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.

A Sermon for the Choir

Please note, dear reader and esteemed member of the choir: this hortatory fragment was written some time ago. Since then, the climate has changed just slightly. This means it is already out of date. However, it remains less out of date than most hymnals, so the choir may still find it of modest interest.

How shall I begin? This world is filled with pain, with desperation and peril, but it is also full with unending beauty. Humankind, victims and perpetrators of our own stupidity and heedlessness, are also beautiful. While not shutting our eyes to the condition of our world and our fellow creatures, and of our own species, we must keep our hearts open to the beauty that surrounds us, wherever we are. Faith is the antidote to despair. Faith is not the province of facts; it is the province of experience.

All things are connected. Strip mines in Appalachia are connected to families who watch television for four hours each day, and can’t listen to each other. The ones who are killed and maimed in far away places by bombs dropped from planes from our countries are connected to the ones who lie hopeless beneath cardboard boxes and blankets on the streets of our cities. Not caring is connected to not caring.

Children who grow into teenagers who grow into adults without learning to respect and care for the world outside themselves are connected to politicians who do not respect the truth or care for the lives and living communities that are entrusted to them. A million people marching through the world’s streets pleading for a livable planet is connected to me listening, truly, when you speak.

It is a moral challenge. It is about truth, and ethics, and the fate of our children’s children, and the children of all beings. It is about being righteous in our relation to the future, and to the present. It is about being good.

It is one struggle. If we realize this, we can see that there is sanctity in working for justice, peace, and wholeness, and that learning to be virtuous is a revolutionary act.

Virtue is not fashionable. Goodness, sincerity, and innocence are not fashionable. Plant a flag on these things and you may be laughed at, but it is the only way to push forward towards a brighter future without being, and looking, like hypocrites.

If we want peace in the world, we have to be peaceful. If we try to fix the wrongs of the world out there while ignoring the cultivation of our own peace, we are too weak for the job at hand. Ghandi spoke of soul force. But we cannot have soul force if our souls are muddled with postmodern confusion about whether it is possible to tell right from wrong.

Real activism goes from the center of one’s self to the farthest reaches of the world. The strongest change comes from within. If our actions are harmonious and based on the same principles all the way from our closest, most immediate effects to out farthest, most distant effects, then we are strong.

The foresight that sees that unmitigated carbon emissions will lead to dire consequences is the same foresight that sees that children growing up in a culture of moral vacuity will lead to dire consequences. Politics would divide us into camps who see either the outer ethics of the world or the inner ethics of character, but seldom both. In the hands of vice, politics would divide and conquer virtue. This is not the way forward.

There is a universal ethics. They are values shared by all peoples and espoused by all faiths. If we base our efforts to save this earth on them, we can communicate across creed and culture and politics.

There is sanctity in all life. The world, created through whatever means, deserves to live. We may steward and cultivate, but not destroy.

If we accept the reductionist premise that all is mechanical, then we are attempting to make a meaningful argument on behalf of life, and of future life, in a context in which life itself has no meaning. It is like attempting to lift one’s self up by one’s own feet. Such a capitulation is not necessary.

We see that there is sacredness in standing up for justice and peace, and there is revolution in sincerity, kindness, honesty, and virtue. To be strong in righting the wrongs of the world, we must work for rightness and harmony and sanctity in ourselves, and among ourselves, and between ourselves and all of creation.

We must be ambassadors of truth and goodness, and yes: also of beauty, for real beauty also transcends boundaries of creed and culture. This is not the sort of beauty one has to be taught to appreciate. It is not the beauty of modern art, or of contemporary design, or of fashion, or of the avant-garde in any field. The distinguishing feature of the avant-garde is its speedy obsolescence. The distinguishing feature of beauty is that it is never obsolete.

Bringing truth, and goodness, and beauty into the world can happen in the humblest of ways. A smile. Work well done. Honesty. There are a million ways in which our human faculties can serve in the growth of the world, in the unfolding of something new. We cannot predict what that something will look like, but we can be, as fully and honestly and artfully as our capacities permit, today, and that will lead us on to what is next.

Jesus, I’ve heard, said to love your neighbour as yourself. Our neighbours are all the living things we come into contact with. Our neighbourhood is the community of all such things, and the culture that exists among them, and our relationships to them. If love fills the gap between our selves and all of our living relations, earth, plant, animal, human, then we cease to be an atom drifting about bumping into other inanimate objects, but become part of something larger, and can begin to see ourselves in all living things.

No matter how far human ignorance and greed goes in damaging and impoverishing the world, Life persists in its patient working of miracles. Even in the midst of the deepest poverty and oppression, there is light. Seeds sprout through cracks in the pavement.

The spark is always there. It cannot be extinguished. We must keep our eyes open, and notice it, and collaborate with it in brightening 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.

Genesis

This is it, my friends. After some years of incubation, ideas begat words, which begat documents, which begat schemes, which begat domain names, which begat doubts, which begat delays, which begat panics, which begat more delays, which begat reflection, which begat inspiration, which begat more domain names, which begat a WordPress installation, which begat a “coming soon” page, which begat, after a surprisingly brief interval, this post.

It was bound to happen some time, just like our fine-tuned cosmos in the universe-proliferating schemes of Max Tegmark, or every possible version of everything according to the many quantum mechanical worlds of Hugh Everett. (These are highly unparsimonious theories, but they do forward the increasing difficult and quixotic aim of keeping meaning out of science’s view of the universe; and, incidentally, of this post.)

Starting a blog is like climbing up a rocky outcropping and flinging ideas into the wide, murky ocean of the internet. They may sink, float, or, in rare cases, catch some off-shore zephyr in their gossamer thought-sails and go zooming off toward the far horizon. It can be messy, but here’s the thing: ideas don’t really do any good if they’re just sitting around getting fat and eating all the potato chips in the back of my head. They need exercise. They need to get out a bit more.

The perfect exercise machine for a flabby ol’ idea is a conversation, and I’m hoping this blog will start a few. They may be online or off, light or deep, short or long. Possibly, it will facilitate communications with various people who, noting my lack of academic qualifications, wealth, royal parentage, or Twitter followers, would hesitate to communicate otherwise.

If I’m very lucky, it may even shatter the dull poignancy of a conversation in which nobody realizes their mutual enthusiasm for evolutionary game theory, composting their own manure, or even Life the Universe and Everything; due to this, they have a brief exchange of insipidity that is of interest to no one, then go away feeling slightly more disappointed about themselves and possibly the whole universe.  If this blog somehow thwarts even one such encounter, it will have paid the debt of its existence and proved a counter-example to my brother-in-law’s well-intentioned theory that talking about ideas makes me an aloof, nerd-infested brain case from which all sociable people will run away while silently clutching their heads. Disproving this theory is one of my ambitions in life.

I intend to write about some of the strange things I’ve noticed during my so-far-thirty-odd-year sojourn among the three-brained beings on this planet. Here’s one such strange thing: none of us are merely “on” the Earth; we are part of it, along with the rest of life; we are an expression of the creativity of Earth and Sun, of the miraculous propensity of the universe towards complexity and splendour. And, we are an expression of DNA, of natural selection, of genes selfish and altruistic, of the struggle for survival, of physics, chemistry, and biology. Worldviews can contain each other.

So, this blog will also be about jigsaw pieces of things — science, religion, ecology, enlightenment, politics — that seem to fit together surprisingly well, but haven’t been assembled quite yet.

You and me are like neurons in the brain of a very large creature. Each of our communications is a little action potential jumping across a synapse, contributing its minuscule vibration to the whole symphony of our sleep-walking global cranium that one way or another, through its harmony or discord, shapes the fate of the world.

Right now, that symphony isn’t sounding too good. But, the better we can each play our own instrument, and the more elegantly we can harmonize with others similar or dissimilar to ourselves, the more we can contribute to getting the whole orchestra pit back on track.

Dendrites collecting incoming signals? Check. Ion channels loaded? Check. Membrane potential approaching threshold voltage? Check. Neurotransmitters massed in the presynaptic terminal? Check. 3… 2… 1… ZAP!

Thanks for stopping by.

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.