Posts Tagged ‘Redux’

Black Friday has over the past decades become the default kickoff of annual consumer madness associated with the holiday season and its gift-giving tradition. Due to the pandemic, this year has been considerably muted in comparison to other years — at least in terms of crowds. Shopping has apparently moved online fairly aggressively, which is an entirely understandable result of everyone being locked down and socially distanced. (Lack of disposable income ought to be a factor, too, but American consumers have shown remarkable willingness to take on substantial debt when able in support of mere lifestyle.) Nevertheless, my inbox has been deluged over the past week with incessant Black Friday and Cyber Monday advertising. Predictably, retailers continue feeding the frenzy.

Uncharacteristically, perhaps, this state of affairs is not the source of outrage on my part. I recognize that we live in a consumerist, capitalist society that will persist in buying and selling activities even in the face of increasing hardship. I’m also cynical enough to expect retailers (and the manufacturers they support, even if those manufacturers are Chinese) to stoke consumer desire through advertising, promotions, and discount sales. It’s simply what they do. Why stop now? Thus far, I’ve seen no rationalizations or other arguments excusing how it’s a little ghoulish to be profiting while so many are clearly suffering and facing individual and household fiscal cliffs. Instead, we rather blandly accept that the public needs to be served no less by mass market retailers than by, say, grocery and utility services. Failure by the private sector to maintain functioning supply lines (including nonessentials, I suppose) during a crisis would look too much like the appalling mismanagement of the same crisis by local, state, and federal governments. Is it ironic that centralized bureaucracies reveal themselves as incompetent at the very same time they consolidate power? Or more cynically, isn’t it outrageous that they barely even try anymore to address the true needs of the public?

One of the questions I’ve posed unrhetorically is this: when will it finally become undeniably clear that instead of being geared to growth we should instead be managing contraction? I don’t know the precise timing, but the issue will be forced on us sooner or later as a result of radically diminishing return (compared to a century ago, say) on investment (ROI) in the energy sector. In short, we will be pulled back down to earth from the perilous heights we scaled as resources needed to keep industrial civilization creaking along become ever more difficult to obtain. (Maybe we’ll have to start using the term unobtainium from the Avatar movies.) Physical resources are impossible to counterfeit at scale, unlike the bogus enormous increase in the fiat money supply via debt creation. If/when hyperinflation makes us all multimillionaires because everything is grossly overvalued, the absurd paradox of being cash rich yet resource poor ought to wake up some folks.

I’ve never before gone straight back with a redux treatment of a blog post. More typically, it takes more than a year before revisiting a given topic, sometimes several years. This time, supplemental information came immediately, though I’ve delayed writing about it. To wit, a Danish study published November 18, 2020, in the Annals of Internal Medicine indicates our face mask precautions against the Coronavirus may be ineffective:

Our results suggest that the recommendation to wear a surgical mask when outside the home among others did not reduce, at conventional levels of statistical significance, the incidence of SARS-CoV-2 infection in mask wearers in a setting where social distancing and other public health measures were in effect, mask recommendations were not among those measures, and community use of masks was uncommon. Yet, the findings were inconclusive and cannot definitively exclude a 46% reduction to a 23% increase in infection of mask wearers in such a setting. It is important to emphasize that this trial did not address the effects of masks as source control or as protection in settings where social distancing and other public health measures are not in effect.

The important phrase there is “did not reduce, at conventional levels of statistical significance,” which is followed by the caveat that the study was partial and so is inconclusive. To say something is statistically insignificant means that results do not exceed the calculated margin of error or randomness. A fair bit of commentary follows the published study, which I have not reviewed.

We’re largely resorting to conventional wisdom with respect to mask wearing. Most businesses and public venues (if open at all) have adopted the mask mandate out of conformity and despite wildly conflicting reports of their utility. Compared to locking down all nonessential social and economic activity, however, I remain resigned to their adoption even though I’m suspicious (as any cynic or skeptic should be) that they don’t work — at least not after the virus is running loose. There is, however, another component worth considering, namely, the need to been seen doing something, not nothing, to address the pandemic. Some rather bluntly call that virtue signalling, such as the pathologist at this link.

In the week since publication of the Danish study and the pathologist’s opinion (note the entirely misleading title), there has been a deluge of additional information, editorials, and protests (no more links, sorry) calling into question recommendations from health organizations and responses by politicians. Principled and unprincipled dissent was already underway since May 2020, which is growing with each month hardship persists. Of particular note is the Supreme Court’s 5-4 decision against New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s mandate that religious services be restricted to no more than 10 people in red zones and no more than 25 in orange zones. Score one for the Bill of Rights being upheld even in a time of crisis.

This 9-year-old blog post continues to attract attention. I suspect the reason behind sustained interest is use of the term structural violence, which sits adjacent to voguish use of the term structural racism. Existence of permanent, institutionalized violence administered procedurally rather than through blunt, behavioral force (arguably still force but obfuscated through layers of bureaucracy) seems pretty plain to most observers. Typical analyses cite patriarchy and white supremacism as principal motivators, and those elements are certainly present throughout American history right up to today. I offer a simpler explanation: greed. Thus, most (though not all) institutionalized violence can be chalked up to class warfare, with the ownership class and its minions openly exacting tribute and stealing everyone’s future. Basically, all resources (material, labor, tax dollars, debt, etc.) can be attached, and those best positioned to bend administrative operations to their will — while pretending to help commoners — stand to gain immensely.

It doesn’t much matter anymore whose resources are involved (pick your oppressed demographic). Any pool is good enough to drain. But because this particular type of violence has become structural, after gathering the demographic data, it’s an easy misdirection to spin the narrative according to divergent group results (e.g., housing, educational opportunity, incarceration rates) where such enduring structures have been erected. While there is certainly some historical truth to that version of the story, the largest inanimate resource pools are not readily divisible that way. For instance, trillions of dollars currently being created out of nothingness to prop up Wall Street (read: the ownership class) redound upon the entire U.S. tax base. It’s not demographically focused (besides the beneficiaries, obviously) but is quite literally looting the treasury. Much the same can be said of subscriber and customer bases of commercial behemoths such as Walmart, Amazon, McDonald’s, and Netflix. Those dollars are widely sourced. One can observe, too, that the ownership class eschews such pedestrian fare. Elites avoiding common American experience is reflected as well in the U.S. armed services, where (depending on whom one believes: see here and here) participation (especially enlisted men and women) skews toward the working class. Consider numerous recent U.S. presidents (and their offspring) who manage to skip out on prospective military service.

What’s surprising, perhaps, is that it’s taken so long for this entrenched state of affairs (structural violence visited on all of us not wealthy enough to be supranational) to be recognized and acted upon by the masses. The Occupy Movement was a recent nonviolent suggestion that we, the 99%, have had quite enough of this shit. Or course, it got brutally shut down and dispersed. A couple days ago, a caravan of looters descended upon the so-called Magnificent Mile in Chicago, the site of numerous flagship stores of luxury brands and general retailers. I don’t approve of such criminal activity any more than the ownership class looting the treasury. But it’s not hard to imagine that, in the minds of some of the Chicago looters at least, their livelihoods and futures have been actively stolen from them. “Look, over there! In that window! Resources for the benefit of rich people. They’ve been stealing from us for generations. Now let’s steal from them.” The big difference is that designer handbags, electronics, and liquor hauled away from breached storefronts is relatively minor compared to structural violence of which we’ve become more acutely aware recently. Put another way, complaining about these looters while ignoring those looters is like complaining about someone pulling your hair while someone else is severing your legs with a chainsaw, leaving you permanently disabled (if not dead). They’re not even remotely in the same world of harm.

The previous version of this blog post was about flora and fauna dying off and/or being driven to endangerment and extinction by direct and indirect effects of human activity, and on the flip side, collective human inactivity to stop or forestall the worst effects. Indeed, removal and rollback of environmental restrictions and regulations hasten the ongoing ecocide. This version is about three more things disappearing right before our eyes like some sort of macabre magic act: American jobs, American businesses, and civil society.

Job losses stemming from the Covid-19 pandemic and government-mandated shut-downs and quarantines have been reported ad nauseum, as have mounting deaths. No need to cite the numbers. To call this disappearance of people from the streets and workplaces sickening is a redundancy. Despite an immediate Federal response (by the Fed) to prop up the stock market (a literal entity) but not main street (a figurative entity), businesses both large and small are now performing this same disappearing act. Again, no need to cite the numbers, which are worsening continuously. It’s impossible to predict what will be left after this destructive phase runs its course. I don’t expect it to be creative destruction (also the name of the defunct group blog where I got my start blogging). In the meantime, however, plenty of price gougers, vultures, scammers, and opportunists seek to exploit new capitalist dynamics. As the unemployed and disenfranchised are further reduced to penury, many have taken to the streets to demand change. While the inciting incident was yet another unarmed black man killed by police in the course of his arrest, the wider context of unrest in the streets is the utterly preposterous level of wealth and income inequality. Two short-lived sovereign zones in Seattle and Portland (declared and undeclared, respectively) attest to a lack of confidence in state authority and fraying rule of law. Federal law enforcement officers disappearing protesters from the street speaks volumes regarding how the citizenry is regarded by politicians. The looming wave of evictions, foreclosures, and bankruptcies also promise to overwhelm civil society and prove the illegitimacy of our current government.

The connection between one set of disappearing acts and the next should be obvious, as we humans rely upon the natural world for our very survival. The modern industrial world, especially in those societies organized around capitalism, has been at war with nature (ecocide), extracting far more than necessary for a balanced, respectable life. Instead, wanton accumulation and self-aggrandizement (read: ballin’) are commonplace, at least for those who can. In the process, we’ve made ourselves vulnerable to even modest perturbations of this hypercomplex style of social organization. Well, surprise! The war on nature is no longer taking place over there, socially distanced, out of sight and out of mind; the war has come home. Nature struck back, blindly demanding a return to equilibrium. The disappearing act turns out to be part of a much larger balancing act. However, processes we humans initiated make impossible any such return except perhaps over evolutionary time. For the foreseeable future, the only paved path is toward unfathomable loss.

Years ago, I broke with my usual themes and styles to offer a listicle, mostly inanities and hyper-irony, which began as follows:

  • All cats are girls, all dogs are boys. Everyone knows this from childhood. Additional discussion is moot.

I’m not a good writer of aphorisms, so I haven’t returned to that brief experiment until now. For inspiration, I’m quoting numerous examples by Caitlin Johnstone, who is a frequent and fantastic writer of aphorisms under the repeated subtitle “Notes from the Edge of the Narrative Matrix.” The long-running theme we share is that we are all being programmed and propagandized continuously through the shaping of narrative by folks with obvious agendas. Johnstone believes we are collectively waking up — as if from a nightmare — to the dark realization that our minds have been colonized (my term) and that a worldwide transformation of consciousness is currently taking place. I don’t quite see it yet, but I’m sympathetic to the possibility that, as in the famous rant from the 1976 movie Network, “I’m as mad as hell and I’m not going to take this anymore!”

  • The essential character relationship of the 1% to the rest of us is predator/prey or strong/weak. Strong predators behave precisely as one would expect.
  • Trying to restore peace using the same violent police force whose violence disrupted the peace in the first place is a bit like trying to put out a fire using lighter fluid. The same lighter fluid that was used to start it. (Johnstone)
  • Rioting and looting are not constructive responses to society’s ills, but then, neither have various nonviolent forms of protest and dissent been effective at petitioning government for redress of grievance. Packing up and going home merely cedes the field of play to bad actors already stuffing everyone down.
  • Believing cold war is no big deal because nuclear war hasn’t happened yet is the same as believing your game of Russian roulette is safe because the gun hasn’t gone off yet. (Johnstone)
  • According to the movies, realizing one’s potential is achieved by developing punching/fighting/domination skills sufficient to force your will upon others, which is true for criminals, saints (good guys), men, and women alike.
  • Ecocide will be a problem as long as ecocide remains profitable. War will be a problem as long as war remains profitable. Politicians will cater to profit-seeking sociopaths as long as profit determines what drives human behavior. (Johnstone)
  • The most influential news outlets in the western world uncritically parrot whatever they’re told to say by the most powerful and depraved intelligence agencies on the planet, then tell you that Russia and China are bad because they have state media. (Johnstone)
  • Wanting Biden because he’s not Trump is the same as wanting cancer because it’s not heart disease. (Johnstone)
  • Capitalism will let you starve to death while sitting meters away from food. (Johnstone)

I wish more of them were my own, but the opportunity to choose some of Johnstone’s best was too good to pass up.

The first time I wrote on this title was here. I’m pretty satisfied with that 11-year-old blog post. Only recently, I copped to use of reframing to either zoom in on detail or zoom out to context, a familiar rhetorical device. Here I’m zooming out again to the god’s eye view of things.

The launching point for me is James Howard Kunstler’s recent blog post explaining and apologizing for his generation’s principal error: financialization of the U.S. economy. In that post, he identifies characteristics in grandparents and parents of boomers as each responds and adapts to difficulties of the most self-destructive century in human history. Things destroyed include more than just lives, livelihoods, and the biosphere. After several centuries of rising expectations and faith in progress (or simply religious faith), perhaps the most telling destruction is morale, first in the reckless waste of WWI (the first mechanized war), then repeatedly in serial economic and political catastrophes and wars that litter the historical record right up to today. So it’s unsurprising (but not excusable) that boomers, seeing in unavoidable long-term destruction our powerlessness to master ourselves or in fact much of anything — despite the paradox of developing and obtaining more power at every opportunity — embarked on a project to gather to themselves as much short-term wealth and power as possible because, well, why the fuck not? Kunstler’s blog post is good, and he admits that although the masters-of-the-universe financial wizards who converted the economy into a rigged casino/carnival game for their own benefit are all boomers, not all boomers are responsible except in the passive sense that we (includes me, though I’m just as powerless as the next) have allowed it to transpire without the necessary corrective: revolt.

Zooming out, however, I’m reminded of Jared Diamond’s assessment that the greatest mistake humans ever committed was the Agricultural Revolution 10–13 millennia ago. That context might be too wide, so let me restrict to the last 500 years. One theory propounded by Morris Berman in his book Why America Failed (2011) is that after the discovery of the New World, the cohort most involved in colonizing North America was those most desperate and thus inclined to accept largely unknown risks. To them, the lack of ontological security and contingent nature of their own lives were undeniable truths that in turn drive distortion of the human psyche. Thus, American history and character are full of abominations hardly compensated for by parallel glories. Are boomers, or more generally Americans, really any worse than others throughout history? Probably not. Too many counter-examples to cite.

The current endgame phase of history is difficult to assess as we experience it. However, a curious theory came to my attention that fits well with my observation of a fundamental epistemological crisis that has made human cognition into a hall of mirrors. (See also here and here, and I admit cognition may have always been a self-deception.) In a recent Joe Rogan podcast, Eric Weinstein, who comes across as equally brilliant and disturbed (admitting that not much may separate those two categories), opines that humans can handle only 3–4 layers of deception before collapsing into disorientation. It’s probably a feature, not a bug, and many have learned to exploit it. The example Weinstein discusses (derivative of others’ analyses, I think) is professional wrestling. Fans and critics knew for a very long time that wrestling looks fake, yet until the late 1980s, wrestlers and promoters held fast to the façade that wresting matches are real sporting competitions rather than being “sports entertainments.” Once the jig was up, it turned out that fans didn’t really care; it was real enough for them. Now we’ve come full circle with arguments (and the term kayfabe) that although matches are staged and outcomes known in advance, the wresting itself is absolutely for real. So we encounter a paradox where what we’re told and shown is real, except that it isn’t, except that it sorta is, ultimately finding that it’s turtles all the way down. Enthusiastic, even rabid, embrace of the unreality of things is now a prime feature of the way we conduct ourselves.

Professional wrestling was not the first organization or endeavor to offer this style of mind-bending unreality. Deception and disinformation (e.g., magic shows, fortune-telling, con jobs, psyops) have been around forever. However, wrestling may well have perfected the style for entertainment purposes, which has in turn infiltrated nearly all aspects of modern life, not least of which are economics and politics. Thus, we have crypto- and fiat currencies based on nothing, where money can be materialized out of thin air to save itself from worthlessness, at least until that jig is up, too. We also have twin sham candidates for this fall’s U.S. presidential election, both clearly unfit for the job for different reasons. And in straightforward fictional entertainment, we have a strong revival of magical Medievalism, complete with mythical creatures, spells, and blades of fortune. As with economics and politics, we know it’s all a complex of brazen lies and gaslighting, but it’s nonetheless so tantalizing that its entertainment value outstrips and sidelines any calls to fidelity or integrity. Spectacle and fakery are frankly more interesting, more fun, more satisfying. Which brings me to my favorite Joe Bageant quote:

We have embraced the machinery of our undoing as recreation.

Didn’t expect to come back to this one so soon, but an alternative meaning behind my title just appeared. Whereas the first post was about cancel culture, this redux is about finding people willing and able to act as mouthpieces for whatever narrative the powers that be wish to foist on the public, as in “Where do they dig up these characters people?”

Wide-ranging opinion is not difficult to obtain in large populations, so although plenty of folks are willing to be paid handsomely to mouth whatever words are provided to them (e.g., public relations hacks, social media managers, promoters, spokespersons, actors, and straight-up shills in advertisements of all sorts), a better approach is simply to find people who honestly believe the chosen narrative so that they can do others’ bidding guilelessly, which is to say, without any need of selling their souls. This idea first came to my attention in an interview (can’t remember the source) given by Noam Chomsky where is chided the interviewer, who had protested that no one was telling him what to say, by observing that if he didn’t already share the desired opinion, he wouldn’t have the job. The interviewer was hired and retained precisely because he was already onboard. Those who depart from the prescribed organizational perspective are simply not hired, or if their opinions evolve away from the party line, they are fired. No need to name names, but many have discovered that journalistic objectivity (or at least a pose of objectivity) and independent thought are not high values in the modern media landscape.

Here’s a good example: 19-year-old climate change denier/skeptic Naomi Seibt is being billed as the anti-Greta Thunberg. No doubt Seibt believes the opinions she will be presenting at the Heartland Institute later this week. All the more authenticity if she does. But it’s a little suspicious, brazen and clumsy even, that another European teenage girl is being raised up to dispel Time Magazine‘s 2019 Person of the Year, Greta Thunberg. Maybe it’s even true, as conspiracists suggest, that Thunberg herself is being used to drive someone else’s agenda. The MSM is certainly using her to drive ratings. These questions are all ways to distract from the main point, which is that we’re driving ourselves to extinction (alongside most of the rest of the living world) by virtue of the way we inhabit the planet and consume its finite resources.

Here’s a second example: a “debate” on the subject of socialism between economists Paul Krugman and Richard Wolff on PBS‘s show Democracy Now!

 

Let me disclose my biases up front. I’ve never liked economists as analysts of culture, sociology, or electoral politics. Krugman in particular has always read like more of an apologist for economic policies that support the dysfunctional status quo, so I pay him little attention. On the other hand, Wolff has engaged his public as a respectable teacher/explainer of the renewed socialist movement of which he is a part, and I give him my attention regularly. In truth, neither of these fellow needed to be “dug up” from obscurity. Both are heavily covered in the media, and they did a good job not attacking each other while making their cases in the debate.

The weird thing was how Krugman is so clearly triggered by the word socialism, even though he acknowledges that the U.S. has many robust examples of socialism already. He was clearly the one designated to object to socialism as an ideology and describes socialism as an electoral kiss of death. Maybe he has too many childhood memories of ducking, covering, and cowering during those Atomic Era air raid drills and so socialism and communism were imprinted on him as evils never to be entertained. At least three generations after him lack those memories, however, and are not traumatized by the prospect of socialism. In fact, that’s what the Democratic primaries are demonstrating: no fear but rather enthusiastic support for the avowed Democratic Socialist on the ballots. Who are the fearful ones? Capitalists. They would be wise to learn sooner than later that the public, as Wolff says plainly, is ready for change. Change is coming for them.

A complex of interrelated findings about how consciousness handles the focus of perception has been making the rounds. Folks are recognizing the limited time each of us has to deal with everything pressing upon us for attention and are adopting the notion of the bandwidth of consciousness: the limited amount of perception / memory / thought one can access or hold at the forefront of attention compared to the much larger amount occurring continuously outside of awareness (or figuratively, under the hood). Similarly, the myriad ways attention is diverted by advertisers and social media (to name just two examples) to channel consumer behaviors or increase time-on-device metrics have become commonplace topics of discussion. I’ve used the terms information environment, media ecology, and attention economy in past posts on this broad topic.

Among the most important observations is how the modern infosphere has become saturated with content, much of it entirely pointless (when not actively disorienting or destructive), and how many of us willingly tune into it without interruption via handheld screens and earbuds. It’s a steady flow of stimulation (overstimulation, frankly) that is the new normal for those born and/or bred to the screen (media addicts). Its absence or interruption is discomfiting (like a toddler’s separation anxiety). However, mental processing of information overflow is tantamount to drinking from a fire hose: only a modest fraction of the volume rushing nonstop can be swallowed. Promoters of meditation and presensing, whether implied or manifest, also recognize that human cognition requires time and repose to process and consolidate experience, transforming it into useful knowledge and long-term memory. More and more stimulation added on top is simply overflow, like a faucet filling the bathtub faster than drain can let water out, spilling overflow onto the floor like digital exhaust. Too bad that the sales point of these promoters is typically getting more done, because dontcha know, more is better even when recommending less.

Quanta Magazine has a pair of articles (first and second) by the same author (Jordana Cepelewicz) describing how the spotlight metaphor for attention is only partly how cognition works. Many presume that the mind normally directs awareness or attention to whatever the self prioritizes — a top-down executive function. However, as any loud noise, erratic movement, or sharp pain demonstrates, some stimuli are promoted to awareness by virtue of their individual character — a bottom-up reflex. The fuller explanation is that neuroscientists are busy researching brain circuits and structures that prune, filter, or gate the bulk of incoming stimuli so that attention can be focused on the most important bits. For instance, the article mentions how visual perception circuits process categories of small and large differently, partly to separate figure from ground. Indeed, for cognition to work at all, a plethora of inhibitory functions enable focus on a relatively narrow subset of stimuli selected from the larger set of available stimuli.

These discussions about cognition (including philosophical arguments about (1) human agency vs. no free will or (2) whether humans exist within reality or are merely simulations running inside some computer or inscrutable artificial intelligence) so often get lost in the weeds. They read like distinctions without differences. No doubt these are interesting subjects to contemplate, but at the same time, they’re sorta banal — fodder for scientists and eggheads that most average folks dismiss out of hand. In fact, selective and inhibitory mechanisms are found elsewhere in human physiology, such as pairs of muscles to move to and fro or appetite stimulants / depressants (alternatively, activators and deactivators) operating in tandem. Moreover, interactions are often not binary (on or off) but continuously variable. For my earlier post on this subject, see this.

Delving slightly deeper after the previous post into someone-is-wrong-on-the-Internet territory (worry not: I won’t track far down this path), I was dispirited after reading some economist dude with the overconfidence hubris to characterize climate change as fraud. At issue is the misframing of proper time periods in graphical data for the purpose of overthrowing government and altering the American way of life. (Um, that’s the motivation? Makes no sense.) Perhaps this fellow’s intrepid foray into the most significant issue of our time (only to dismiss it) is an aftereffect of Freakonomics emboldening economists to offer explanations and opinions on matters well outside their field of expertise. After all, truly accurate, relevant information is only ever all about numbers (read: the Benjamins), shaped and delivered by economists, physical sciences be damned.

The author of the article has nothing original to say. Rather, he repackages information from the first of two embedded videos (or elsewhere?), which examines time frames of several trends purportedly demonstrating global warming (a term most scientists and activists have disused in favor of climate change, partly to distinguish climate from weather). Those trends are heat waves, extent of Arctic ice, incidence of wildfires, atmospheric carbon, sea level, and global average temperature. Presenters of weather/climate information (such as the IPCC) are accused of cherry-picking dates (statistical data arranged graphically) to present a false picture, but then similar data with other dates are used to depict another picture supposedly invalidating the first set of graphs. It’s a case of lying with numbers and then lying some more with other numbers.

Despite the claim that “reports are easily debunked as fraud,” I can’t agree that this example of climate change denial overcomes overwhelming scientific consensus on the subject. It’s not so much that the data are wrong (I acknowledge they can be misleading) but that the interpretation of effects of industrial activity since 1750 (a more reasonable comparative baseline) isn’t so obvious as simply following shortened or lengthened trend lines and demographics up or down. That’s typically zooming in or out to render the picture most amenable to a preferred narrative, precisely what the embedded video does and in turn accuses climate scientists and activists of doing. The comments under the article indicate a chorus of agreement with the premise that climate change is a hoax or fraud. Guess those commentators haven’t caught up yet with rising public sentiment, especially among the young.

Having studied news and evidence of climate change as a layperson for roughly a dozen years now, the conclusions drawn by experts (ignoring economists) convince me that we’re pretty irredeemably screwed. The collapse of industrial civilization and accompanying death pulse are the predicted outcomes but a precise date is impossible to provide because it’s a protracted process. An even worse possibility is near-term human extinction (NTHE), part of the larger sixth mass extinction. Absorbing this information has been a arduous, ongoing, soul-destroying undertaking for me, and evidence keeps being supplemented and revised, usually with ever-worsening prognoses. However, I’m not the right person to argue the evidence. Instead, see this lengthy article (with profuse links) by Dr. Guy McPherson, which is among the best resources outside of the IPCC.

In fairness, except for the dozen years I’ve spent studying the subject, I’m in no better position to offer inexpert opinion than some economist acting the fool. But regular folks are implored to inform and educate themselves on a variety of topics if nothing else than so that they can vote responsibly. My apprehension of reality and human dynamics may be no better than the next, but as history proceeds, attempting to make sense of the deluge of information confronting everyone is something I take seriously. Accordingly, I’m irked when contentious issues are warped and distorted, whether earnestly or malignantly. Maybe economists, like journalists, suffer from a professional deformation that confers supposed explanatory superpowers. However, in the context of our current epistemological crisis, I approach their utterances and certainty with great skepticism.

Third version of this topic. Whereas the previous two were about competing contemporary North American ways of knowing, this one is broader in both time and space.

The May 2019 issue of Harper’s Magazine has a fascinating review of Christina Thompson’s book Sea People: The Puzzle of Polynesia (2019). Beyond the puzzle itself — how did Polynesian people migrate to, settle, and populate the far-flung islands of the Central and South Pacific? — the review hits upon one of my recurring themes on this blog, namely, that human cognition is plastic enough to permit highly divergent ways of knowing.

The review (and book?) is laden with Eurocentric detail about the “discovery” of closely related Polynesian cultures dispersed more widely (geographically) than any other culture prior to the era of mass migration. Indeed, the reviewer chides the author at one point for transforming Polynesia from a subject in its own right into an exotic object of (Western) fascination. This distorted perspective is commonplace and follows from the earlier “discovery” and colonization of North America as though it were not already populated. Cartographers even today are guilty of this Eurocentrism, relegating “empty” expanses of the Pacific Ocean to irrelevance in maps when in fact the Pacific is “the dominant feature of the planet” and contains roughly twenty-five thousand islands (at current sea level? — noting that sea level was substantially lower during the last ice age some 13,000 years but due to rise substantially by the end of this century and beyond, engulfing many of the islands now lying dangerously close to sea level). Similar distortions are needed to squash the spherical (3D) surface of the globe onto planar (2D) maps (e.g., the Mercator projection, which largely ignores the Pacific Ocean in favor of continents; other projections shown here) more easily conceptualized (for Westerners) in terms of coordinate geometry using latitude and longitude (i.e., the Cartesian plane).

The review mentions the familiar dichotomy of grouping a hammer, saw, hatchet, and log in terms of abstract categories (Western thought) vs. utility or practicality (non-Western). Exploration of how different ways of knowing manifest is, according to the review, among the more intellectually exciting parts of the book. That’s the part I’m latching onto. For instance, the review offers this:

Near the middle of Sea People, Thompson explores the ramification of Polynesia as, until contact, an oral culture with “an oral way of seeing.” While writing enables abstraction, distancing, and what we generally call objectivity, the truth of oral cultures is thoroughly subjective. Islands aren’t dots on a map seen from the sky but destinations one travels to in the water.

This is the crux of the puzzle of Polynesians fanning out across the Pacific approximately one thousand years ago. They had developed means of wayfinding in canoes and outriggers without instruments or maps roughly 500 years prior to Europeans crossing the oceans in sailing ships. Perhaps I’m reading too much into the evidence, but abstraction and objectivity as a particular way of knowing, bequeathed to Western Europe via the Enlightenment and development of the scientific method, stunted or delayed exploration of the globe precisely because explorers began with a god’s eye view of the Earth from above rather than from the surface (object vs. subject). In contrast, quoting here from the book rather than the review, Polynesians used

a system known as etak, in which they visualize a “reference island,” — which is usually a real island but may also be imaginary — off to one side of the path they are following, about midway between their starting point and their destination. As the journey progresses, this island “moves” under each of the stars in the star path [situated near the horizon rather than overhead], while the canoe in which the voyagers are traveling stays still. Of course, the navigators know that it is the canoe and not the islands that are moving, but this is the way they conceptualize the voyage.

Placing oneself at the center of the world or universe — at least for the purpose of navigation — is a conceptual pose Westerners discarded when heliocentrism gradually replaced geocentrism. (Traveling using GPS devices ironically places the traveler back at the center of the map with terrain shifting around the vehicle, but it’s a poor example of wayfinding precisely because the traveler fobs the real work onto the device and likely possesses no real understanding or skill traversing the terrain besides following mechanical instructions.) While we Westerners might congratulate ourselves for a more accurate, objective orientation to the stars, its unwitting limitations are worth noting. Recent discoveries regarding human prehistory, especially megalithic stone construction accomplished with techniques still unknown and flatly impossible with modern technology, point to the existence of other ways of knowing lost to contemporary human cultures steadily triangulating on and conforming to Western thought (through the process of globalization). Loss of diversity of ways of knowing creates yet another sort of impoverishment that can only be barely glimpsed since most of us are squarely inside the bubble. Accordingly, it’s not for nothing that some unusually sensitive critics of modernity suggest we’re entering a new Dark Age.