere, but I can't find it to give due credit:  Coping with climate change is like coping with being a passenger on the Titanic.

Some won't notice anything's amiss until they're well into the water.

Some will notice it's going down and decide we should continue playing until the bitter end.

Some will continue to insist it's unsinkable.  Technology, leadership, something will swoop in to save the day.  We mustn't worry ourselves too much.

Some will spend their energy insisting it's not their fault, so it's not their problem.  They'll sit stubbornly still in their belief that they shouldn't have to do anything to change the situation even as they feel the ship shift.

But others will get to work, and try to get as many people on the lifeboats as possible and abandon the luxury ship they're on for a better chance at survival in a smaller vessel.  It doesn't matter whose fault it is that it's sinking (past focus), nor that one day it might be fixable (future focus), but that right now people are in danger of great suffering.

And, although not a perfect fit, it reminded me of Tolstoy's choices of responses to the horrors of facing a meaningless death:

1. We can live a life of abject ignorance.  This is the lowest choice for the cowards and the weak.  These are the climate deniers.

2. We can recognize the hopelessness of the situation, but enjoy Earthly pleasures while we're here.  These are the many I met on various dating sites I've since abandoned, whose primary interests are travelling and working out.  It's Kierkegaard's aesthetic life.

3. We can recognize the meaninglessness of life, but cling to it anyway - afraid to die, but not living authentically either with a self-righteous focus on duty-driven ethical choices.  It's a fearful attitude, but more honest than the first two.  This is where Tolstoy claimed to be in A Confession, before his final epiphany and conversion.

4. We can recognize the futility of it all and commit suicide.  Tolstoy saw this as a noble option.  If it's all for nought, then it's weak to drag it out until it's taken from us as if we have no free will, no choice in the situation.

5. We can put our hands in a faith of some sort - and recognize that it's all larger than ourselves.  This is where Tolstoy ends up at the end of The Death of Ivan Ilych.  We give life meaning through a life spent living compassionately with others and for others, fearless of the end, fully in the present.

We have to keep working towards preventing the suffering of billions.  Luckily, if working and helping others, and enjoying others is pleasurable, then it's easy to do.  And living compassionately, Tolstoy makes clear, means pitying the people focused on things and appearances and social standing.  I don't like the connotation of "pitying," but he ends up with a great love for people whom he formerly hated for their choices and attitude.  I believe it's a position that looks at what we can do for others rather than one that sees only how others affect us.  But it's a struggle for me to get there when the action of so many need to change in order for this all to work.  The actions of so many affect our own survival.  As Diamond notes the "impossibility of convincing First World citizens to lower their impact on the world," it's clear we're on a Titanic, and we can only do what we can while we slowly sink into the sea.   It's not for us to fix it, but for us to try with ever an attitude of compassion while we work.

Something like that.

Sunday, August 24, 2014

Neil deGrasse Tyson on Climate Change

In a Huffington Post interview, Neil deGrasse Tyson says things will change when people lose their wealth.  If we lose the ice-caps, the water around NYC will come up to the Statue of Liberty's elbow.  One commenter suggested that the rich will pay attention when their money gets soggy.

Tyson's hopeful that our our species will still be here (Kolbert is not so sure), but we're responsible for exiting a very stable existence.

Climate change is an emergent scientific truth.  There have been multiple research investigations from a variety of people who normally compete, coming to a consensus.  Tyson's disappointed to see people cherry-picking ideas - particularly politicians responsible for the governance of the nation, whose decisions should be based on objectifiable truth.

But there must be a way we can change things before the soggy money scenario.

Diamond's Collapse

A while back, Mound suggested I read Collapse by Jared Diamond, and I finally got to it. It’s a fascinating read particularly for anyone interested in ancient civilizations. Diamond explores what caused the destruction of various civilizations over the past couple millennia. What interested me, of course, is his final few chapters that clarify what this understand of the world can do for our own understanding of our current position.  These are my notes and thoughts as I read:

The Old Problem:  Overexploitation of Resources
“The processes through which past societies have undermind themselves by damaging their environments fall into eight categories...: deforestation and habitat destruction, soil problems, water management problems, overhunting, overfishing, effects of introduced species on native species, human population growth, and increased percapita impact of people" (6).  “Any people can fall into the trap of overexploiting environmental resources, because….resources initially seem inexhaustibly abundant…signs of their incipient depletion become masked by normal fluctuations in resource levels…it’s difficult to get people to agree on exercising restraint…and the complexity of ecosystems often makes the consequences of some human–caused perturbation virtually impossible to predict” (9-10).
People have destroyed their own lives over and over throughout history.  The problem, now, is that we're destroying a global habitat.  Diamond has a five-point framework of contributing factors that exacerbate collapse: environmental damage, climate change, hostile neighbors, depleting trade partners, and society’s response to its environmental problems (11).  Throughout his exploration of collapses over the last couple thousand years, he notes which one or more of the five was responsible for the downfall, but it really just takes one to do it.

Deforestation is a common problem, and one we're too familiar with today.  The immediate consequences include nutrient leaching of the soil, but “further consequences start with starvation, a population crash, and a descent into cannibalism” (109).  A ridiculous number of societies ended with cannibalism as noted by digs into preserved garbage piles.  The bones of larger game at the bottom, followed by smaller animals, followed by rats, and, at the top of the pile, human bodies with bones broken apart to get at the marrow inside, such was their level of desperation.  People do not go gentle into that good night.

He has a fascinating chapter on Easter Island where every last tree was cut down.
“The parallels between Easter Island and the whole modern world are chillingly obvious. Thanks to globalization, international trade, jet planes, and the Internet, all countries on Earth today share resources and affect each other, just as did Easter’s dozen clans. Poynesian Easter Island was as isolated in the Pacific Ocean as the Earth is today in space. When the Easter Islanders got into difficulties, there was nowhere to which they could flee, nor to which they could turn for help; nor shall we modern Earthlings have recourse elsewhere if our troubles increase….If mere thousands of Easter Islanders with just stone tools and their own muscle power sufficed to destroy their environment and thereby destroyed their society, how can billions of people with metal tools and machine power now fail to do worse?” (119)
He notes several parallels between past societies: Environmental and population problems led to increasing warfare and civil strife. Peak population numbers were followed swiftly by political and social collapse. Agriculture was expanded to more fragile areas to feed more people which eventually collapsed. Kings/Chiefs sought to outdo each other with more and more impressive temples.  The chiefs/kings were passive in the face of the real threats to their societies (177).  Sound familiar?

Ways Group Decision-Making Can Fail

Diamond suggests four ways societies make horrible decisions.  

1. They fail to anticipate a problem.  They might have no prior experience with it, like the introduction of rabbits to Australia.  They might reason by false analogy – draw on familiar analogies that are only superficially similar to their current issue (423). 

2. They fail to perceive a problem. The origins of some problems are imperceptible, and sometimes there are distant managers tending to issues.  Slow trends can be concealed by wide up-and-down fluctuations creating a “creeping normalcy.”  We get “landscape amnesia" and forget how different the surrounding landscape looked 50 years ago (425).

3. They fail to even try to solve a problem they perceive.  People exhibit, 
“...’rational behaviour’ arising from clashes of interest between people. That is, some people may reason correctly that they can advance their own interests by behavior harmful to other people….it empoys correct reasoning, even though it may be morally reprehensible. The perpetrators know that they will often get away with their bad behavior, expecialy if there is no law against it or if the law isn’t effectively enforced” (427). 
He discusses the “tragedy of the commons” scenario: 
“ long as there is no effective regulation of how much resource each consumer can harvest, then each consumer would be correct to reason, 'If I don’t catch that fish or let my sheep graze that grass, some other fisherman or herder will anyway, so it makes no sense for me to refrain from overfishing or overharvesting.' The correct rational behavior is then to harvest before the next consumer can, even though the eventual result may be the destruction of the commons and thus harm for all conuerms” (428).
But – some commons have been preserved for thousands of years through three alternative arrangements:  (1) A government or some other outside force steps in to enforce quotas – but this involves excessive administrative and policing costs; (2) the resources are privatized, divided into individually owned tracts that each owner will be motivated to mainage prudently in his/her own interests - but managers can grow selfish or tyranical; or (3) consumers are made to recognize their common interests and to design, obey, and enforce prudent harvesting quotas themselves - but this only happens when consumers form a homogeneous group, trust and communicate with each other, expect to share a common future, are capable of and permitted to organize and police themselves, and when the boundaries of the resource are well defined (429).  There are clashes of interest if a principal consumer has no long-term stake in preserving the resource (431), when the interests of the decision-making elite is in a power clash with the interests of the rest of society, especially if the elite can insulate themselves from the consequences of their actions (430).  Then people display irrational behavior – behaviour that’s harmful for everybody like a “refusal to draw inference from negative signs…’sunk-cost effect’ : we feel reluctant to abandon a policy (or to sell a stock) in which we have already invested heavily” (432).  The alternative arrangements are possible, but require a delicate hand.

4. They try to solve it but do not succeed.
“It appears to me that much of the rigid opposition to environmental concerns in the First World nowadays involves values acquired early in life and never again reexamined: ‘the maintenance intact by rulers an policymakers of the ideas they started with....It is painfully difficult to decide whether to abandon some of one’s core values when they seem to be becoming incompatible with survival. At what point do we as individuals prefer to die than to compromise and live?" (433).
Irrational motives for failure to address problems abound: “the public may widely dislike those who first perceive and complain about the problem" (434).  There could be clashes between short-term and long-term motives.  Crowd psychology also plays a part: "individuals who find themselves members of a large coherent group or crowd…may become swept aong to support the group’s decision, even though the same individuals might have rejected the decision if allowed to reflect on it alone at leisure…Anyone taken as an individual is tolerably sensible and reasonable – as a member of a crowd, he at once becomes a blockhead" (435).  Denial is rampant: “If something that you perceive arouses in you a painful emotion, you may subconsciously suppress or deny your perception in order to avoid the unbearable pian, even though the practical results of ignoring your erception may prove ultimately disastrous” (435).

So what works?

Listen to Scientists

Ya, right.
Diamond looked at societies that almost collapsed, but bounced back, like Iceland: “Europe’s former poorest country has become one of the world’s richest countries on a per-capita basis" (203). “Most governments ignore the pleas of archaeologiists. That is not the case in Iceland, where the effects of erosion that began 1,130 years ago are obvious, where most of the vegetation and half of the soil have already been lost, and where the past is so stark and omnipresent” (205).   It had to get visibly bad for enough people before leaders were willing to act, but once they recognized how easily all could be lost, they willingly funded scientific research and followed their advice to better manage their resources.

Adapt to Environmental Changes

The force of tradition was sometimes a cause of self-destruction.  We have to pay attention to significant changes in our world and change our behaviours to better cope with them.
“At least as important as Europe’s material exports ot Greenland were its psychological exports of Christian identity and European identity. Those two identities may explain why the Greenlanders acted in ways that – we today would say with the value of hindsight – were maladaptive and ultimatively cost them their lives, but that for many centuries enabled them to maintain a functioning society under the most difficult conditions faced by any medieval Europeans" (243).
Like Saul describes in A Fair Country, European explorers who lived as the Inuit did, survived. Those who tried to maintain an old way of life in a new place, or after the end of an era, died. We need to look around at what’s happening and adapt rather than blindly hold tight to traditions that served well only at a different time or place.  Diamond discusses the “long-term damage caused by sheep” - a concern Monbiot has raised before as well – but our focus tends to lean towards the immediate, 'What else will sheep herders do?' (255).  People fight hard to maintain a way of life that no longer works for individuals nor for the greater good.  We have a stubborn arrogance that's fatal.

Another country that almost fell, but learned to adapt was Japan.  Four centuries ago, they almost destroyed their forests.  Then the shoguns started a rigorous top-down forest management rationing with strict limits of specific amounts of wood for different needs, like housing and furniture.  “The shift was led from the top by successive shoguns, who invoked Confucian principles to promulgate an official ideology that encouraged limiting consumption and accumulating reserve supplies in order to protect the country against disaster” (299). After people acclimatized to the limits, they shifted from micromanagement to citizen control:  "...control of Japan’s forests fell increasingly into the hands of people with a vested long-term interest in their forest: either because they thus expected or hoped their children would inherit the rights to its use, or because of various long-term lease or contract arrangments” (305). Now Japan is the First World country with the highest percentage (74%) of its land area forested, despite supporting one of the highest human population densities (Plate 20).

Diamond is clear that one management system isn't better than another, but that we need the “proper choice of an economy to fit the environment" (308). He adds, "I expected to find environmental policies much more advanced under the virtuous democracy than under the evil dictatorship. Instead, I had to acknowledge that the reverse was true" (349).

We need to be aware enough to ensure we're not stuck in a system that's not working for us.  I fear that we need to be managed in order to learn how to live free from excessive consumption, how to stop cutting down every tree, but that top-down strategy likely won't work here since political figures are tied to corporate interests which is entirely dependent on public mass-consumption for survival. Something's got to give.  I'm still left wondering how to get the whole system to shift.  He has some ideas further on in the book.

Reduce Population

Diamond moved on to collapse through genocides with a caution that it's not enough to increase food production to feed the world; we must simultaneously rein in population growth (312).  Many genocidal studies focus on ethnic hatred as the catalyst that must be prevented, but Diamond points out the real problem is typically over-population of an area.  He looks at Rwanda in which, in 1993, 40% of citizens were living below the poverty level, and 100% of 25-year-old men were still living at home, unable to live on their own or start their own families. ”It is not rare, even today, to hear Rwandans argue that a war is necessary to wipe out an excess of population and to bring numbers into line with the available land resources" (326).  Population pressure, the strain of hunger is the powder in the keg, and the ethnic division was the match. “The people whose children had to walk barefoot to school killed the people who could buy shoes for theirs” (328).

It's interesting to me that during the genocides, the people didn’t kill the very rich; they killed people just a bit richer than themselves, just one up on the hierarchy. And nobody clearly targeted the middle class for their comfortable lives – they found another reason. Somehow ethnic or religious differences are more acceptable reasons to kill – more of an understandable affront to their lives – rather than acknowledging the bitterness that someone’s better off and has something we don’t. What makes it easier to rally a mass of people to slaughter a slightly different group of people if the difference is ethnicity or religion, rather than financial comfort?  Curious.  It's as if a focus on money is too petty a concern to justify murder. They'd (or we'd) rather be seen as bigots than thieves.

The whole time I was reading the book, a part of my brain was cheering on the macabre hope of another plague that could get our world population down by half.  I had a long talk with my adult daughter about the concept of being willing to part with half your family for the good of the world if that's what it comes down to.  We can easily give up other people to save ourselves (however willy-nilly we determine what other means), but could we ever be willing to give up our own and ourselves?  Like in Snowpiercer, will some of the elderly volunteer to be thrown off the train, or are our survival instincts too strong and short-term?

Anyway... Population might be a bit of a red herring.  China has sort of successfully implemented measures of population control.  They lowered their population, but a cultural shift stopped multi-generational housing – which means they're using more resources for more and bigger homes. “The net result of those increases in the number and floor area of households is that China’s human impact is increasing despite its low population growth rate” (360).  I considered this effect when I first read Weisman's book that suggests sterilization of every woman, worldwide, after one birth event.  If I only had one child to raise and put through school, instead of three, I might buy me a hummer with the extra cash in my bank account.  Fewer children means more spending money for me to buy excessive luxuries.  We need to decrease population at the same time as decreasing individual consumption habits.

Fight for Courageous Leadership

Some societies succeed and others fail sometimes because some environments pose more difficult problems, but other times it's due to the idiosyncrasies of particular individual leaders that will ever defy prediction (439).  For some unknown reason, some leaders of the past successful societies have just randomly been resource management or environmentally-minded.
“To solve an explosive crisis…commands our admiration. Yet it calls for a leader with a different type of coursage to anticipate a growing problem or just a potential one, and to take bold steps to solve it before it becomes an explosive crisis. Such leaders expose themselves to criticism or ridicule for acting before it becomes obvious to everyone that some action is necessary. But there have been many such courageous, insightful, strong leaders who deserve our admiriation….We should admire not only those courageous leaders, but also those courageous peoples…who decided which of their core values were worth fighting for, and which no longer made sense. Those examples of courageous leaders and courageous peoples give me hope” (439-40).
Get Corporations on Board
"If environmentalists aren't willing to engage with big businesses, which are among the most powerful forces in the modern world, it won’t be possible to solve the world’s environmental problems” (17).  "The interests of big businesses, environmentalists, and society as a whole coincide more often than you might guess from all the mutual blaming. In many other cases, however, there really is a conflict of interest: what makes money for a business, at least in the short run, may be harmful for society as a whole…My motivation is the practical one of identifying what changes would be most effective in inducing companies that currently harm the environment to spare it instead" (442).
Diamond looks specifically at mining and why it’s such an environmental mess. There are economic reasons why it’s more burdensome for mining companies than oil companies to pay cleanup costs - it's cheaper for mining companies to pay lobbyists to press for weak regulatory laws: “given society’s attitudes and existing laws and regulations, that strategy has worked – until recently” (461).  “To claims of toxic problems at mines, the mining industry routinely responds with denial. No one in the oil industry today would deny that spilled oil is harmful, but mine executives do deny the harm of spilled metals and acids” (462).

Well...almost no one.

A pervading issue is that governments allow environmental disasters to happen. “It is rare that our society has effectively held the mining industry responsible for damages” (463).  And the solution is boycotts and the right kind of consumer pressure:
“...consumer leverage over retail buyers has already begun to be an effective means for consumers to influence the timber and seafood industries. Environmental groups are just beginning to apply this same tactic to the hardrock mining industry, by confronting metal buyers rather than confronting metal mners themselves” (467-8).
Consumer boycotts have to be in the right direction:  “…the most effective pressure on mining companies to change their practices has come not from individual consumers picketing mine sites, but from big companies that buy metals (like Du Pont and Tiffany) and that sell to individual consumers" (477).  To change practices, picket the companies that sell to consumers, not the resource extraction companies.  Let companies know you won't buy their product if they continue to practice weak resource management, use other environmentally destructive practices, or violate labour rights.
“In brief, environmental practices of big businesses are shaped by a fundamental fact that for many of us offends our sense of justice. Depending on the circumstances, a business really may maximize its profits, at least in the short term, by damaging the environment and hurting people…[blaming companies ignores the fact that] publicly owned companies with shareholders are under obligation to those sharholders to maximize profits, provided that they do so by legal means. …the car manufacturer Henry Ford was in fact successfully sued by stockholders in 1919 for raising the minimum wage of his workers to $5 per day: the courts declared that, while Ford’s humanitarian sentiments about his employees were nice, his business existed to make profits for its stockholders (483-4).  
In the long run, it is the public, either directly or through its politicians, that has the power to make destructive environmental policies unprofitable and illegal, and to make sustainable environmental policies profitable. The public can do that by suing businesses for harming them….by making employees of companies with poor track records feel ashamed of their company and complain to their own management; by preferring their governments to award valuable contract to businesses with a good environmental track record…and by pressing their governments to pass and enforce laws and regulations requiring good environmental practices (484). 
To me, the conclusion that the public has the ultimate responsibility for the behavior of even the biggest businesses is empowering and hopeful, rather than disappointing. My conclusion is not a moralistic one about who is right or worng, admirable or selfish, a good guy or a bad guy. My conclusion is instead a prediction, based on what I have seen happening in the past. Businesses have changed when the public came to expect and require different behavior, to reward businesses for behaviour that the public wanted, and to make things difficult for businesses practicing behaviors that the public didn’t want. (485)
Fight for Better Resource Management

LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) is a green building standard affecting the spread of Forest Stewardship Council (FSC)-labeled products.
“More than half of the world’s original forests have been cut down or heavily damaged in the last 8,000 years. Yet our consumption of forest products is accelerating, with the results that more than half of those losses have occurred whin the past 50 years – for instance, because of forest clearance for agriculture, and because world consumption of paper has increased five-fold since 1950…Only 12% of the world’s forests lie within protected areas. In a worst-case scenario, all of the world’s readily accessible remaining forests outside those protected areas would be destroyed by unsustainable harvesting within the next several decades, athough in a best-case scenario the world could meet its timber needs sustainably from a small area (20% or less) of those forests if they were well managed” (473).
The FSC label indicates well managed forestry.  An experiment was conducted in a Home Depot store to see if people care about environmental issues. They had plywood in two bins that cost the same. One bin had the FSC label, the other didn't.  Plywood in the labelled bit sold two to one.  When labeled playwood cost 2% more, 37% bought the labeled product.   People are starting to care.

Similarly, the Marine Stewardship Council's goal is to offer "credible eco-labeling to consumers, and to encourage fishermen to solve their own tragedies of the commons by the positive incentive of market appeal rather than the negative incentive of threatened boycotts" (481).

If timber and seafood could be properly managed, we wouldn’t need to decrease our use even with our current population (525).

Some New Problems:  The Dirty Dozen Environmental Problems of Today

Two thirds of the twelve most serious environmental problems facing us today have been a problem for civilizations in the past (most broadly covered by losses of natural resources and population issues), but now we have another four issues to contend with:  use of fossil fuels, a photosynthetic ceiling, toxic chemicals, and atmospheric changes.  The twelve are interrelated but, “any of our 12 problems of non-sustainability …would suffice to limit our lifestyle within the next several decades. They are like time bombs with fuses of less than 50 years” (498).

1. Destroying natural habitats: “Deforestation was a or the major factor in all the callapses of past societies described in this book” (487). Wetland destruction affects water suppies. “If current trends continue, about half of the remaining reefs would be lost by the year 2030” (487).
2. Wild food destruction, especially fish: “If wildfish stocks were managed appropriately, the stock levels could be maintained, and they could be harvested perpetually. Unfortunately, the problem known as the tragedy of the commons has regularly undone efforts to manage fisheries sustainably, and the great majority of valuable fisheries already either have collapsed or are in steep decline” (488).
3.  Biodiversity: “A siginifant fraction of wild species, populations, and genetic diversity has already been lost….Elimination of lots of lousy little species regularly causes big harmful consequences for humans, just as does randomly knocking out many of the lousy little rivets holding together an airplane” (488-9).
4. Soil: "Soils of famlands used for growing crops are being carried away by water and wind erosion at rates between 10 and 40 times the rates of soil formation….Other types of soil damaged caused by human agricultural practices include salinization…losses of soil fertility…and soil acidification” (489-90).
5. Energy: We primarily use fossil fuels for our energy needs.
6. Water: "Most of the world’s fresh water in rivers and lakes is already being utilized for irrigation, domestic and industrial water, and in situ uses such as boat transportation corridors, fisheries, and recreation…Throughout the world, freshwater underground aquifers are being depleted at rates faster than they are being naturally replenished” (490).
7. Photosynthetic ceiling: Plant growth per acre dpends on temperature and rainfall. "We are projected to be utilizing most of the world’s terrestrial photosynthetic capacity by the middle of this century. That is, most energy fixed from sunlight will be used for human purposes, and little will be left over to support the growth of natural plant communities, such as natural forests” (491).
8. Toxic chemicals: "The culprits include not only insecticides, pesticides, and herbicides, but also mercury and other metals, fire-retardant chemicals, refrigerator coolants, detergents, and components of plastics. We swallow them in our food and water, breather them in our air, and absorb them through out skin…deaths in the U.S. from air pollution alone are conservatively estimated at over 130,00 per year" (491-2).
9. Alien species (plants, animals, fungi, bacteria...) being introduced through movement of people.
10. GHGs: “…there have already been natural fires and animal respiration producing carbon dioxide, and wild ruminant animals producing methane, but our burning of firewood and of fossil fuels has greatly increased the former, and our herds of cattle and of sheep have greatly increased the latter (493).
11. Population growth: We have too many people for our finite resources.
12. The impact of people on the environment. “Our numbers pose problems insofar as we consume resources and generate wastes” (494). Former low-impact people in the third world are becoming high-impact people.

The only relevant question about these twelve is "...whether they will become resolved in pleasant ways of our own choice, or in unpleasant ways not of our choice, such as warfare, genocide, starvation, disease epidemics, and collapses of societies."

Common Objections

Diamond spends some time dismantling common objections to the crisis we're facing - here are some of the more popular:

1. The environment has to be balanced agains the economy: This is said as if environmental concerns are a luxury.
2. Technology will solve our problems:  It takes decades to develop and phase in technology, and longer to develop it in a usable way in the first place “Technological solutions to environmental problems are routinely far more expensive than preventive measure to avoid creating the problem in the first place…advances in technology just increase our ability to do things…with thousands of examples of unforeseen harmful side effects of new technological solutions"  (505).  Furthermore, the conversion times for adoption of major switches require several decades (e.g. fossil fuels to solar).
3. There's no real food problem, just a distribution problem:  First World citizens show no interest in eating less or subsidizing food for other people. GMOs are also unlikely to solve food problems.
4. Conditions are better for most people worldwide now than they ever were:
“80% of the world's population still lives in poverty, near or below the starvation level” (508). “Spending capital should not be misrepresented as making money. It makes no sense to be content with our present comfort when it is clear that we are currently on a non-sustainable course….On reflection, it’s no surprise that declines of socieites tend to follow swiftly on their peaks” (509)  “Our totally unsustainable consumption means that the First World could not continue for long on its present course, even if the Thrid World didn’t exist and weren’t trying to catch up to us" (513).
5. These problems are way off in the future:
“In fact, at current rates most or all of the dozen major sets of environmental problems…will become acute within the lifetime of young adults now alive….We pay for their education and food and clothes…all with the goal of helping them to enjoy good lives 50 years from now. It makes no sense for us to do these things for our individual children, while simultaneousy doing things undermining the world in which our children will be living 50 years from now” (513).

Things Could Get Worse or Better

There's a strong link between environmental and political problems: “When people are desperate, undernourished, and without hope, they blame their governments, which they see as responsible for or unable to solve their problems. They try to emigrate at any cost….They start civil wars. They figure that they have nothing to lose, so they become terrorists, or they support or tolerate terrorism” (516). A big concern is, “…today’s larger population and more potent destructive technology, and today’s interconnectednesss posing the risk of a global rather than a local collapse" (521).

Yet, like Kolbert's book, after pages and pages of cannibalism and genocide, Diamond ends on a hopeful note: "we are not beset by insoluable problems" (521). “Courageous, successful, long-term planning also characterizes some governments and some political leaders, some of the time” (523). We've had a "reduction in some toxins, investments in public health, …changes in values...." But, he's still concerned with the “seeming political impossibility of inducing First World citizens to lower their impact on the world. But the alternative, of continuing our current impact, is more impossible….In the spirit [of Churchill], a lower-impact society is the most impossible scenario for our future – except for all other conceivable scenarios" (524).

Finally, we have an opportunity no past society enjoyed: “the opportunity to learn from the mistakes of distant peoples and past peoples” (525).  If only we will all take that opportunity.

What Can I Do About It?

If you want to make a difference, "plan to commit yourself to a consistent policy of actions over the duration of your life” (570).

Vote, and take time each month to let elected representative know your views on specific current environmental issues.

Reconsider what you buy, and draw public attention to the company’s policies and products. Praise companies whose policies you like.  Go to the trouble of learning which links in a business chain are most sensitive to public influence, and which links are in the strongetst position to influence other links. “Businesses that sell directly to the consumer, or whose brands are on sale to the consumer, are much more sensitive than businesses that sell only to other businesses and whose products reach the public without a label of origin” (571).  Don’t praise or blame logging or fishing industry, leave it instead to retail giants to influence the loggers (Home Depot, Whole Foods…).  Wal-Mart and other retailers “can virtually dictate agricultural practices to farmers.  Multiply your power by talking to other people who also vote and buy.

Invest time and effort in improving your own local environment.  Multiply your impact by making donations to organizations promoting policies of your choice (571-3).

Don't give up.