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Friday, March 27th, 2020

Closer to the Crest

Monday, March 23rd, 2020: Chiricahuas, Hikes, Nature, Snowshed, Southeast Arizona, Wildfire.

After a bad cold limited my hiking for almost a month, I was anxious to rebuild my capacity and do more exploring. And in a time of global pandemic caused by urbanization, overpopulation, and globalization – among other failures of our imperialistic industrial society – I was super grateful that two decades ago, long before this man-made disaster, I’d made the decision to move to a region which consists of tiny enclaves of humanity in the midst of vast open spaces with mostly intact natural habitat. At a time like this, my situation couldn’t be in stronger contrast with the situation of most of my friends, who’ve chosen to live in the midst of vast concentrations of humanity surrounding tiny pockets of severely degraded nature.

So until our failing government declares martial law, I can still spend an entire day in wilderness without seeing another human. “Social distancing” – what a cruel joke on those who prize the benefits of big cities. The skyscrapers, the lights, the bustle, the restaurants, bookstores, bars, cafes, and nightclubs. Same as it ever was – the dangerous delusions of industrial civilization.

Today’s hike took me back to the range of canyons, a two-hour drive from home, to an unfamiliar trail that ultimately converged with the first trail I’d hiked there, back in January. This time, I was hoping to reach the crest, in a 12-mile round trip. But three things prevented that: the extreme steepness of the unfamiliar trail, my poor condition after prolonged sickness, and the need for multiple difficult stream crossings at the beginning of the hike.

Despite these challenges, I was able to get closer than before, within about a mile of the crest. And with many, many stops to catch my breath, I managed to climb a little higher than on any previous hike in the past 20 years or more.

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The Real Virus

Friday, March 27th, 2020: Problems & Solutions, Society.

Addiction and Misdirection

Throughout the day, every day, news media urgently demand our attention to the latest crisis, and like sheep, like puppets, many of us drop what we’re doing to breathlessly follow the unfolding narrative.

Statistics: thousands of cases, hundreds of deaths. Predictions in the millions. Authorities split into two sides: “We must take this seriously to avoid a catastrophe!” vs. “We must get people back to work to avoid economic collapse!”

Statistics are by their very nature stripped of their real-world context. What do they mean? People don’t stop dying from war, domestic violence, old age, car accidents, “normal” diseases – but we only get statistics on the crisis. Where did these statistics come from? What extenuating circumstances already existed? What else was going on at the same time? What assumptions were made by those collecting and processing the data?

But those questions would require us to think, and in the consumer model of the news media, just like in the world of the drug pusher, we’re not supposed to think about what we’re consuming. We’re supposed to react, because it’s the reaction that keeps us addicted. The news doesn’t inform us, it alienates us. In a crisis, statistics are used to manipulate us, to immobilize us in front of our screens. The important thing is to remain enslaved to your favorite device, consuming energy, in a state of helplessness.

The people – citizens of the state, consumers of the media, literally addicted to their screens and the hysterical media narrative – echo what their favorite authorities have said, face to face and through social media. “Millions will die! We must take this seriously!” But what can we do as individuals, as statistics? Very little. Like children dependent on their parents, we look to our remote, unaccountable leaders in the hierarchical organization of the state, and again, as with climate change, this new crisis becomes yet another opportunity to attack the other side, the side which is not doing the right thing. The other side’s leaders are causing this crisis! They’re not taking this seriously enough! Or, it’s a hoax, a plot, they’re taking it too seriously! Yet again, we are divided and outraged.

Meanwhile, away from the media’s misdirection – out of sight and mind of our media addiction – our economy, our lifestyle, our society, our culture continue to destroy nature and humanity. Our global infrastructure of mines, factories, and shipping consumes natural ecosystems and habitats wholesale. Our global exploitation of cheap labor, enforced by our worldwide military empire and our foreign proxies, destroys traditional communities. The devices we’re addicted to, on which we follow this hysterical narrative, are destroying people and nature in distant places, through their consumption of the earth’s energy, their consumption of nonrenewable raw materials, their consumption of exploited and sometimes enslaved labor.

Statistics, sheep, puppets. The emperor has no clothes. This is the real crisis. We are the real virus.

Closed System

From early childhood, our schools indoctrinate us in the propaganda of the state: the narrative of the freedom-loving Pilgrims, the wise Founding Fathers, the revolutionary Constitution, our precious Democracy and its heroes, from Lincoln to Roosevelt to Kennedy. And as we advance through the educational system, our cultural conditioning broadens to encompass the classical legacy of our European forbears: Western Civilization, from the philosophical and democratic Greeks to the orderly, civilized Romans, creators of the language we still employ in both law and science. To the European flowering of arts and sciences from the Renaissance through the Enlightenment and the Age of Reason. And the generous role of European culture in spreading enlightenment and democracy throughout the primitive, superstitious Developing World.

Of course, our society’s failures clearly invalidated this narrative in the 1960s and 1970s, and that era’s Counterculture identified most of its fallacies. But according to our hindsight, the Counterculture was a failure, because it never offered an alternative paradigm that would preserve the lifestyle, the “standard of living,” to which we’ve become accustomed. Some people did try communal living and went “back to the land,” but they lacked the skills and/or sociocultural unity to persist, and the juggernaut of consumer culture ultimately overcame their idealism.

In the late 1990s, authorities increasingly drew our attention to another sociocultural failure: climate change. I joined a friend in dinner discussions between the “intelligentsia” – successful white professionals, graduates of elite universities – that again questioned the foundations of our culture.

Like the earlier Counterculture, we again found fault with most of the dominant paradigms of Western Civilization. But again and again, we fell short of condemning the whole shebang, the entire edifice of what used to be called the Establishment. We got stuck on one essential institution, and one undeniable accomplishment: the saving of lives through medical science and technology.

These people (with me as the lone exception) unanimously believed that all the failings of our cultural legacy are redeemed by the statistical increase in life expectancy and reduction of infant mortality achieved by Western Medicine. Hey, let’s not throw out the baby with the bathwater, okay? The important thing is that the baby survived!

A great irony of this conclusion is that the host of these discussions had a doctoral degree from Stanford, the home of Paul Ehrlich, celebrity author of The Population Bomb, and was inspired by Ehrlich’s thesis of overpopulation as our most pressing crisis. Overpopulation which is partly driven by modern medicine’s increase in life expectancy and reduction in infant mortality. Our greatest achievement, simultaneously causing our greatest problem? To paraphrase Freud, technology has increased the quantity of human life, while degrading its quality.

These people fancied themselves critical thinkers, because they’ve always been told that critical thinking is one of the key components of their liberal educations. But critical thinking is only as good as the knowledge it has to work with. And where do we get this knowledge? Almost none of us is working on the front lines of original research, extracting raw data and analyzing it, turning it into conclusions for peer review. Our knowledge comes primarily from our favorite authorities in the media. Ultimately, our “critical thinking” consists only in choosing between one authority and another. We’re sheep, following the leader.

To make things worse, both we and our leaders are participants in a closed system. The propaganda we’ve all been raised with obscures the reality that our society has become dominant by conquering, suppressing, and often erasing the cultures that could offer us alternatives to our failed values and institutions, and solutions to our problems. Our social discourse takes place in total ignorance of these alternatives.

The Ecology of Death

In natural ecosystems, the death of individual organisms is an essential event in the cycle of life and fertility. Each organism’s body is another organism’s food. The more science we do, the more this fundamental principle is reinforced. We die so that others may live.

But driven unconsciously by the Judeo-Christian mandate of man’s dominion over nature, European science repeatedly tries to prove that humans stand apart from the rest of nature, that we are the pinnacle of natural evolution, with our big brains, our “consciousness,” our reasoning, our languages, our technologies. Despite growing evidence that other animals share our “achievements,” and that our differences are quantitative rather than qualitative, that evidence remains confined to specialist discourse, and most of us are still taught that humans are exceptional. To people like the life-extension advocate Ray Kurzweil, humans should be immortal, and our death is a simply another problem to be solved by science and technology.

Many if not all traditional societies – those alternatives that we’ve conquered, suppressed, and ignored – recognize death as an essential, sacred event in the cycle of life. The events and phases of that cycle are what keep the cycle turning: birth, the learning experiences of the child, the adult’s roles as conceiver of new life and provider to the community, the elder’s role as steward of the wisdom needed to address crises. And death, the necessary return of one’s body to the ecosystem and one’s space to the community. This is why traditional societies haven’t developed our advanced medical technology. Not because they’re inferior and need our help, but because they’re often wiser and more successful than us at thriving on earth.

Let It Come Down

I often remind friends that I’ve spent the past 40 years waiting and hoping for our society to collapse. Some friends agree with me that our society is destroying the earth. Yet in a crisis like this, driven by a hysterical media narrative, many of them are victims of their media addiction. They forget critical thinking and become avid consumers of daily statistics, reflexive followers of their favorite media authorities. They forget that statistics are unaccountable, and media authorities are agents of the state, upholders of a failed paradigm. As citizens of the state, content to participate only as anonymous statistics, we surrender control of our lives to distant leaders we know only as talking heads on a tiny screen.

We forget that our economy, the Growth Economy, is consuming the earth. We forget that we Westerners live in bubbles of affluence and comfort – that worldwide, poor people suffer to provide us with the products of our “progress” and innovation. We only want things to get back to normal, so we can resume our “important” jobs within the machinery of this rapacious economy. We want our kids back in school to continue absorbing the same propaganda we were raised on, to prepare for their own “challenging, fulfilling” jobs within the destructive machine.

I hear serious people earnestly proclaim “Millions will die!” and “This country will never be the same again!” – their point being, our leaders must do something about this NOW!

And as always, I respond: Let go of this fantasy that you’re part of something big and wonderful that needs to be saved. It’s not your country – it never has been. It belongs to the rich and powerful. What you think of as your country is the Evil Empire. Despite its many seductive attractions, your culture is implicated in all the depredations of that empire. Your society will collapse – if not now, eventually – and that will be a good thing both for humans and for the earth.

Diseases are part of life, part of natural cycles. People sometimes die of diseases. Diseases are a natural regulatory mechanism in ecosystems. People are animals who live in natural ecosystems, whether we’re aware of it or not. The more intimately we participate, the more we collaborate in balance and harmony with our natural partners – wild organisms – the more we thrive. The more we rely on technology to save lives, save labor, and empower us, the more alienated and vulnerable we become.

Pandemics are caused by imperialism and globalism – the unaccountable dominance and exploitation of traditional societies by modern states, along with the global transportation networks that states use to maintain their dominance. Pandemics are caused by overpopulation, which results from our scientific and technological innovation: our artificially enhanced agricultural productivity, our medical increase in life expectancy and reduction in infant mortality.

This pandemic, this virus, won’t be the one that brings our society down. Despite the media hysteria, it’s simply not virulent enough. The vast majority of coronavirus cases experience minor symptoms and survive, and will end up suffering more from preventive measures than from the disease. The truly nightmarish epidemics of the past – the Black Plague, Cholera – as well as newer ones like Ebola – are still with us, and are capable of much greater mortality, and much worse suffering. We’ve only temporarily outsourced them to the traditional communities we and our proxies in Latin America, the Middle East, Asia and Africa are exploiting or trying to destroy.

Ultimately, by engineering to prevent death, by isolating individuals from risk and danger, we make ourselves weaker, more vulnerable. Like all the wars perpetrated by our aggressive, competitive, domineering society, the scientific and technological war against disease is a war against nature, a war we can’t win.