Six Tricks to Fix Democracy (And Other Small Problems)

Some days ago, as the hang-fire drama of the US election was inflaming the internet and crisis fatigue seemed to be gnawing an ever-widening hole in our collective mental health, I decided it was time to turn away from the news, take several deep breaths, spend a minute communing with any humans, pets, plants, trees, shrubs, or other living objects that were nearby, and think about what steps we could each take, without waiting, to pull democracy back from the cliff edge.

This post is the result. It is about six patterns of democracy that we can start building now — in our communities and organizations, and in our politics and nations — for a stronger and more powerful democratic fabric that both resists tyranny and sustains life.

Each of these patterns looks at a different facet of democratic process: scale, content, context, shape, mechanisms, and quality. They are not new. Each, in some way, is older than democracy itself. Once through them, we’ll look at how they can be combined to reinforce each other and move us toward a more just and beautiful world.

Scale: bringing democracy home

Attention, resembling gravity, seems attracted to bigness. As media ownership has consolidated into fewer and fewer larger and larger corporations, the topics that take our attention have also shifted toward distant, inaccessible political spectacles in which we are largely powerless, and away from decisions close to us where we can actually make a difference.

This is not a good thing for democracy. National politics is a veritable training ground for learned helplessness.

Countering this trend probably requires the banal but radical act of participating in the many layers of democracy that exist — or can exist — between us and our national governments. Cities, local councils, districts, and even provinces or states have much more accessible and flexible systems of democratic participation than nations.

It can be startling — even a little scary — to discover that one person can make a significant difference in a political process, possibly leading to the strange realization that the systems we’re in are not fixed, but are formed from human imagination and will. What alternatives can we imagine?

If frustrated with democratic impotence, we can keep reducing the scale until we find a place where our contribution matters. Perhaps that is at the level of city or district, neighbourhood, school or community organization. Perhaps it is in our own household. (A few peculiar households I know of have even built their own apps for this.) I think there is almost always such a place. If not, we can create it.

Power tends to flow up hierarchy unless it is reclaimed from below. By creating a context for hyper-local democracy, we can give ourselves not just a personal voice, but a collective voice that other levels of power need to contend with.

Context: building democratic economies

The conventional place of democracy is in making and enforcing rules, which is called government. But the entities that influence much of our lives are not governments, but corporations. And corporations are usually not democratic in any meaningful way.

This prevalence of undemocratic corporate power is at work in many of our most pressing problems, including polarization in politics, catastrophic inequality, climate change, and an epidemic of meaninglessness. The force of the market is supposed to provide a feedback loop on corporate behavior, but this logic demands that citizens — who care about all sorts of facets of the world around them — be reduced to consumers, whose care can only be voiced through shopping. We live in democratic nations, but in openly plutocratic economies.

There are alternatives. If we wish for a renewal of democracy, then finding, building, and supporting democratic enterprises is key. Usually these take the form of cooperatives. To grow economic democracy, we can certainly buy from these businesses. More importantly, we can participate in them, as members, employees, suppliers, and directors.

The combination of co-ops and the rise of businesses as platforms — containers in which exchanges between citizens occur — gives a wide horizon for rethinking conventional structures of corporate organization and power. Co-ops can become their own economies, facilitating rather than controlling flows of value among their participants.

Like in other contexts, economic democracy survives through use. We can inspect the economies around us—employers, suppliers of food, goods, media, medicine, ideas, services — through the lens of democratic agency, see what knobs and dials may exist there, and begin turning them.

Content: deciding about things, not just people

“Democracy” means rule by the people, but in most cases the scope of what’s called democracy is limited to choosing who will make the decisions for us. There is no practical reason why this has to be the case, especially in an era when we are all subject to ubiquitous, continuous digital opinion measurement anyway (in our interactions with social media, among other places).

Through ballot propositions and referenda, some jurisdictions do allow us to decide on some policy questions. The more local and frequent these decisions become, the more they can become the domain of human consideration rather than the domain of money and partisanship.

Switzerland, with its system of cantons, has been operating as a partial direct democracy for centuries. More recently Taiwan has made bold experiments in digital direct democracy in its vTaiwan program, using Pol.is for aggregating public opinion in ways that show where the less-polarizing outcomes might lie. Cities, notably Barcelona and Madrid, are at the vanguard of direct democracy experiments, allowing citizens to allocate portions of city budgets and vote on policy proposals. On the more radical edge, Rojava in Syria and the indigenous Zapatistas in Mexico have adopted federated forms of direct democracy in their semi-autonomous territories.

Making decisions about issues rather than personalities can break up the deadlock of polarization. When we’re not forced into a binary choice between two necessary evils, but can exercise our curiosity, vision, and opinions directly with substantial questions, we may realize that we agree in ways we didn’t expect.

For this to happen, such decisions need to be frequent and local enough that they don’t themselves become flashpoints for polarization. (Otherwise, one decision can become a proxy for multiple issues and grievances, as was arguably the case with Brexit and some other high-profile referenda.)

Shape: building horizontal federations

National governments are generally triangular in shape. A single head of state sits at the top, numerous minions at the bottom, and below that even more numerous citizens. This is generally not a very responsive shape for a power structure. The formal mechanism of feedback is the election, when the very bottom of the pyramid, in theory, gets to decide about the very top.

What other shapes could we go ahead and work with, since these triangular nation states don’t seem to be doing the job very well?

One possibility is to build horizontal power by linking together democratic organizations in different triangles. An example of this is the international coalitions of cities that are effectively undermining national negligence on climate change by enacting their own city-to-city agreements and policies. Another example is the New Economy Coalition, a 200-member coalition of grassroots organizations working for economic democracy and social justice. A historically powerful example is the labour union: a democratic coalition that forms horizontally across pyramidal boundaries, and by so doing changes the balance of power within those pyramids.

These horizontal coalitions can happen at any layer of the pyramid, from provinces, to cities, organizations, or even citizens (as campaign groups like Avaaz have amply demonstrated).

Horizontal coalitions can start to reduce our dependence on states or corporations to do the right thing, and let communities of practice or context build shared commitments and strategies across pyramidal boundaries.

One way to do this is to look at whatever movements or groups I am part of and ask: who is doing similar work or facing similar challenges elsewhere, and how could we help each other?

Mechanism: beyond the binary vote

As Pia Mancini has eloquently pointed out, our mechanisms of democratic engagement are horribly out of date. They were designed before computers, calculators, telephones, or automobiles, when logistical constraints made simplicity paramount, and elitism intentionally restricted the scope of democratic input.

Outside of politics, some progress has been made on new ways to bring together human judgements in the past three centuries.

These innovations include:

  • “Liquid” democracy, where voters can entrust their votes on specific questions to trusted contacts who know about the topic at hand — a possible voluntary compromise between direct and representative democracy;
  • Score, ranked choice, and other non-binary voting methods, which give a more nuanced means of entering input and capturing the collective intelligence of a group
  • Conviction voting, which aims to reduce the effect of short-term swings of opinion by giving more weight to stable positions
  • Multivariate decision systems like Ethelo or Pol.is, that facilitate finding common ground and less-controversial outcomes that are invisible in simplistic voting systems
  • “Swarm” decision making tools that give real-time feedback on collective judgement, which seems to increase the accuracy of some collective decisions

Though the results of small experiments with these mechanisms are promising, most of them have never been tested at scale.

As we introduce new layers of democracy, we can also introduce new mechanisms that give a more nuanced and intelligent way of combining many voices into one choice. The design of democracy ain’t over yet.

Quality: rediscovering how to listen

Finally, let’s consider the quality of the deliberation that leads to, through, or from a collective decision. A vote is an extraordinarily low-bandwidth form of communication. Sometimes this is good (for example when independent input is needed on a simple decision), but if we want to build stronger democracy from the bottom up then we also need to (re)learn how to do civil, qualitative, inquiring dialogue that brings us into the perspectives of others.

Indra Adnan and The Alternative UK‘s dialogue events and Nora Bateson’s Warm Data Labs are two striking examples of how this can be done. Listening is powerful, both for the hearer and the heard. Trust the People, a spin-off from the Extinction Rebellion movement, is leading trainings and facilitating groups around the world who are rebuilding habits of deliberative local democracy using citizen assemblies.

In small groups that know how to use it, consent decision making is an efficient method of making collective decisions that avoids both the tedium of consensus and the polarization of majority votes. For day-to-day operations in many democratic organizations (particularly those practicing Sociocracy) it is the go-to method for making effective, inclusive decisions. In tandem with this, speaking in “rounds” gives time to be heard and time to listen — important in building trust in small democratic groups, and aiding the balanced input that’s been experimentally shown to support, or at least correlate with, improved collective intelligence.

Weaving the threads

Those of you who have made it this far may rightly be asking: so what? If we do all these things, somehow, how will that prevent, for example, the election of another Donald Trump?

It is a fair question. It’s difficult to know for sure what patterns of causation have led to the current state of politics in the USA, or other places with similarly troubling trends. But, making a few plausible guesses, we can look at how the positive feedback loops holding the current state of politics in place could be interrupted by these six patterns.

Historically, it seems that populist politics emerges out of a flammable mixture of economic distress (the real or perceived threat of economic hardship), political disempowerment (the sense that the powers that be are not listening or accessible, or are following their own agendas), and the existence of some other, whether internal or external, that can be blamed for the state of affairs.

This mixture becomes more incendiary when inter-partisan communications break down, and views about basic facts of the world become divergent among political camps. This can happen through partisan media, through social media filter bubbles, or through social divides that stymie communication (for example between ethnic groups, classes, or geographies).

Democratic localization brings politics to the level of real people, where abstract categories (“Liberals” or “Immigrants” or “Trump supporters”) are less believable. Humans never quite fit the one-dimensional labels we put on them, and the more the subjects of those labels are our neighbours, and we’re interacting with them rather than talking about them, the less divisive power the labels have.

Economic democracy intervenes in the feedback loop between financial hardship and reactionary populist politics. Democratic enterprises give scope for participation in economic solutions that don’t involve blaming immigrants, fighting over state support, or placing responsibility on far off and inaccessible corporate masters.

Direct democracy can dilute polarization by removing the artificial grouping of issues around party policies. Is a correlation between “family values” and climate change denial really coming from voters’ beliefs, or is this an artifact of party groupings? Separating the two can let us get to the needs and values that are obscured by polarizing categories, and allow people an avenue of engagement that’s not tied to zero-sum opposition.

Horizontal coalitions help all of these other patterns spread across contexts, replicating things that work from one place to another.

New mechanisms of democratic decision-making can help expand the ambit of democracy without making it onerous. This is important, because one of the greatest impediments to participatory democracy in practice is how much citizen attention is required to make it meaningful.

High-bandwidth, qualitative engagement encourages actually coming to understand and appreciate the context of opposing viewpoints.

These six alternatives are not a panacea, or a replacement for current electoral systems. They are each a facet of democracy that can bear its own fruit. When combined, they make a fabric of democratic culture that could not only help stave off authoritarian decay, but also give us more vibrant, engaged, intelligent, and capable citizens and groups.

Strangely, the value of democracy is something that most of the political spectrum seems to agree on. Isn’t it peculiar, then, that no party has made the expansion of democracy part of its platform? Of course it doesn’t take much cynicism to see why this is. Real democracy undermines the monopolistic power of party politics. We cannot expect politics, which is powerful in inverse proportion to the degree society is democratic, to protect or grow democracy. We have to do it ourselves.

If we believe in democracy, we need to make it more than just an idea we act on at election time. We need to make it part of our lives. When we do that — with the appropriate structures, and in a context of efficient decision making and execution mechanisms — we are giving a much, much stronger shove-off to authoritarianism and tyranny than anything that happens at the ballot box.

Democracy is contagious. It’s also delicate. The R of democracy is entirely dependent on the enthusiasm and integrity with which it is done.

Reprieve

On November 4th, when it appeared that Donald Trump may have, by some ghastly force, gained a second term in office, there was a gloomy mood in this house. One housemate donned a sloth-shaped “onesie” and brewed a large amount of tea. Another asked a Tarot deck how to resist blunt power.

Eventually, the US election made a gradual and nail-biting turn to the left, and the mood lifted. The house had music in it again, and someone baked a chocolate cake.

The world is in rough shape. We’ve been hammered by a pandemic, garish police brutality, social unrest, reactionary populism, fires, and the smoldering threat of climate change. We live in times of crisis. Still, there has hardly been a more appropriate moment for building alternatives to systems that are obviously broken.

Crisis or not, it is business as usual that is taking us into a hellish world. National election victories don’t change that unless they are followed up with systemic change. Let’s step off the train and use the opportunities we have to make a deeper democracy real.

Now Is The Time for an Economy of Kindness

The world seems to be moving in two opposing directions: in one, there is death, sickness, loneliness, cruelty, and despair at the crevasse of political turmoil and economic hardship we seem to be sinking into. In the other, there is a wave of collective solidarity, kindness, determination, and altruistic ingenuity that may be unique in recorded history.

Which of these will prevail?

Though outcomes seem to be shaped by forces beyond ourselves, on some questions we have a choice. How governments are structured and when we have to pay taxes are set in law. But our economy, for all its problems, has an element of freedom. What we buy and who we buy it from is up to us. What we produce and who we give it to is up to us. We may be controlled by the tyranny of mass production, prices, and advertising, but this subservience is ultimately voluntary. We have the power to step into a new kind of economy, if we choose to use it.

The economy we have now is neither healthy nor rational. To see our way past it requires a shift of assumptions, not just about economics, but about what it means to be a successful human being on planet earth. This article is a guess at what pieces are needed to transform our personal economies. It starts with some context, then outlines five steps towards an economy of kindness. Links are provided to a repository of resources for making these steps real.

The era of greed

For almost 250 years, we have lived in an economic system designed to be driven by greed. In classical economic theory, selfish motives of rational, isolated individuals power a vast mechanism of commerce and production in a spiral of never ending increase.

So far, this mechanism has been spectacularly effective at inventing new technologies, extending average lifespans, turning natural resources into products, supplying those who can afford it a staggering diversity of material possessions, destroying ecosystems, and producing enormous quantities of cheap, low-quality food. It has reduced extreme poverty in many places while making the very rich much richer and the moderately poor much poorer. It has spawned political decay through the commercialization of attention and cursed us with an epidemic of obesity, loneliness, anxiety, and despair.

Under the pressure of the pandemic, the ideology of the greed economy has been imploding before our eyes. In a span of weeks, nearly the entire population of the planet was asked to reign in their personal desires for the good of others. The altruism of front-line workers inspired celebrations in all corners of the world. Corporations that were supposed to be the bastions of capitalist self-sufficiency began demanding ever larger handouts from governments. Governments that were the bastions of free-market libertarianism started cutting checks for their citizens. A few billionaires even announced donations of double-digit percentages of their net worth, and some governments sponsored volunteer hackathons the size of small cities.

Long before this cataclysm whipped the veil off, the intellectual validity of the selfish rational actor paradigm was already falling apart. Experimental research has shown that we don’t actually behave as selfish, rational agents by default – our natures are selfish and altruistic in almost equal measure, and hardly rational at all; and the material wealth which the economy of greed is supposed to provide doesn’t turn out to be a valid predictor of well-being. Endless acquisition doesn’t make us happy.

A pandemic of possibilities

The collective altruism we’ve seen in the past months could be just an anomaly on top of another transfer of wealth and power up the food chain. As small businesses die, big businesses swallow taxpayer dollars, and governments gain new tools to surveil and control their citizens, we may return to an even less equal, more cruel version of the economy we already have.

That is perhaps a likely outcome, but it is not the only one. As the economy of greed has threatened to collapse from a million cracks in its pavement of normalcy, shoots of something different have appeared.

These shoots are an invitation from a possible world. This possible economy is more rational than the economy of greed, because it accepts our whole selves. It sees altruism, well-being, connection, and love as drivers of our actions. Rather than designing only for the worst, it designs to bring out the best. Rather than narrowing the definition of value into a single monetary quantity, it expands it to include the things that make us most alive and human: our relationships, meaning, and quality of experience. Rather than hoping for future change from above — from new technology, or better politicians, or a deus ex machina enlightenment — it enacts change from below, in the present. It imagines, builds, and celebrates what could be, instead of fighting what is. Knowing that getting everything figured out and predicted and centrally controlled is neither wise nor possible, it relies on thousands upon thousands of experiments happening simultaneously, sharing knowledge and building on the work of others. Setting aside abstract dichotomies between competition and cooperation, individual and collective, freedom and security, or justice and mercy, it finds concrete, case-specific solutions that step lightly over ideological fault lines.

This article is my personal attempt to describe five facets of a possible economy of kindness. I don’t have the answers, but I do have a thought: wherever we are, let us step into doing whatever we are called to do to lead us out the bright end of this tunnel. The future is waiting. It is up to us.

1. Being and feeling as whole humans

A holistic economy starts with holistic experience of being human. This is a superpower, because attentiveness to our genuine human needs breaks the chain of illusion the greed economy depends on. The greed economy’s surrogates for fulfillment – in the form of entertainment, consumption, and status — are only as alluring as we are desensitized to what we really need.

Giving ourselves space and permission to be with our inner experience is not just self help. It is also economically revolutionary. It is from an open heart that the courage to look our situation in the eye arises. Activist and Buddhist scholar Joanna Macy says that we grieve for what we love. Sometimes the path to whole-hearted action leads through darkness. Sometimes an active hope lies beneath many layers of very reasonable despair.

I remind myself to take time away from the deluge of information and distraction that we all have such easy access to. This is time to let the heart be heard, to feel what the body has to say of this pandemic, to bring the mind home. To breathe.

Sometimes this requires firm boundaries. One friend of mine decided to leave his phone turned off for the first half of each day. Fasting from the internet one day each week works well for me.

When I get closer to center, I realize that much of what my busy mind thinks is normal and important can just fall away and not be missed at all. Another chunk that I may have been neglecting is vital, and needs attention to come alive. The greed economy depends on our imbalance and our numbness to keep the cycle of dissatisfaction and consumption going.

Whatever tools or traditions you have that allow inner awareness to unfold are also tools for making a holistic economy possible. They are antidotes to the outward-facing madness of consumerism.

In every community, there are human and non-human beings and environments that help us come home to ourselves. These are worth finding. We – the community of earthly life – are our own networked psychological support system. This is a good moment to tap into that system.

Fear, sadness, and anger can be felt and accepted for what they might contain, and in the process they become things we are observing and taking care of, rather than things that are controlling us.

Untended or unconscious, these emotions can make us gullible. Fear has always been a favourite tool for consolidating power, and anger a favorite tool for wielding it. Watch carefully. Be with your emotions. Don’t let them be stirred from without. I have sovereignty over my own response.

This tending of the inner garden is the foundation of capacity to serve, to share, and to build something more beautiful in the world around us.

See resources for being and feeling.

2. Reaching out in community

The greed economy’s power depends on the perception that we are separate, self-interested individuals. Luckily, we are not.

What are the larger wholes of which I am part? Household, neighbourhood, community, district, city, nation, planet. We are each woven into a web of our relationships to people, to our non-human companions, to the natural world, Gaia, rivers, mountains, trees, ocean; connecting by seeing, by hearing, by touch, by looking at eyes, by listening to stories, by sharing music, by imagining together what could be, and perhaps laughing at our own foolishness and excitement while still letting it fill the soul with daring possibility.

If we care for each other, we can be free. It is only through the network of our interconnections that we gain independence from the poverty of selfishness.

This web of connections is the fabric of an economy of kindness. It is like wires and radio signals for the internet, or nerves for the brain, or transmission lines for the electrical grid.

It is our original birthright and source of identity as living beings and social animals. This birthright can be unwittingly sacrificed to the shadow identities of mass media: identification with brands and celebrities and sports and politics and the dehumanizing quantification of social media. These things hack our biology, creating a virtual reality of satisfaction. Our original capacity for connection is still there, though, born into our flesh, just waiting to be brought to life.

In this pandemic, paradoxically, human connection seems to have come up in value. We’ve realized that we need to be connected, to each other and to the rest of life.

At the same time we are in some measure realizing that the emperor is wearing no clothes. The industrial economy to which we’ve sacrificed our mental health, our planetary health, our climate, and thousands and thousands of other species’ very existence has never really delivered on its promise of full and satisfying lives.

There are as many ways to rekindle this direct connection as there are links in the web of life.

We can start by playing the ball where it lies: if, for example, you’re spending hours a day on video calls, make some space to hear how everyone’s doing and feeling before getting down to business. If your life includes answering emails and WhatsApp messages, consider if you could use these tools to build connection in the place where you live. The neighbourhood I’m in started an email list, and pretty soon it was being used to schedule home made-bread and chocolate deliveries, share tools, and offer rides and pickups among the neighbours.

Go quietly into the forest. Plant a garden, however small. Even a few pots of greens on your porch or balcony or beside the sidewalk. Better yet, find a way to garden with others. Learn the stories of your neighbours.

Nature is a great source of solace. Over and over in calls with people in isolation, I have heard that it is contact with nature – whether in a city park, or a forest, or a farm – that anchors lives that are otherwise disconnected from routine. Gardens are also good therapists.

See resources for reaching out in community.

3. Giving courageously

If connection is the wires of the new economy’s social power grid, the electricity that passes through them is trust, reciprocity, and kindness. In her beautiful book Braiding Sweetgrass, indigenous author, mother, and scientist Robin Wall Kimmer gives a good explanation of the difference between gift and exchange. “The essence of the gift is that it creates a set of relationships. The currency of the gift economy is, at its root, reciprocity.” She points out that a quantified equal and fair exchange – the basic ideal transactional unit of the conventional economy – leaves no relationship behind.

In the famous Prisoners Dilemma scenario of game theory, there are many strategies that lead to a prevalence of cooperation. All of them begin with giving, without guarantee of receiving in return. In fact, in the Prisoner’s Dilemma, all of the most effective strategies for individual success also begin by giving.

Such mechanics are true, but also almost beside the point. To give is to trust, to plant a flag on the generosity of the world, to become part of a benificent universe.

For millennia, sharing was our economy. Giving into a community seeds the field for reciprocity and mutual aid. It is tending a garden from which the community can all find sustenance.

Along with the waves of viral infection, waves of spontaneous kindness have been sweeping the world. Projects like KarunaVirus or  have sprung up just to document this trend.

Where we give from, and where we give to matters. I ask myself: is this kindness coming from an open heart? If not, how can I shift what my role or gift is? And, where is this gift going? Is this creating joy, and a web of gratitude that will outlast the pandemic? What are the economic implications of this gift?

Governments around the world have taken to giving bailouts to their citizens and companies, but often with very little thought to where that calculated generosity actually lands. What if bailouts had to circulate among local economies, rather than making a bee-line straight for the coffers of the world’s wealthiest corporations, leaving small and local businesses struggling and in need of further bailouts?

I wish to give strategically, but most importantly, from an open heart. Remember that gift are also contagious. In your neighbourhood, there are probably those who have the resources to give without suffering, and there are probably those who will suffer unless there’s giving. When the recipe is right, those who have more than they need will step up to the plate.

For this to work, the atomic self of classical economics has to loosen its grip on our minds a little, so we can see ourselves in the whole. That doesn’t have to be painful. In return for turning in the little “me me mine” self, we can get a bigger self in exchange.
Giving starts the wheel of reciprocity turning. For it to continue, we also need systems that support it.

4. Building the mechanics of a new economy

Economies rarely work by good intentions alone. Human nature is a mixed bag. The privilege of enabling the beautiful goes with the responsibility of attenuating the ugly.

In the economy of greed, we are encouraged to build new products, but not to build new economic systems. The features of new economic systems that work: democracy; decentralization; solidarity; and community.

We can think of an economy as flows of goods, flows of information (or control), and flows of money (or medium of exchange). In the conventional economy, all these flows are structured in large-scale hierarchies: goods flow from mega-scale mines, farms and factories, through distribution systems, to consumers; money flows from consumers into larger and larger aggregations of wealth and corporate or government coffers, and then back down the food chain to workers; information follows a similar pattern, centrally controlled by states and mammoth technology companies.

In an economy of kindness the pyramid changes shape into a network, coercive participation becomes elective, and flows form loops at much smaller, more local scales.

There is something else these three flows leave out: affect and meaning – how we feel about the things we’re participating in. This factor is present at every interaction in the economic network. Think about it: every time we make a transaction, there is some way that that transaction makes us feel. Whether that is buying something from Amazon, or from our local farmer’s market. And at every transaction there is also a relationship of affect. There’s how we feel about the relationship we’re in to make the transaction.

In the economy of greed, the affective relationship between entities is deeply asymmetrical. On the production side, it is about engineering experiences through advertising, product design, marketing, and user experience design that make us feel something like good – the small doses of pleasure-inducing chemicals that squirt into our brains on seeing a Facebook like, the satisfaction of unboxing a new iPhone, the pleasure of getting a good deal on eBay.

The greed economy plays our nervous systems like a gamelan orchestra, tricking us into consuming things. This is akin to the way that low quality starchy, sugary, salty foods hack our biology. We may crave them, and feel full after eating them, but they’re not providing what our bodies actually need.

Advertising, branding, and convenience give the psychological equivalent of sugar coating on economic flows that actually harm our health. It is a hack of the same sort as junk food, but much more pernicious. As the economy gives us fewer opportunities for whole-human feeling, it gains more and more power with the ability to microdose us with shallow injections of pleasure while leading us farther and farther away from truly satisfying lives. Through the bait of pleasure, we end up feeling worse and worse.
There is nothing wrong with our tendency to want beautiful and useful things, the appreciation and respect of our peers, or information about the world around us. But these naturally occurring mechanisms were not prepared for targeted attack. Like a cell succumbing to a virus, with no natural immunity, we are not built to withstand a sophisticated, carefully optimized exploit that targets our receptor sites for pleasure while stealing our lives and the living systems we depend on.

The function of structure in an economy of kindness is to connect flows of real economic good with flows of real affective good. In other words, to make it easy, fun, and healthy to do things right.

In every part of the world, legions of mostly obscure pioneers have been working on this for decades. The economy of kindness goes in the opposite direction from the standardization and monotony of the conventional economy, so there are as many approaches as there are people taking them. But, there are a few patterns that appear in many places where new economics is emerging. Some of these patterns are as old as humanity. Looking for these in your community and neighbourhood is a good way of finding the network of people building structures for an economy of kindness.

Mutual aid and sharing networks that allow us to help each other and make good use of the resources we have, without depending on money.

Cooperative businesses that turn the hierarchical pyramid upside down with democratic ownership.

Micro and community credit that humanizes the process of access to capital, and opens doors to healthy growth for small scale enterprises while keeping money in the community.

Local currencies that encourage circulation of wealth within a local area, supporting people whose livelihoods are creatively tied to place and escaping the tyranny of debt-based money (and the risk of economic collapse).

Community benefit enterprises that operate as effective businesses, but for the benefit of the community. These can be anything from a railroad line to an apartment block to a holding company that runs a currency and wind farm.

Local gardens and farms – wherever you are, there are people not far away growing food, building the foundation of change at the level of nutrients.

Community democratic governance can allow a community to make legitimate, coherent decisions together, building solidarity and the possibility of generating sufficient community will to take collective steps toward an economy of kindness.

Economically-aware activism that makes strategic demands to allow community sovereignty over economic flows.

None of these things is easy. Separately, they are very hard indeed. But together, they make a mutually-supporting network that can start to form the skeleton of a new world.

Building alternate economic systems is challenging, but economic depression is the mother of economic innovation.

This may be the first time that a depression has coexisted with the internet. This gives the technical ability to build things locally with an entire world’s experience and collective learning on tap. Today, we can create an alternative digital mutual credit currency or a mutual aid network or a local email distribution list in minutes. We can learn what neighbourhoods across the world are doing to solve the same problems we face. The possibilities are enormous.

Wherever you live, find out who in your neighbourhood or area is one of those dreamers who has been thinking about or playing with alternative economics for years, even decades. They seem to exist nearly everywhere. It’s time for them to be called up like a reserve force of economic system construction workers and start rolling out new systems.

See resources on building economic structures.

5. Living in a more beautiful world

We’ve talked about opening to ourselves and to the web of human and non-human life in which we live, about kick-starting cycles of reciprocity with our own generosity, and about building the economic mechanisms that are structurally supportive of an economy of kindness. These are the building blocks, but to actually inhabit the world we would like to see exist requires a leap of something like faith.

In Donella Meadows’ classic book on systems, she talks about the levels of systems change. One of the most powerful levels is the level of the system goals – what is the system trying to do? In the case of our economy, we may wish to update that goal, perhaps from “grow the GDP” to “wellbeing for humans and planetary life”.

But this is not the most powerful level of systems change. The more powerful level is that of the paradigm the system operates under.

Visionaries throughout history have discovered a dangerous trick: there is power in envisioning the world as it could be, and then behaving as much as possible as if that world already exists.

How do we actually step into an economy of kindness, without requiring permission from anyone?

It has been noted that walking on two legs is the process of continuously falling over forward and then catching ourselves. To the extent that human society makes progress, it is by a similar mechanism. It requires being out of balance. This unbalance is the visionary foolishness of behaving as though what we see as possible already exists.

When we’re lucky, a leg steps forward and catches us. Of course, there is no guarantee this will happen. Greed and cruelty and may win. But, at this point, for those who are watching the arc of history and ecology, there may be two options: either we risk failure as foolish idealists; or we stay in our comfort zone and accept the defeat of our species. If we don’t at least believe in the possibility of the improbable, and act on it, prospects for the human civilizational experiment look grim.

Once we’ve opened to ourselves, and to the web of human and non-human life in which we live, and we know something about the harm that comes of the products and services we consume, they cease to be fun any more. Joanna Macy, borrowing from Buddhism, calls this the Revulsion.

The alternative hinges on what Charles Eisenstein calls Reunion — coming home to ourselves as connected with all of life. This perception of Interbeing (to borrow zen teacher Thich Naht Hanh’s phrase), is a more challenging, but also more rewarding way of being. It is ultimately more fun than either sense-deadening consumerism, or a reasonable but nihilistic acceptance of apocalypse. It is also more effective.

We can overtake the greed economy not by tackling it like a football player, but simply by building a more satisfying alternative, stepping into it, and inviting others to join us.

This vision of a kind economy may be idealism. But, so were many of the movements that changed history. You could say that the laws of biological human nature prevent such a bright future. But, you could similarly say that the laws of gravity flatten things to the earth. And yet we build bridges and airplanes and skyscrapers and send rockets to the moon. Human nature, accepted, can no more prevent us from building an economy of kindness than gravity could prevent us from walking on two legs.

Let’s build the economy we want to live in, and inhabit it while it’s under construction. Let’s let contagious kindness spread like a virus. Let’s lean forward, beyond what’s currently real, and take the next strategically daring step into what is possible.

The APIs of Religious Experience

The holy is a serious business. Wars have been fought over the proper way to worship, and the contradictions and absurdities of religion can seem limitless.

What if we’ve got the wrong metaphor? What if didn’t think of religious and spiritual traditions as competing ideas about the One True Way, or as just exercises to make us feel good, but as a structured interface like the ones programmers use to make one computer talk to the other? What if “God” is an undocumented API?

API stands for Application Programming Interface.  To quote Wikipedia, an API is a “set of clearly defined methods of communication among various components.” APIs are how one computer program talks to another, and usually this means there are protocols for connecting, for requesting information, for sending and receiving, for confirming that information has been successfully received, and for disconnecting.

APIs are everywhere. Amazon, Facebook, Twitter, and Google have dozens of them. There are all kinds of cool things you can do with all these APIs, like winning quiz shows, turning Twitter into a newspaper or populating your personal library app with weighty tomes.

What if “God” is, or has, a few million APIs too? What if we thought of a prayer like a request to Google Maps? Absurd, maybe, but let’s think about it for a few minutes and see where it might take us. Let’s give it a try.

Of course, you may think that “God” is not even a relevant concept. Luckily, I won’t argue with you. The cool thing about an API is that you don’t need to know much about the program on the other side of the interface. If you know how to use the API, and you get the desired results, what you believe is mostly irrelevant.

Research seems to be indicating that using God APIs, or attempting to through spiritual or religious activities has some positive results, such as longer life, happiness, less stress, and even, in rare cases, possibly enlightenment.

You could argue that these positive results are outweighed by negative results like religious wars, fanaticism, and really overpriced cheese sandwiches.

But, if you look closely, you’ll see that most of these problems stem from somebody mistaking their particular God API version for the Whole Big Thing. And if you’ve got the Whole Big Thing, then somebody else ain’t got it, and you must be right while they must be wrong, and this can lead to superiority complexes of pathological and dangerous proportions.

It might seem offensive to compare religion to a web app. (I know some programmers who would be offended by this at least.) But, if we put our sanctimoniousness aside for a moment, I think the analogy can shed some light on what religious practices are actually doing, and help us look at our differences a little more technically and a little less personally.

Just the API

APIs are a structured way to connect and exchange data. The whole of the Google Maps code is far too complicated to connect to and try to interact with. That would be overwhelming. The API makes a certain portion of the program accessible to people who just want to get the latitude and longitude of the nearest pizza joint.

We can look at religion in a similar way: connection protocol, maybe authentication, data transfer, maybe sign off in some way, and voilà: API call successful.

One system can have many APIs. Canada Post, for example, has three different and incompatible APIs for getting shipping rates. Figuring out which one needs to be used for a given circumstance is almost as mysterious as choosing a religion, but that’s not the point. The point is that the API is not the system.

Where are the docs?

There’s one annoying thing about the APIs of God: the documentation is not so good. This can lead to all kinds of problems. In some cases, people get so confused about their API that they start worshiping the API, rather than using it to connect and transfer data. Or, they believe that their API is the only one, and therefor everyone else is doing it wrong and might need to be corrected for their own good, by force if necessary. Or, they let their API get so encrusted with extraneous bits that no one can figure out what’s actually the essential parts of the API and what’s a hack that was added by some programmer who couldn’t get some dependency linked up properly and forgot to add a comment on why the hack was needed for some particular case.

These are all easy mistakes to make when you’re working with a mostly undocumented API that nobody knows much about other than bits and pieces patched together from millenia of reverse engineering attempts.

Security

Supernatural APIs also have some security vulnerabilities. One is the man-in-the-middle attack, where you think you’ve got a port open to God, but actually it’s connected to something else, like maybe the back of your own head. This is why it’s good to verify your data with a behavioral checksum. If your API call tells you to do something that’s contrary to what other kinds of API calls generally recommend — something like blowing yourself up, burning witches, or massacring the Canaanites — then your connection has probably been hacked. Better check the connection logs and see what happened.

History is rife with examples of hacked supernatural API calls. They are particularly dangerous because there may be enough genuine API content getting through the hacked connection to bamboozle the onlookers into thinking you’re a boss programmer and they better follow you wherever you lead, because it’s sure to be groovy. But, the back-of-your-own-head part of the data stream can turn groovy into not-so-groovy fairly quickly, which can be a disappointment to everyone.

Protocol consistency

Deistic APIs all have their own procedures, just like other APIs. You can connect to Canada Post and get shipping data with either a REST API or a SOAP API, but you can’t connect with one and then try to get data with the other. It just doesn’t work. Godly APIs also have different protocols. The Zen API might involve spending days or weeks sitting still and pondering a riddle about dogs, while the Jewish API might require wavering back and forth and reciting verses from very old books. For squeamish modern humans who might be allergic to ceremonial protocols, there’s the no-God proxy API that might involve walking through a forest at sunset, staring out from the top of a mountain you’ve just climbed, stargazing, or discovering a new mathematical theorem. Or other things.

These APIs might all work, but that doesn’t mean they are all the same. You can’t mix two API protocols for double the data. If you try to mix APIs into, for example, a Zen Shiva Christ-Consciousness Shaman Warrior Goddess Moon Kabbalah Ceremony, you’re likely to get no data at all. If you do get data, you might want to give it a sniff before you stick it in your database. That kind of a glommed-together application is usually a security nightmare of the first order and is likely to have been already hacked a few times by Russians, the NSA, the Chinese, and even the video-game nerd living in the basement down the street. Caveat emptor.

It might be more technical than you think

To get data with an API you usually have to send something first. If you want info on a book from Amazon’s API you first have to get the connection going, which involves sending your API keys. They might look something like ZBJs7deF9KLJ2342FdVO. Based on this, we might say that Amazon is a strange, powerful creature that lives up in the cloud, and is hungry for long strings of numbers and letters. If you give it some it will make it happy, and then it will bless you with data.

Of course nobody believes this about Amazon. Who would want a long string of numbers and letters? With supernatural APIs we are, as usual, more easily confused. Some connection protocols include things like singing Hosannas, Hail Marys, or Hare Krishnas. One might conclude we’re dealing with a massively egotistical system that requires a lot of praise and flattery before it will do anything. Praise might be part of the protocol, but that’s no reason to anthropomorphize the system into a petulant teenager. Praising and Hallelujahs might have more to do with prepping the input buffer in your system than propitiating a higher power.

All these APIs have protocols and procedures and data formats and complex maneuvers involved — praying, for example, or staring at the stars on a clear night, or reading a wise book. But even if all the procedures are followed, it doesn’t always work. It’s kind of like connecting to Google Maps from my small-island radio internet connection: sometimes it works, sometimes not.

API calls that don’t work may be one reason most North American and European churches are mostly empty. A defective API call might be because a well-intentioned reformer, taking things literally, decided to delete parts of the API call without knowing how it actually worked. Or, it could be because the API call is being done improperly by mistake (in which case finding someone well-versed in that API and getting some tips might be a good idea). Then again, it may just not be the right API for the connecting system. There are many others, so don’t despair.

Do these APIs change? Are they always the same — so that one could connect with equal efficacy using the same protocol, say, in ancient Greece, and in modern Athens — or do they get updated from time to time, so we have to use new protocols? Or is it the other way around: are we changing over time, and the APIs are having to adjust so we can still connect to them? Who knows, but if we want to revitalize ourselves as a species, it might be a question worth exploring. What sorts of API calls could give us renewed connectivity to the universe and all of Life, quickly?

Excuse me, I’m just making an API call

For my adult life I’ve been a daily meditator and a software developer. Meditation, I’m sure, has made me a better programmer. Programming, has probably made me a worse meditator.

In exchange it has provided a few good metaphors, and — from all that troubleshooting — a couple of useful rules:

1. don’t assume you already understand what’s happening.

2. don’t assume you can’t understand what’s happening.

Metaphors are tinted goggles we can put on and take off depending how we want to see the world. Sometimes they help us see things we might have missed otherwise. This doesn’t mean one metaphor is more right than another. If it’s useful, use it. If not, find a new one.

The same applies to API protocols. If we look at religious and spiritual practices through the metaphorical lens of an undocumented API, it can help us see them with both compassionate and inquiring eyes. They may be beautiful, mysterious, and profound, but they also have a structure and pattern and internal mechanics that holds them together — just like a symphony, a flower, or an emotion. The technical and the numinous co-exist.

Happy connections.

Ecological Efficiency, Hamburgers, and the Possible Survival of Civilization

“Efficiency” usually means the degree to which costly inputs to a process are reduced in relation to the process’s desirable outputs. This linear input-process-output model of efficiency fits well with the linear models of production, consumption, and growth that have been spreading, like cultural parasites, over the globe for the past few hundred years.

On a finite planet, though, such linear models are doomed.

Is there a measure of efficiency that could work on a finite planet? One that could guide us toward cyclic, harmonious processes rather than linear, doomed processes?

A Tale of Two Hamburgers

In the Mato Grosso province of Brazil, near the Xingu River, on the traditional lands of the Bororo indians, in the midst of one of the most biodiverse ecosystems on the planet, is a 32,123-acre soybean plantation. Its borders are sliced out of the green patchwork of forest with satellite-guided precision in a perfect rectangle. Planted and fertilized by tractors, dusted and sprayed by airplanes, harvested by a swarm of massive combines, this is, in conventional terms, possibly one of the most efficient food production operations in the history of human civilization.

Field cut through the Mato Grosso forest (image thanks to Google Earth)

In ecological terms, though, it is a monster of staggering proportions. This monster stretches back and forward in time: back through the network of energy and chemicals that feeds the soy plantation, and forward into the places where the soybeans and the leftovers from their production will go.

These soybeans grow on fossil fuels, from Venezuela or Saudi Arabia or Kazakhstan, refined and shipped across oceans and burned to make the concentrated nitrogen fertilizer needed to grow soybeans in the thin post-rainforest soil. Some of this nitrogen becomes soybeans, while much of it floats into the atmosphere as nitrous oxide, a highly potent greenhouse gas, or runs off into rivers and eventually estuaries. The soybeans are transported to feedlots where they are fed to fattening cattle. Some of this nitrogen becomes manure and urine, and the rest becomes beef. The beef eventually comes to North American fast-food restaurants, and is turned into hamburgers. The hamburgers are enclosed in disposable packaging, money is exchanged, the hamburger is eaten, and the packaging is thrown away.

This is not the end of the hamburger. Once eaten and digested, the nitrogen whose journey through the linear food system began with fossil fuel extraction goes from a gut to a toilet to a sewage plant, and eventually ends its journey by being dumped into a river or an ocean or denitrified into the atmosphere as nitrous oxide.

This hamburger — we’ll call it Hamburger A — is a masterpiece of linear efficiency. Every step in its production and disposal may be fully optimized for maximally efficient use of human labour, capital, and even energy. The business plan of hamburger A is optimized to perfection. But, because every part and process of hamburger A begins somewhere and ends somewhere else, and the two do not connect, there is a vast impact that is outside the business plan of the hamburger, but borne by the Earth. Hamburger A is a linear hamburger of doom.

Now consider Hamburger B. It is a hamburger that could, in an only slightly different version of reality, be purchased at the food co-op on the small island where I live. It is almost a Möbius hamburger, because there’s no beginning and no end to any of its parts, but we have to start somewhere: nitrogen-rich manure from animals and humans is applied to nearby grass and grain fields. Cows eat the grass, while fertilizing it with their excrement. Grain is harvested using human and animal labour and small machines, then ground into flour nearby. Cows are butchered, and ground up in small batches. Farm and processing leftovers are recycled through composting and carbon-sequestering biofuel cycling. Flour and meat are transported a short distance, then made into a hamburger and immediately eaten, without packaging. Once it’s served its purpose in the human digestive tract, hamburger B is composted and recycled into fertilizer.

In conventional terms, hamburger B is appallingly inefficient. The localization of production and processing eliminates all the economies of scale that benefit mass production. Every step in the process is small, slow, and labour-intensive. Marketing, branding, testing, process design, and transportation all have to be figured out locally, rather than by specialists in a centralized organization.

But, in ecological terms, hamburger B is far more efficient than hamburger A, because the required adaptation of nature is minimal — it doesn’t create extractive impacts from mining fossil fuels or mineral fertilizers, and it has only very small, local impacts from the leftovers of the system’s processes. We could call this property of Hamburger B, the minimal adaptation required by the rest of nature, ecological efficiency. Under this definition, a process is ecologically efficient in inverse proportion to the amount of adaptation — present or future — that it demands in the surround bio-ecosystem.

Hamburger B is ecologically efficient, but where does that get us? In our current economic arrangement, almost nowhere.

The Economic Catastrophe

It is well known that hamburger A is a disaster, and hamburger B is where we need to be heading. Why, then, is hamburger A still taking over the world, and hamburger B still disappearing?

We can think of a socioeconomic system as a Darwinian environment that shapes the fate of its contents, in the same way that rocky environments lead to the evolution of mountain goats and the deep ocean vent environments lead to sulfur-breathing tube worms. I call this extension of the notion of selection from evolutionary theory the principle of selective systems. In an economic environment where conventional efficiency is the sole determinant of fitness, hamburger A out-competes hamburger B. This is why, in North America, hamburger B has become scarcer and scarcer, and hamburger A more and more ubiquitous, even though A is, in systemic terms, a defective hamburger that carries the seeds of its own destruction.

In biology, something like this has been dubbed a trojan gene effect: a heritable trait may confer some extra virulence and spread through a population, even though it weakens the population overall, potentially leading to its collapse. In this case, the unchecked spread of hamburger A and all that goes with it, driven by a relentless maximization of conventional efficiency, could lead to the conclusion of our current attempt at civilization and the end of the hamburger as we know it.

Conventional efficiency is driving the biosphere to the edge because to be inefficient is expensive. Our economic system is designed around the maximization of linear, economic efficiency, not ecological efficiency. There is zero economic cost for ecological inefficiency, except where it overlaps with conventional efficiency because of resource costs or where government regulation has made pollution or extraction expensive.

We all know that hamburger B is better, but still, hamburger A wins.

Hope, or something like it

Looked at in strictly political, or economic, or ecological terms, it seems that we and the rest of life on this molten, igneous, fascinating, miraculously evolving megalith are, to put it bluntly, screwed. Neither market forces, nor altruistic politicians, nor ecologically conscious consumers have come anywhere close to turning our society from its dogged march towards ecological disaster.

If we zoom out from politics and economics and ecology to look at the larger picture, the situation looks even worse. This, paradoxically, might be reason for hope. Altruism may not have to work entirely on its own.

The same linear mindset that is wreaking havoc with the biosphere is at work in human society. For example, consider the linearity of current methods of handling a person’s passage through life. In traditional societies, the elderly generally take care of the young, while those of in between years are working. Today, this cyclical arrangement is broken: children start in a hospital, are then handled by a daycare, then go to school, then, if economic and social conditions permit, to university, then they get a job, possibly have children, eventually retire, and then are exported to a nursing home to end their days surrounded by other old people under the management of professional caregivers. This is an efficient system indeed: hospitals have specialized economies of scale at baby production, daycares have economies of scale managing herds of toddlers, schools are efficient at mass production of more or less socialized teenagers, filtered by obedience and academic skills, universities continue the filtration process and allow mass selection of mates, jobs fill most of the time not occupied by sports and television, and nursing homes keep the embarrassing and unsightly denouement of the human condition from distracting the workforce.

The psychological costs of this arrangement are on a par with the ecological costs of the linear industrial food/waste system. The Earth, which bears the burden of the latter, cannot speak. The humans, who bear the burden of the former, can speak, and are very gradually coming to grips with how thoroughly their lives have been misdirected through the machinery of linear efficiency and an economic dogma that deifies the crude satisfaction of material desires while blindly ignoring the ultimate purpose that satisfaction is supposed to serve: human well being.

This is, possibly, the most hopeful thing in the world.

Between Here and There

There is a lot of talk in the small, curious world of theoretical physicists, and in the swarm of admiring hand-wavers, paper-skimmers, and buzzword-retailers that surrounds them, myself included, about the arrow of time. This arrow, which is no doubt fletched with the remnants of scores of papers debating its existence, speeds in only one direction. Nobody knows why. “The equations of physics,” so the story goes — I don’t know these equations, but I have this on good authority — can “run in either direction”. Why, then, do they run forward from now until tomorrow, rather than backward from tomorrow until now? Nobody knows, and it seems there is only a very mumbling and ill-equipped dude by the name of Entropy keeping tomorrow from crashing into yesterday and causing a mass of utter confusion.

One day, I will write down a theory about all this, and convince my physicist acquaintances to read it, perhaps along with some bitters for stomach calming or, perhaps more likely, a tube of caviar paste which they are, strangely, quite fond of. Today is not that day.

Today the arrow of time I want to discuss is psychological, not physical, and it moves — if it can be said to move at all — not necessarily forward or backward, but primarily sideways.

What could this possibly mean?

Time, psychologically, has at least two dimensions. There is the forward and backward dimension of the past we remember and the future we imagine; and there is an up, down, or sideways dimension of our current mental state and outlook. Why is our mental outlook a dimension of time? Because as it changes, the futures we can imagine also change. It is as though we are traveling sideways in a 2-dimensional plane of time: the forward-looking line of plausible futures changes with each version of now we inhabit. As usual, a scientific plot will help:

 

 

This is of course not the whole story. We behave as though there’s a future out there, and we’re going from here to there, but in fact there isn’t a there at all, only a interminable here that changes as it goes along, such that one here is vaguely related to what we did in the previous one. Brilliant, eh? No. It’s the biggest cliché since Zen and the Art of Whatever-You-Jolly-Well-Please. It’s also true.

The idea of a here, and a there, and some kind of passage in between is an important illusion. It’s important because without an imaginary future over there that we can be illogically striving towards, here tends to get increasingly shabby. Entropy, remember? He was talking about people, not futures, but Victor Frankl said it very well.

If there is what we imagine could be, should be, or must be — say, a world in which humans are living in something like harmony with the Earth, or a version of myself that has moved beyond Earth-destroying economic entanglements — here is our starting point, the situation as it is: a world getting closer to ecological collapse each day, and myself still eating, directly or otherwise, from the economic systems that are abusing the planet.

Futures have a function, and that is to alter what we do in the present. To serve this function, though, they have to be believable. To be believable, we have to be able to see a way to get between here and there. To see a way between here and there, through or around the obstacles that lie in between, we have to be looking from the right spot. To get to the right spot, we have to be able to move, not just forward in time, but up, down, and sideways, such that we can change our outlook until we catch sight of a future that looks so frickin’ fantastic that we’ll get — no, we’ll jump — up off our sorry butts and start trying to drag ourselves, possibly our friends and relatives or anyone else who will listen, possibly even the whole world, in that direction.

In extreme cases that are successful, this is called being a visionary. In extreme cases that are unsuccessful, it’s called being insane. Otherwise, it’s called the human condition. How I feel, what I ate for breakfast, what calamitous or inspiring thing I’ve just been informed of all change my outlook, and therefor what seems to lie between here and there. My movement up, down, and sideways in time is determined by a host of factors, only some of which are under my control. The more I understand them and learn to navigate, the better my view can be.

All this talk of viewpoint could be dismissed as romantic delusion, but the fact is that where we are — what forward-looking line we can see — is critical for practical, real-world effectiveness.

Famous change agents are famous in part because they were unusually capable navigators of perpendicular time, and were able to see a route between here and there that was invisible to others: Ghandi, for example, a route of non-violent resistance from tyranny to self-rule; MLK a route of non-violent resistance from oppression to civil rights; Victor Frankl a route from despair to meaning, no matter the circumstances; Elon Musk a route through a $100,000 battery-powered roadster from fossil-fueled disaster to universal clean energy; Donal– …. no, never mind. There are negative visionaries as well: those who are able to see a route from here to a version of there that is generally repugnant enough from where many people sit that they can’t see the line of possibility and are therefor taken horribly by surprise. Visionaries are nearly always underestimated, since their futures are simply impossible when viewed from where most people are looking from.

Every visionary is some percentage a failure. The vision of what could be — peace between Muslims and Hindus in India for example, or justice and equality between races in the USA — rarely fully comes true. Reality falls short of the mark, but it can get much closer thanks to someone finding a place to stand where they could catch a glimpse through a pin-hole of possibility, and then describe it convincingly enough to bring others close to the same viewing point.

Views of what’s possible create their own probabilities. The question is not which view of what’s possible is “most true”; the question is: which view of what’s possible will lead to the best result?

I think the heart, that organ of surpassing sagacity and sometimes of extreme foolishness, generally knows this. It is more prudent than the mind, and invests only in what is inspiring, knowing that what is inspiring has the best chance of success.

As an activist in any arena, even the petri dish of my own consciousness, I have to keep in mind that navigation of mindset and motion on the ground are of equal importance.  Just getting to the visionary place where I can see a way forward does nothing; pushing for change without getting to that place may do less than nothing, because the pushing might not be pointed in the right direction.

We need to have an inspiring vision, whether it’s of a more beautiful world, or a more enlightened version of myself, and we need to know in our hearts that this vision is possible. At the same time, we need to look very close to home, in both time and space, for the real action that will move us forward towards whatever a positive future will look like, whether it matches the vision or not. Like belief, a vision of the future is a tool that can be used for adjusting the knobs and dials of our own minds and motivations. Meanwhile, the knobs and dials of my mind affect the future I can see, and so believe.

Between here and there is an imaginary landscape. It is by changing the version of here I’m inhabiting that I can get the virtual reality out there to leverage the evolution of here so that, in time, there can become real.

Why Not Democracy?

Democracy means “rule by the people.” We call our system of government democracy, but we are not ruled by the people. We are ruled by politicians.

Every few years there is an election campaign, and we attempt to select the best of a small number of choices, and — if we’re not too jaded to bother — we mark an “x” on a piece of paper and drop it into a box.

The input bandwidth of our national democracies is approximately one bit every two years. After 16 years of civic engagement, then, our input amounts to one byte: about enough data to contain a single character of the English alphabet. This is what we know as democracy. The ancient Greeks (who invented the term) might be surprised at our misuse of their language.

Two or three centuries ago, when our current political systems were designed, newspapers were the cutting edge of information technology. Low bandwidth democracy may have been the best available, and representative democracy was the result.

In theory, representative democracy means that a politician represents his or her constituents in government; in practice, it can seem to mean that she or he represents a political party to constituents at election time. Once elected, there is generally no requirement for the “representative” to represent the will of the constituents at all.

The technical constraints that democracy operated under two centuries ago are gone. Today, it is very easy to measure the opinions of a population. It is done routinely for market research, and even by political parties to better sell themselves to voters. But what if polling were not just a tool for political and commercial marketing? What if it was a condition of elected office that a clear majority opinion among constituents must be truthfully represented in government?

It would be possible to implement such a veridical representative democracy, but there is a step missing: who is going to implement it? Power is rarely relinquished voluntarily.

It is an age-old dilemma, but in this case there is a loophole. In countries such as Canada, directly representative democracy could be put to the test without first changing anything about the system of government. What if one courageous and imaginative candidate promised constituents that once elected, their voice — the opinion of the majority of the constituents — would guide the representative’s actions in the assembly? A single candidate could provide an example that could radically reform the way we are governed.

Would such a candidate be elected? And if elected, would they be capable of implementing the promise of real democracy? I don’t know. I do know that the our ancient machinery of governance is overdue for an update.

The problems facing our societies are not being effectively solved by our current political arrangements. We could pin this trend on any number of contributing causes — a dumbed-down electorate, the media, lack of apparently meaningful alternative candidates, complacency of a society that’s never had to fight for its freedom, the influence of money, laziness. But, identifying mutually reinforcing causes is not a solution.

Real democracy could be. If citizens’ opinions really mattered, there would be reason for them to become informed about issues that affect their lives. The intelligence of a society could be brought to bear on the questions that are important to its future in a way that no individual politician or political party, whose ability to act wisely is hampered by a tangled web of political obligations, could arrange.

Civilizations live and die by how well they are governed. The acceleration brought about by exponential technological change and its unintended consequences places a heavy burden on the abilities of society to make well-informed, timely, and far-sighted decisions. Climate change, environmental degradation, inequality, financial instability, and resource depletion demand wise governance if our societies are to survive or prosper.

If there is a better way to make the decisions that will shape the fate of civilization on this perilously fragile planet, we must find it.

Democracy? Let’s give it a try.

On The Saving of Planets

Planets, in the basic sense of the word, do not need saving. Their trajectories through the heavens are wholly indifferent to the squabbles and errors of microbial-scale life upon their skins. Even in a more inclusive meaning of “planet,” that of a home for life, a garden of diversity and even, perhaps, a living being, it would be hubris to talk of saving. Humans may be foolish and damaging, and may wreak an ugly blip on the timeline of planetary vitality, but life goes on.

There is a sense, though, in which the planet, or the work of the force of nature upon it, is in danger. Over the course of planetary history there has been long-term trend, if fossils are to be believed, of greater and greater diversity and complexity in the thin film of life that calls this planet home.

We are part of that film, of planetary nature’s great creative work, of life becoming itself in all its astonishing beauty and complexity.

We are part of the continuum of life, in this sense neither greater or lesser than a tree frog, or a buttercup, or even, perhaps, a raindrop. But, within this continuum, our capacities may beunique; our meta-awareness, our ability to know that we are knowing, to feel that we are feeling, to imagine, build steward; our capacity to understand, if we will, distant causal connections, to make inferences, to shape-shift our consciousness such that we can imagine being a fish, a parakeet, a lemon; we can see wholes from parts and parts in wholes; and through language and culture we can build upon these things from one generation to the next.

We can be the neurons of the planet, a meta-species through which the earth can see, and know, and care for itself.

We can be this, but only if we will. So far these awesome gifts have been used to abuse, destroy, and impoverish. Through arrogance and greed, through our failure to realize our role as stewards and observers of the biosphere, we are endangering not only the diversity and elegant functioning of the Earth’s life, but also the survival of ourselves. Perhaps most immediately, we are endangering the possibility that our civilization may, somehow, stumble forward into a new comprehension of our relation with ourselves, the Earth, and the universe, rather than backwards into chaos.

Our civilization is a mixed bag, and no mistake. Within that mix, though, there is caring and beauty, and an expression of constructive instincts that are as fundamental to our natures as language and tribal networks.

If that civilization fails, and fails without the redemptive result of a more cooperative version arising in its place, then the work of life on this planet will have taken a step backwards; the road to another civilization getting this close to a tipping point of contextual understanding could be very, very long.

We can chose to see evolution as the dumb mechanics of fate, or we can chose to see it as a sort of miracle. (Science has nothing legitimate to say on this point. Which would you choose? And which view point, overall, leads to more of what’s true, and good, and beautiful?) What a gift that the dynamics of evolution didn’t favour the Earth being permanently enveloped in a film of single-celled slime moulds. It could have happened, and the fact that the we’ve escaped such seemingly-possible equilibria may be a giant case of quantum tunneling of the most magnificent kind, but that’s a digression for another post.

Yes, life will go on, will return, will cover and erode the scars left by this most daring of its creations, eventually. Nature has worked long and hard on us, though, and if we really mess up it may be a very long time before some other part of the planet emerges that can look itself in the mirror and see the whole looking back.

Evolution occurs in fits and starts. Sometime, it is crisis that forces progress, be it biological, psychological or societal. The story of evolution is, in the larger timescale, the story of smaller, separate things forming larger things through cooperative networks. If we are to continue this story, we will — at some scale, through some means — learn cooperation beyond what we’ve yet employed, and possibly beyond what we can easily imagine.

In this time of vertiginous unraveling, there remains reason for hope. Despite human nature, despite 10,000 years of misery and conflict, despite all that has been tried and failed, we have not yet fully explored the territory of human cooperation. We may have never been closer to disaster, and we may also have never been closer to breakthrough. The more blatantly our ways of living on the Earth are not working, the more motivation exists for seeing other possibilities — possibilities that may yet save this fascinating experiment from the lab-bench sink.

This is the summer solstice. As the Earth turns again, its implacable trajectory moving for perhaps the 4.5 billionth time around the ever-radiant sun, through the black star-studded reaches of space, an extraordinary drama is slowly unfolding on its thin, teeming skin.

We are not done yet.

My Month of Eating From the Island

One year ago today I began a dietary experiment: I decided that for the month of May, I would eat only food grown or harvested on or around Cortes Island. This article is a lab report from that experiment.

A Hair-brained Scheme

When telling people about this experiment, the response was generally: “Cool!…Why?”

There were several motivations. I wanted to know the food that was on my plate. I wanted to see what it would be like, when looking at the food in front of me, to be able to see its history, to know it; to know where it came from; to know who I had to thank for the recent stages, at least, of the intricate chain of events that brought it to my plate; to know that, in its cultivation and transport, only some acceptable minimum of harm had been done to the rest of life; and to know that the economic flows that travel in the opposite direction alongside flows of nutrients — the money we pay to eat — was going where it should: to worthy, hard-working fellow islanders, from whence it could do its very small part toward local abundance.

And, too, I was curious what the effect on mental and physical health would be to eat very simply.

The plan was declared “hair-brained” by some of my acquaintances. They were right.

The Meaning of Dearth

I launched the experiment on May first, with very little preparation. On the same day, I learned a new word: “dearth”. Dearth, I found out, is the time of year when the stored food from last season has been eaten up, and the food from this season has yet to arrive. According to the local food experts and growers to whom I inquired by telephone, in this part of the world, “dearth” also means the month of May.

On Cortes, two things are unaffected by dearth: kale and chicken eggs. So, my diet became kale and chicken eggs.

Kale is a wonderful food, packed full of vitamins. You can find it perched at the very top of the what’s-the-most-nutritious-food lists handed out by health food stores. This is very good, but it turns out that vitamins are not what enables one to do things such as, for example, standing up from a chair, or walking across the yard.

What you need to do these sorts of things is calories, which the health food superstar has very few of. I discovered this experimentally when, after eating very little other than kale and eggs for three days, I no longer felt like walking across the yard or getting up from a chair once I’d sat down in it. Doing these things just seemed like a whole lot of work.

After several days of hopeful but fruitless telephone calls (while feeling less and less well fed, and eating more and more eggs) I finally found a solution in the root cellar at Linnaea Farm: potatoes. Most had been eaten or planted already, or had sprouted into long thin shrubs in the cellar, but in the back corner bin there were enough small, well-keeping fingerlings to get me through the month.

I replaced a gate post at Linnaea as a work trade, and walked off with a large bag of potatoes and some beautiful early greens from the production garden. My diet was suddenly rich and nutritious, and walking across the yard became less daunting immediately.

Discomfort Food

With potatoes, kale, eggs, and fish I had the makings of a healthy and satisfactory diet – or so I thought.

Part of the point of the experiment was to try a very simple diet. I know the labour-intensiveness of culinary creativity, thanks to learning to cook from my wonderful gourmand francophile mother who will, from time to time, whip up a batch of crepes as an afternoon snack, acting as though this was perfectly normal. I avoid culinary creativity when possible, and the only dish I’m known to be good at cooking is porridge. A local diet seemed like a great opportunity to take my nutritional laziness to the max.

Imagine my surprise when I discovered that it was actually difficult to be satisfied with nothing but kale, eggs, potatoes, and fish. No coffee. No tea. No whipped cream. No toast with butter. No butter at all!

The problem of butter was more than recreational, because I knew I was going to be short on fats. It is also nice to have hash browns and a fried egg for breakfast, which requires something greasy, like butter, which requires access to something like a cow, which, despite my whining to the local cow owners, I hadn’t managed to get. Local butter was inaccessible, due to regulations for my protection.

Luckily, another solution was found: at some point in the past year or two, a heroic local food pioneer called Max was involved, in some way I haven’t quite understood, with butchering a sheep. As a result of this he had some jars of rendered sheep fat which he helpfully provided along with two large bags of delicious local nuts.

This opened up new culinary horizons, but they came with social complications. I have a small cabin — possibly the island’s tiniest tiny home — with a rudimentary kitchen in it. Rudimentary means that in one corner there is a nicely varnished but empty cabinet, with a sink in the top and a pipe out the bottom. That’s about it. Onto this is added a hot plate and an electric kettle. Cooking on this equipment is satisfying but very inefficient, so mostly I cook and eat out of a sort of communal kitchen nearby. This kitchen is inhabited by a bunch of people, with many different dietary preferences and requirements. Some of those preferences are, so to say, vegetable-oriented. So, when I arrived triumphant with my jar of sheep fat, and started sizzling it in a frying pan, and a powerful odour of lanolin and other obscure but very sheep-like smells began filling the kitchen, and then the house, the response was immediate.

Luckily, people who use communal kitchens are, for whatever reason, usually idealists of some kind or another. This was lucky because instead of my sheep fat being banned from the kitchen, I was treated with sympathy. As my brother said to my other brother, “just be glad you aren’t going to have to eat it”. If I was going to such extremes as to eat something so disgusting, then clearly I was, for some strange but possibly worthy reason, serious about this idealistic experiment.

Among the people with whom I share that kitchen are some very good cooks. So, in addition to fumigating them with strange carnivorous smells, getting in the way of fast-moving chefs with my never ending potato washing and kale cutting operations, and filling the refrigerator with containers of bulk-cooked potatoes, miscellaneous plants from the garden (sometimes with the roots still attached), and other precious items, I had to enjoy my spartan and repetitive menu in the middle of a parade of the most delicious-looking gourmet meals, top-notch coffee, and — worst of all — whip cream.

This was particularly notable during a two night camping trip with my family near the middle of the month. Recreational camping — that is, camping for some reason other than lack of housing — seems to be a lot about eating things. Such as marshmallows, cookies, and hot chocolate. I was prepared for this, and brought with an insulated bag full of all the local food I thought I could eat, when we headed off by boat for a remote part of the island.

On the first morning, though, as I was lying in a stupour recovering from a tent-free night providing a local fast food feast for the local mosquitoes, my brother came by. “The ravens ate your food,” he said. My sleep deprived mind refused to make sense of this statement. “What do you mean, they ‘ate’ it?” I asked, irritably, from my sleeping bag. “Well, they ate it”, he said. “You’ll have to come and see”.

They had, in fact, eaten it. At some point during the night, ravens had singled out my bag of local food among all the stores we’d brought, and tore it open. They had shredded the egg carton and carried away every single egg, cracked open two plastic containers of potatoes and nuts, and opened a bag of dried apples – my most precious ingredient – and strewn it around the camp site. Virtually the only thing intact was four cans of salmon and my jar of sheep fat.

I salvages a few of the potatoes. Between them, the canned salmon, and freshly-caught cod from the bay I made it through the camping trip. In fact, I enjoyed it. I was beginning to learn to appreciate the simplicity of local eating in fact, rather than just in theory.

The sheep fat was not bad. Fresh leeks sizzled with fat and fried into scrambled eggs makes an excellent breakfast. The experiment of eating local turned out to be more psychological than culinary. It’s astonishing how little eating has to do with getting fed. It’s even more astonishing how much of living has to do with eating! All of this becomes glaringly apparent when one is on a continuous diet of potatoes, surrounded by people whose days are hung together on large, delicious, and carefully prepared meals.

I was healthy – probably better nourished than on my normal diet – but it turns out that most of eating is recreational and social, not nutritional. It made clear to me the difference between eating a perfectly sound, healthy, nutritious, simple diet, and eating for fun – which, it turns out, seems to be the function of most food.

Health Food

There are many odd diet fads around – from “paleo” dieters gnawing on half-raw steaks, to vegan diets, to blood type diets, diets full of fat, diets with no fat, diets with “good” fat but not “bad” fat – it’s such a muddle who can say even what “health food” means? But, all diets seems to agree on two things:

  1. Don’t eat sugar
  2. Don’t eat too much grains, especially white wheat flour

Luckily, neither sugar nor wheat grows on Cortes. On the other end of the spectrum from these outlaws are the “superfoods”: a rotating cadre of specialty products that – if you believe the hype – will make you thin, beautiful and immortal, prevent cancer, cure acne, scrub your intestines, and possibly provoke enlightenment. Whether these claims are entirely reliable may require further research. Nevertheless, we are once again in luck because many of the foods that do come from Cortes – including kale, salmon, oysters, blackberries and blueberries – are frequent superfood-list members.

Local eating also promotes health in a less direct way. As one theory goes, our brains evolved to make us seek out and eat fatty, starchy, salty, and sweet things, which were less abundant than veggies and protein on the prehistoric savanna. Fast forward a million years or two, and we have all kinds of fatty and sugary things to eat, but the brain’s software hasn’t been updated in all that time, so we keep following the old instructions: all fat and sugar thou findeth, thou shalt eateth. This, among many other things, has lead to an obesity epidemic of grotesque proportions.

Luckily again, though, local dieters are spared this problem because Cortes is a bit like the proverbial savanna. Without sweet, fatty, starchy, salty things to eat, we not only eat less of those things, but we also eat less in general because we’re not coaxed to gluttony by the paleolithic nutritionists that lurk somewhere in the brain-stem.

We all know that overeating is unhealthy, especially when it leads to being overweight. But, it turns out that eating less is a good idea regardless of weight. This was born out by experiments with “caloric restriction” diets. Conducted, as usual, on rats, one study found that rats on a restricted diet survived as much as 30 – 50% longer than rats who were allowed to eat as much as they chose. Whether it’s ethical to test diets on rats is another question, but in this case researcher who did the study was so convinced by the results of his experiment, according to CBC, that he did unto himself as he’d done unto his rats and put himself on a caloric restriction diet too.

An Island of Abundance

As the month progressed, my diet became increasingly satisfactory, at times approaching gourmet. Max’s walnuts mixed with the delicious, subtle, wood-flavoured maple syrup from Cortes Gardens; A squash from Marnie, sliced raw, also with maple syrup; salmon candy from the Blocks, and the Block’s canned salmon, which is almost as good as candy; local blackberry jam, eaten by the occasional spoonful; goat milk, steamed on an espresso machine and flavoured with maple syrup; toasted squash seeds; green salad with nuts, pickles, hard-boiled eggs, and a sweet and sour honey and pickle-juice dressing; once one gets organized, the island’s bounty is enough to make a nutritious and tasty diet, even in May.

Local eating has this wonderful side effect: the ripples that come from our participation in the food chain become positive, rather than negative. There is no category of economic activity that is more worthy of our respect and support than our local farmers and food growers. Attempting to make a living (or even supplemental income) from small-scale farming in our current economic system is an act of idealism, or possibly love, but not of economic rationality.

Everything about so-called “laize-faire” market economics conspires to favour of soil-destroying industrial monocrop agriculture whose productivity is dependent on cheap fossil energy and chemical inputs, and whose externalized costs to the Earth and human welfare are largely missing from financial balance sheets.

Every dollar that’s spent locally and not sent off the island to support some other economy is a dollar that can circulate on island, making us all richer in one way or another. Because agriculture is a form of primary production, the positive effect of local spending is doubled or tripled. (Purchase an off-island apple at a local store and around twenty cents for every dollar stays on the island in the form of the store’s gross margin. Purchase a local apple – either directly or through a local store – and the whole value of the apple stays on the island.) By supporting our local farmers and food growers, we are supporting the sustainability, resilience, and prosperity of the whole island.

Gratitude

In the end, the most notable result of this experiment has been gratitude: gratitude for the wonderful diversity of food that we have the privilege of eating; gratitude for the gift of sustenance, and the humble plants and animals from which one can live well and fully; gratitude for the people whose commitment to soil, food, and doing things right allows us all to eat better and more ethically in this place; and a special, unexpected gratitude to those who brightened my life last May with gifts of local food from their own gardens and pantries.

We are what we eat. If we’re eating a problem, then we’re part of the problem; if we’re eating a solution, we’re part of the solution. The more we shorten the long chains of consequence that extend from our consumption out in to the world, so we can see where our footprints hit the earth, the more we can take responsibility for what we do to the planet, its other inhabitants, and ultimately, ourselves.

Charles Eisenstein, in his book Sacred Economics, says that sacredness comes with the uniqueness of particular things, particular places, particular people. Market economics emphasizes interchangeable conformity (between, for example, one picture-perfect apple an another; one ticky-tacky suburban house and another; one employee or consumer and another), and this interchangeability is the opposite of the uniqueness that Eisenstein considers prerequisite for reverence.

I don’t know if this is true (I’m sure that a Catholic would disagree that a communion wafer was any less sacred for its sameness to a few billion others), but I do know that knowing the particular story of the food I eat — what land it grew from, whose hands cared for and harvested it, where the costs, coming and going, end up — changes it. Less food becomes more nourishing, objects become relationships, and the web of connections that flows through all of us, often known as life, becomes just a little more apparent in its jaw-slackening, mind-composting awesomeness.

Arnica

I love flowers. They are the most defiant things in the world. Somehow, in all the utilitarian requirements of survival, in all the necessities of metabolism and photosynthesis and in the harsh contest of evolution, we have flowers: exquisite in symmetry and colour, defying all the ugliness of the world, catching our breath, making us stop a moment, be for a moment, seeing, listening.

They are speaking to us. “See?,” they’re saying. They too face hardships. They too are born, live briefly, and die. But in that little span between, they shine with unabashed radiance, beautifying the world. We can learn from them.

Flowers pay their due to evolution, of course; they serve a function, attracting pollinators, advertising nectar. They have to be practical, just like the rest of us, but have you ever stopped to ponder the generosity of a universe that creates the necessity of flowers? What a sly and awesome thing is nature to create so much beauty in the guise of survival.

Arnica is a mountain wildflower. It grows on the hillside where I spent my youth. It grows thickly beside the boulder under which a rabbit lived one winter; fewer flower down beside the bridge on our steep driveway, in the spot where my brother’s truck stayed after it tried and failed to deliver grandma’s piano to the house one winter.

My mother makes medicinal oils from the flowers of Arnica; they have soothed the many errors and injuries of childhood, along with the care with which they were prepared, and the maternal compassion with which they were applied. Here, wild Arnica cannot be taken for granted, just like the sun in May, or the creek in August. Some years they flower, others they don’t. It depends on the weather, no doubt, and on a thousand secret factors that only Arnica know.

Flora of North America describes it thus: Perennials, 5–100 cm (rhizomes relatively long and thin; caudices woody, relatively short and thick). Stems erect, simple or branched. Leaves basal (sterile basal rosettes often present) and/or cauline; mostly opposite (usually 1–10 pairs, distalmost sometimes alternate and usually smaller); petiolate or sessile; blades mostly cordate, deltate, elliptic, lanceolate, linear, oblanceolate, oblong, obovate, ovate, or spatulate, margins entire or toothed (usually dentate, denticulate, or serrate, sometimes crenate or slightly lobed), faces glabrous, hirsute, hispidulous, pilose, puberulent, scabrous, tomentose, villous, or woolly, often stipitate-glandular as well.

That is what an Arnica plant looks like after being scanned through the scanner of the human brain, and printed out as words. But, like all things, we can’t understand it merely through description, through the output of our own heads. We have to go out and meet it. We have to go out of our houses, out of our books and computers, out of our small containers of thought. Out of our minds even.

I met an Arnica flower yesterday. It had been plucked and was held in a vase, but still its slender stalk stood up impossibly tall and thin and perfect. At the top was a flower, golden and beautiful, like the sun had somehow fallen to earth and taken up lodgings in a botanical analog and proceeded to radiate with a beneficence of clearly solar origin. I wanted to hug it. You can’t really hug a flower, however. You can only stare at it in wonder. Sometimes, the flower stares back.

Several weeks later, I saw that same Arnica flower laid out on the kitchen windowsill. It was awaiting the harvest of enough other flowers to make a batch of oil, and it had wilted into a lifeless pile in the mean time. So I thought, but the next day another defiant miracle occurred: the wilted flower head went to seed, and a hundred tiny parachutes burst out where the petals had been, ready to fly, ready to plant the seeds for next year’s botanical sunrise.