“Get real!” – Living in a virtual world

I pulled out a whole barbecue set from my favourite swimming spot at the lake lately. And in the big heap of trash that was at that site, I found the brand new package of that set. People bought this for 15 bucks at a gas station, used it once and then dumped it into the lake. How can this be, I asked myself, that people do not care for this place. What is the thought – waste now, clean up later (or let someone else clean it up)?
So I wondered what that relationship is, that creates such behaviour and I could not help to think that if people really are tied in to the place, they would care more. If their lives are connected to that place, they would not destroy it. How come they are not connected to that place then? It seems clear to me that the modern cherished freedom of mobility and easy transportation in this case took a part in that. People can just jump in their cars (or trains, or bicycles, or motorbikes, or busses, or airplanes, or public transportation) and drive away after leaving that mess. And the next weekend they simply drive the other way, to another place. And in 5 years they move to a new city. They do not have to come back to that one place ever and still have the possibility to have a barbecue, swim in a lake and trash that new place again. They can literally run away from the consequences of their actions because they can go anywhere within a hundred miles in just an hour drive – there is no real perceived NEED to care for one special place.

This concept has implications not only for this instance. Consider all the supermarket food and water from the tap and electricity from the plug – there is a fundamental (and wanted) disconnection of consumerist products and the origins of them, between what one gets and what had to die or be exploited/destroyed to make it. We may even know intellectually where that food comes from, but we do not experience it. We externalize the consequences, we are removed from that or move away from it ourselves with the possibilities modern society gives us – not only in the physical sense I mentioned before, but also in a mental sense.

What if we would have to go to the same spot for swimming and find our trash heap growing each time? What if the only choice we have is to build that new cellphone tower, computer factory, wastewater treatment plant in our own backyard? What if we directly experienced the impact of everything we do? What if we would experience all the mines, the pollution, see all the labor people have to put into this by our physical presence? What if the sweatshop that makes your clothes is actually your neighbor and not in Pakistan or in the favelas of Rio? What if your electricity comes from a coal plant next to your house – or nuclear plant or wind turbine?

The amazing and encouraging thing is that people resist this locally. They say “not in my back yard”. People do not want to have mines, deforestation, clearcuts, land development or trash next to their house. They do not even want windmills or roads. Many feel guilt and remorse when they experience others directly working hard for them for a bad wage and under bad conditions to produce cheap clothes or tools or other products. There is human compassion. Some ignore this and choose to embrace privilege and an acclaimed personal superiority, the foundation for racism and social stratification, but I think for most people, there would be a feeling of uneasiness, a desire to rather give those persons a decent payment and decent conditions and to actually give something back to them that has a fair value.

So if people directly experience the impact they have and have to live with that knowledge or even with the impact itself, I think they would be vastly less likely to behave like they do. They would actually try to reduce that impact to have less of the things they do not want in their back yard. The prevalence of mediated experience, the lack of direct experience and the freedom to ignore, to move away forever, are features of this modern culture that sees itself as detached from the natural world and from other cultures. The mediation is creating a distance between reality and a virtual reality in our heads, an imaginary reality which can be molded and shaped if we dislike parts of it. In that imaginary reality there are no real sweatshops, no real people dying for e-waste recycling if we chose them not to be there – or if others implant the denial in our heads by what is called “PR” or marketing. Instead that virtual imaginary mental reality looks like factories that produce things without human labour or environmental impacts and livestock animals living on nice pastures with red barns next to them. To detach from reality in such a way is literally insane by definition.

How can this be changed, how can people be made not just intellectually aware of their impact, but by experience. I can read 100 times that the steak I buy at the supermarket results in animals kept and slaughtered in horrible conditions and that the manure is toxic. And I still have the possibility to push it away, to conjure up in my mind the images of that red barn and that green pastures that the visal imagery on the plastic wrapping implants in my head. If I see a movie about it, that possibility is reduced, as I now have not only words but images – images that overcome those created by the food company. If however I walk into such a “farm” and witness this with all my senses, I could never ever eat food from there again. Of course I do have the possibility to decide with less experience to act that way, but I think this requires a certain mindset and an intellectual act of reason that has to be repeated every time one stands in front of the product one could just buy. And this is not only so with meat, it also includes all other products from grain products and corn which create monoculture landscapes laden with pesticides to electronic gadgets that cause toxic pollution in the chain of production. Contrary to this act of reason that has to be invoked at every crucial moment and that can be overridden by impulsive action, direct sensorial experiences differ in that they touch the deep seated emotional part of our mind. They work in a way brutal and direct and in a way subtle in that they remain present deep within us, ready to act upon the thoughts we are not thinking yet, influence actions we were not even consciously considering yet. There is no escaping them. Imagine if everyone who buys a steak at the supermarket once in his life has to visit the “farm” this comes from. If everyone who gets a new cellphone and throws it 2 years later would have to walk in the toxic mines in China, talk to the underpaid workers in the production facilities and eat dinner with the poor people who burn the cancer causing e-waste to retrive some valuable minerals. And every salesman, stock trader and manager directly experiences the pain his decisions cause instead of just looking at the most reductionist mediated experience of all – numbers. What would we be doing, what would we be willing to accept as limits. The world would be very different.

From this thought comes the idea that it is crucial to re-attach direct experience to what we do if we as a culture want to regain sanity. What I think is that the more real, realistic – or better even completely unmediated – this experience is, the more impact it can have. Numbers are the worst, written words a bit better, talking, showing pictures or making a movie are even better, but I think to really truely allow for a persistent change, all senses and physical presence is the only way to truely ensure that the experience will last. Anything else can and will be questioned and can always be put off as untrue. Numbers can be faked, words can misrepresent facts or misinterpreted and visual impressions are never able to give a complete picture. These principal drawbacks of mediated experience leave open holes and permit the possibility for the mind to dismiss what does not fit into the own actions or desires and thus are weakening the effect the experience has. As a consequence I would suggest that it is vital to increase direct perceptional and physical experiences, this does not just include audible and visible perceptions, it demands for perceptions of touch, smell, taste as well. And I would go so far as to say that the knowledge to actually be in that place, the undoubted overall perception of physical placement at the scene is what in the end makes the most impact of all. No mediated experience will have that same impact, if it is known to be a simulation, a virtual world once more, out of which one can step easily back into regular life instead of entering a relationship with that place of impact and accepting the feelings that place conveys through all senses and to ones physical presence there.

I know that this is impossible, that there is no way that everyone will experience this in a globalized world. Thus I think two things can work together to still gain from this. One is to literally realize the places that are behind them, to reach out and feel them, make them real in the mind, to reconnect to them, even though that direct experience is impossible, to not rely on mediation by others but on the personal emotions attached to that. To be aware of the mediation takes away part of its power to estrange us. Maybe one can also visit these places if one can do so. The other option is an increased relocalization. With the decline of cheap oil and other resources this will probably come to pass anyways, but I think instead of feeing threatened, we should embrace the possibility to “get real” again, to loose some of the mediation and to actually live in and with the place that supports us, that nourishes us, that gives us what we need and be in contact to the people that we trade with.

Transfer energy from life support to weapons

Have you seen some of the Star Trek shows? Then you probably know that kind of statement. In dire battle situations, when the starship Enterprise is almost torn to pieces, the captain calls out to transfer
energy from other systems to weapons and shields. As a very last resort, energy supply from the life support systems is used to fire laser beams and maintain the protective bubble around the ship.

Recently, I read that not only have civilized humans deforested humongous parts of the landscape for lumber, agriculture or livestock since the dawn of civilization (picking up speed with the advent of the industrial revolution), but also 40% of the phytoplankton in the oceans have gone since the 1960ies as a result of anthropogenic effects. Industrial fishery destroyed seaweed forests larger in size than all terrestrial deforestation. Forests (terrestrial and marine) and phytoplankton are the prime ecosystems that convert carbon dioxide to oxygen, they are the life support system of the planet and important control mechanisms against atmospheric change (phytoplankton alone accounts for half of earthwide photosynthesis). By destroying natural landscapes and ocean floors in order to produce food, fuel, fibers or other resources for human consumption, civilized people literally transfer energy and resources (nutrients, solar energy, land) from the life support systems of spaceship Earth to the use of one single species. Recently I read also, that the US military now is proud to present biofuel driven aircraft for bombing their enemies. So what battle is the dominant culture loosing that it has to divert the last available resources to fend off defeat and power shields and weapons? The enemy is the breakdown of consumerism, perpetual growth and unsustainable importation of resources. The looming defeat is due to overshoot and limited resources. And the shiny bubble that is built up to shield people is the illusion that everything is fine and will be fine in the future – that growth can continue as it does. The last energy and resources are spent to keep that shield up, to provide civilized people with fish, veggies, meat and gadgets in abundance – more and more every year in an effort to prevent anyone from glimpsing at the looming defeat by hitting the ceiling.
But the battle is about to be lost. Resources are running out and the day will come that even the energy of the life support systems cannot be diverted any longer as even that runs out. We should not let this happen – sometimes it is better to look the superior opponent in the eye and accept his terms than to go out in a blaze of flames. And looking at that “opponent” – it is not even an enemy at all – it is just the laws of nature – and it is also a chance. The terms are clear: the myth of perpetual growth has to end, resources have to be used wisely and sustainability has to be achieved. We don’t need weapons or shields anymore if we accept these simple truths that have been declared as the enemy by economists. And then, we can divert the energy back to the life support systems, that keep us and all others alive, hoping that they can recover from being drained for so long. Only then can the journey go on – on spaceship EARTH.

UPDATE: Today another study came out in “Nature” about the essential importance on biodiversity for the life support system of our planet

Monoculture taken literally

When looking at the dominant societies of this planet, a resemblance between all of them is evident to anyone who looks at them from a perspective that is not enclosed within them. The mode of operation of all these modern societies is very similar: they all show social stratification (as so eloquently analyzed by citigroup experts), hierarchy, a strong desire in growth and expansion, they embrace similar cultural values and ideals but also follow similar systems of belief in the means of achieving a better future and in the vision of what the future should be like. For this reason, most of the societies of the planet can be regarded as subcultures of one dominant culture – a culture that is based on building (large) cities, industrialization, importation/depletion/”development” of resources, large scale agriculture, exploiting/managing the environment (which is regarded as seperate from humans), perpetual growth, hierarchy and some other defining features. Local differences are mostly expressed only in ways these features are expressed – a monarchy has a king as leader and influencial noblemen as the ruling class, a dictatorship has a dictator as leader and influencial brothers in ideology as ruling class, a representative democracy connected with a capitalist economy has a more complex web of influential people, politicians and coporations as the leaders and ruling class (This is sometimes referenced by critical political thinkers as “modern plutocracy”)

In present times, the similarities between subcultures are strenghtened and this is usually seen as a good thing. Globalization, “free” trade, multinational corporations and the propagation of certain ideals are encompassing the globe. Chinese middle class people are trying to live in houses that look like they have been teleported from the USA, Japanese try to realize hollywood dream worlds and fake ideals in their lives, coffeeshop- and fast food chains are present in almost every country of the world. The subcultures bond together to truely form one dominant culture. Under the imagination of reaching equality, in fact uniformism is embraced, individualism is destroyed, cultural diversity is literally replaced by a monoculture.

In many natural systems, parts of the systems represent the system themselves. This is most evident in fractals, but can also be seen in trees (trunks, branches, leaf filaments, cell structures) and other forms in nature. Social monoculture is reflected for example in the way it produces its food (there are many more examples though) by industrial agriculture most often depending on monocrops. Such agricultural monocultures are the main source of food for the social monoculture of this planet(Only ~100 plant species provide 90% of the plant derived food supply). Crops of maize, grain, rice or soybeans are grown in areas that cover acres upon acres – all the same, all identical and in that way similar to what people in the society feel is happening to them, who feel they all should behave uniformly – get an education, get a job, make money, get rich, live long, stay safe,…

However in agriculture, it is well known that such monocrops are sensitive systems, prone to collapse and destruction, especially if compared to biodiverse ecosystems which are resistant and resilient to a variety of impacts (e.g. Biodiversity improves grassland resistance, Implications of changes in biodiversity and the sixth mass extinction. It is also well known, that such agricultural monocrop systems deplete local resources in the soil and deplete the soil itself by soil erosion. Some practices follow from that, mainly that depleted resources have to be replaced by importing them from outside areas in form of fertilizers derived from minerals in other places (phosphorous) or from energy (nitrogen). Monocultures have to be defended against collapse by runaway ill effects like “pests” by spraying them with pesticides. This practice keeps away the unwanted threats that could otherwise wipe out whole landscapes of monocrops, but it also affects the plants that are grown there, as they also take up the poisons. Monocultures have to be defended against growth of other elements that are not productive and not of the same species as the dominant and desired plants. “Weeds” are fought off with herbicides, that kill them or inhibit their growth, as if they would go unchecked, they would reclaim the monocropped territory with an ecosystem of plants that do not serve the same purpose anymore as the original plantation (human consumption). In eliminating “pests” and “weeds”, symbiotic relationships are broken, the network connecting the individuals is broken. The resulting system would be very prone to collapse but is kept alive by hazardous, poisenous and invasive means, that harm both, the “foes” (pests and weeds) and the “friends” (the monocrop plants and the ones who eat them). That harm is taken as a “neccesary evil” and accepted as the “price one has to pay” for increased productivity and efficiency.

In case it is not evident by now: These properties of agricultural monoculture reflect back into the processes of the dominant culture. Most evidently, the depletion of local resources and subsequent need and dependence on importation of mineral (metals) and energy (oil,gas) resources is a key feature of civilized countries. Furthermore, such a culture desires uniformity of the people living in them, reduces “misfits” and rising subcultures or alternative ways that deviate from this ideal by opression and propaganda (in analogy to weeds/herbicides). And finally it has to defend itself against threats that could bring the whole system collapsing down like alternative cultures, individuals that challenge the system, competing countries or inherent weaknesses in the system. The means to do this is to create instruments like eliminating native cultures, fighting wars, proclaiming partiot acts, write spying laws, provide economic bailouts, etc.
The instruments of opression and defense, represented by government agencies, regulations – and institutions like police, homeland security and military, do their job in keeping the monoculture alive, but they also harm the individuals that believe to profit from them as the citizens are loosing freedoms, individualism, basic rights and instead live in fear, perceived (and existing) opression, rigid social and economic structures and under constant threat (of loosing job, home, freedom, life). No wonder, depression rates and other civilization diseases are soaring high as the monoculture spreads and take away a big chunk of the medical advances that culture is so proud of.

In ecology, the solution is to form nature reserves and sustainable agricultural approaches. Nature reserves serve as a place of retreat for species that are eliminated from monocrops and as possible seeds for a future repopulation of “spent” arable lands. Sustainable agriculture tries to eliminate the need for artificial means to keep up monocrops by growing food within a more biodiverse system like permacultural approaches. Such systems are less prone to invasion by “pests”, have their own defense systems and can cope more easily with changes like global warming. In culture this translates into smallscale communities and preservation of cultural diversity. Just as in ecology, a higher diversity in cultural values and processes provides a more stable basis against changes that could otherwise be disruptive to a monoculture (climate change, peak oil, depletion of minerals, economic instability, industrial agriculture) if the conventional “protective systems” fail. If a pesticide stops working, whole regions of monocrops fall victim to destruction, if regulatory mechanisms of social monocultures fail, the same can be true for societies and cultures.

As society is created as a part of nature, by human animals, and thus is a natural system following the same rules of ecology, the conclusion is evident – social monoculture and uniformity has to be replaced by cultural diversity and society has to become independent of harmful control mechanisms. They have to be replaced by self regulating, smallscale mechanisms that foster connection and local stability like the interwoven root system connected by symbiotic funghi in a natural ecosystem which protects against erosion and provides mutual increase of resources.

Just as we are struck by the realization that agricultural monocultures are not sustainable and not healthy for anyone, we have to realize that social monoculture is just as harmful. Both need unsustainable means to be kept alive, both harm the ones that are claimed to profit from them, devastate those who admittedly do not profit from them and both are prone to collapse. Both look very productive at the first glance and for both one statement is always made: “we cant live without it anymore” – which is a sad excuse to resist thinking about change towards a more sane way to do things. (There are already claims that it is simply untrue for organic compared to industial agriculture)

The task is then to form reserves and to replace small areas of monoculture by diversity to provide a viable alternative and a seed for possible future reclamation of the deserts that result from monoculture – and this goes for agricultural as well as social monoculture. In time, these areas become a places of retreat for individuals resisting uniformity and possibly a place to create ways to expand these areas until the uniformity of monoculture can be replaced thoroughly.

Many people are saying that this culture is very diverse. That by assimilating all these other subcultures and mixing them, a global “salad bowl” will form, preserving the traits of these cultures. Others are afraid it will be more of a global “melting pot”, with all the traits melting together as one. From this post, you can see that I tend to the second opinion at least in the long run. However, I recognize, that diversity is not easily eliminated, individuality is expressed and new subcultures do arise. People are just made to create such groups. They will call themselves gothics, bikers, punks,… – in a way these are new subcultures, but at least for many of them, the fundamental assumptions and basic ways of living are completely identical with the dominant culture. For those who question this, I would say that they are starting to be new cultures, reserves and patches of diversity within the whole system. And just as with their equivalent in ecology, they contantly have to fend off attacks. Keep it up – diversity is the future!

Stop Terraforming Earth!

ter·ra·form·ing (literally, “Earth-shaping”) is the process of modifying a planet moon or other body to a more habitable atmosphere, temperature or ecology.[…]The principal reason given to pursue terraforming is the creation of worlds suitable for habitation by human beings[…]” It is a type of planetary engineering. The term is sometimes used very broadly as a synonym for planetary engineering in general;

The people of the dominant culture(s) on Earth are terraforming the planet as you read this. The goal of this terraforming is indeed mainly to make the planet more habitable – for humans! However contrary to the high goal of terraforming in Science Fiction, this process did not start with a barren rock, but with a living planet, whose ecology is replaced by the overall diminished biodiversity of an artificial landscape aimed at primarily serving humans. Currently, up to 40% of the terrestrial photosynthetic capacity is used by the human population (that is 6 times as much as the large ice age mammals). The oceanic impact is not well studied but the evidence points towards human impact being even greater there. 90% of the predatory fish are gone, a look at ocean floors reveals that larger areas of ocean floor have been turned from living habitats to mud by industrial fishing than all deforestation combined within just 100 years, and the phytoplankton has decreased by up to 40% since the 1960ies taking with it roughly a quarter of the worlds oxygen producing lifeforms (talk about destroying the life support system). So, human activity not only consumes, but also destroys the possibility of life forms to take up sunlight. By immensely promoting the growth of species useful for humans while willingly or unwillingly eradicating species that are unwanted or perceived as useless, the result would be a planetary ecosystem with limited biodiversity but high abundance of the existing species. A prime example of this are the monocultural landscapes produced by industrial agriculture in which less than 20 plant species contribute about 75% of the global intake of plant-derived calories. This kind of ecology is usually found in habitats with harsh conditions or specific ecological niches.

Essentially the ongoing ecological change fostered by the current civilization heads towards conditions that are found in nature in extreme habitats or niche ecosystems like wadden sea areas, hypersaline lakes, ice shelves or dry/cold climates.

Who profits from such challenging conditions and what are the implications? In these habitats, the few remaining species that are well adapted to these conditions profit in terms of number of individuals. A large population but strongly diminished diversity is correlated to such a habitat. Such habitats however face one danger – slight changes in the conditions have devastating effects on the highly adapted species in them. A sea level drop can devastate a wadden sea community, a slight temperature increase can eliminate ice shelf species. An Earth that has in its whole been transformed that way would face the same consequences.

All species change or influence their habitat to fit their own survival needs. For example sheep graze and by that keep the meadows free from trees, allowing gras to regrow again. Civilized humans however create a global extreme habitat for that only civilized humans are adapted to by means of use of technology – and in the short term this looks profitable. The number of individuals and their consumption is growing and this is seen as a sign of prosperity but already it becomes evident that this newly terraformed extreme habitat is highly susceptible to disturbances. Examples of this are failing crops during droughts or wetness (due to the adaptation to a few staple crops that depend on a certain climate), homes destroyed by floods (due to citybuilding in an artificially controlled coastal/riverine environment) or traffic failing due to slight and perfectly normal variations in snowfall or volcanic ash load. Future challenges are even greater in the face of global climate catastrophe, fossil fuels and limited resources in minerals peaking.

Humans claim for themselves to be extremely inventive and adaptable and besides their superior ability to a lush social life, these are indeed main characteristics. Facing the multitude of ill effects of civilization on humans – like physical decay due to lack of physical activity, malnutrition, increase of mental problems like depression and violence – people believing in a technological utopia claim that humans will soon adapt to this new environment and evolve into homo technologicus – if not naturally then by the help of genetics or cybernetics.

Lets return back to the statement, that adaptability is a main characteristic of human beings. With an adaptation to a technological environment, that ability is actually diminished, as such a person cannot survive outside of that special environment anymore. And as that environment is indeed a niche, a habitat that is very susceptible to collapse by changing the parameters of its working only slightly, civilized human population, the terraformers themselves are threatened with collapse.

And this is not merely a dire doomsday future. Indeed the process has already begun – people not only start to become allergic to things outside a sterile city environment, they also developed culturally into beeings that are not able to survive outside an artificially created world. Many people already depend culturally and physically on civilization for their very survival. Many of the troubles that are in the present treated with means of technology and medical science are predominantly present in members of the urbanized civilized society and are rather different in the few remaining societies outside that system (cancer, diet, depression, depression as adaptation to lifestyle, human psyche, diseases characteristic to civilization, impact of global change on health). It follows that man of these ills are part of civilization, that the circle of cause, effect and treatment closes itself here for them.

Are we willing to let this happen? Are we willing to let humanity adapt to a niche ecology they created themselves? A niche that is under heavy threat of elimination? Are we willing to let this culture change the planet, kill its natural ecologies, replace them with artificially maintained fragile ecosystems that are aimed only at the benefit of one species? Are we willing to let this culture turn the planet into an overall extreme habitat? I say no! There is still time to refuse going there and instead learn about other ways to live. I deeply love this planet and the natural world that is threatened by the machines that are trying to change it forever and I don’t want it to be terraformed into a machine to only serve humans for their needs. I say STOP TERRAFORMING EARTH!