Saturday, October 31, 2009

The latest from a writer who has been thinking through our era out loud for nearly 40 years, always with an eye to the future--see the post below. (The cover makes it appropriate for a Halloween post, I guess. The Eve of the Dark Ages.)

Bookmark: Self and Society

Self and Society: Studies in the Evolution of Culture
by William Irwin Thompson
Imprint Academic 184 pages

Self and Society is an oddly vanilla title for the guy who wrote At the Edge of History, Evil and World Order, Coming Into Being, The Americanization of Nature and The Time Falling Bodies Take to Light. William Irwin Thompson burst on the scene in the early 1970s as a counter-cultural intellectual and later a boundary-crossing New Age synthesist of history and future, art and science, culture and psyche, media and Gaia. For almost forty years, Thompson has been one of those few writers and speakers that an intelligent and otherwise eclectic and self-defined public looks to for illuminating ideas about what’s really going on in this mixed-up world, and therefore what’s to come. This new and expanded edition of Self and Society is a cumulative summary of his latest thinking.

This book expresses his transition from cultural historian to cultural ecologist, he writes. He spells out this personal journey in more detail in talks recorded in Reimagination of the World (Bear & Company). He elsewhere refers to himself as primarily a poet, and on hiatus in Europe, reimagined his own career while writing a science fiction novel, Islands Out of Time (Bear & Co.) His foreword to that book asserts that character and story are old fashioned delusions (“People who believe in egos write novels with characters.”) Maybe I’ve got a warped sensibility, but I enjoyed this novel for its characters and story.

Though he continues to find guidance in that Old Master, Marshall McLuhan, Thompson adopted ideas and vocabularies from chaos theory and the new physics, as well as the new biology of Lynn Margulis and James Lovelock (Thompson edited two anthologies, Gaia: A Way of Knowing and Gaia 2: Emergence, both from Lindisfarne Press.) Maybe it’s just because I’m not clear on the significance of such concepts as “attractors,” but the vocabulary sometimes gets in the way, and sounds like jargon. Still, Thompson’s use of these new approaches in science is far from the trendy appropriations (and distortions) of some popular New Age authors. They guide him into some profound possibilities.

Though sometimes maddeningly sketchy or abstruse, his ideas are bracing, especially for those immersed in the supposed intellectual mainstream. For example, though he writes about physical and cultural evolution, he finds a lot of trendy evolutionary psychology reductive and misleading. But in this brief review I want to concentrate on what he sees as today’s nascent patterns, moving into the future.

Thompson sees the growth of a planetary culture over the past century, still defining itself. It involves the arts, belief systems and cultural values as well as economics, politics and science. But this is not some gauzy New Age vision. “So when I am writing about the emergence of a new post-religious spirituality that is resonant with science” (exemplifed by the Dalai Lama)...”I am perfectly aware that I am living in the ‘sunset effect’ time of Osama bin Laden and Jerry Falwell.” It's in this sunset period that reactionary ideologies seem most fierce, if not most powerful.

Cultural transformation is complicated not only by conflict but by the tendency to “become what we hate,” (for instance, torturers.) Thompson concludes that “if we’re lucky” we may avoid a downslide into a dark age “that could last for centuries” before the new “noetic” future might emerge. That luck would be in avoiding self-annihilation by any combination of ecological and economic catastrophe and weapons of mass destruction.

At times he sees this “luck” as very unlikely, and seems resigned to a civilizational apocalypse. Even in our gigabite-giddy, electronic denial, he’s hardly alone in this analysis, especially in the darkening decades from Reagan through G.W. Bush.

But in his last chapters--blog entries about the 2008 presidential campaign-- his hopes are raised by the election of Barack Obama. Of Obama's speech in Chicago's Grant Park on election night, Thompson writes: “he stood in the moment in which yesterday becomes tomorrow as an entire epoch comes to an end...So yesterday is an age ago, and if tomorrow is filled with new challenges and crises, at least the whole world can now look to them with a new face.”

Thursday, October 29, 2009

Where the Marx Brothers Got Their Material

Sure, Duck Soup is silly.'s a 'this day in history' note from wikipedia, verbatim and in full: 1268:Conradin, the last Duke of Swabia, was beheaded in Naples after failing to reclaim Sicily for the House of Hohenstaufen from Charles of Anjou." Now class, who was the first Duke of Swabia? How far is Swabia from Freedonia? And who was Charles of Anjou pere? Any other new business? Sorry, that's old business now.
Speaking of old business, the My Little Blogosphere links are still not registering new posts on American Dash, where the NFL has progressed through the 6th week and the seventh, with appropriate posts (mostly about the Steelers of course)... As for the World Series, Margaret's brother is a Yankees fan and he could use a win, plus growing up in Pittsburgh Pirates country I never developed any affection for the Philadelphia Phillies. But there's something about watching the Yankees lose...

Wednesday, October 28, 2009


After a winter-preview rain the day before, yesterday was sunny but with a strong cold wind. These pears are gone now, and I picked the last apples yesterday. What passes for winter here is on its way. Pretty good harvest, though, for the first year these trees have been out of pots and in the ground. But the mystery is, why aren't I seeing the hummingbirds as I used to?

The Climate Crisis Future

Maybe it's hard to think through the prospects of a Climate Crisis future. People seem to leap from "nah, it won't happen" or "nah, we'll fix it before it gets bad" to "we're doomed! I don't want to think about it!"

But here's part of what we're not thinking about. As Climate Crisis-related problems and phenomena grow, governments and entire societies will be spending more and more time and money on dealing with those problems and phenomena. Eventually it's at least possible if not pretty likely that a lot of society, a lot of life, will reorganize to deal wih them.

This links you to a couple of interactive map that begins to graphically illustrate the landscape of that future. And then there are the same old stories about the consequences, that seem to run in a rotation of repeating studies, like this reinteration of the relationship of hotter climate with more disease and less food and water, with the Washington Post's shocking headline, Ailing Planet Seen As Bad for Human Health. How many times do we have to hear this before it starts to sink in?

Another consequence of dealing with the Climate Crisis problems is that the resources to do a lot of other stuff will be less, much less or just won't be there. That's going to be difficult, but it may have its up side. It's is kind of why I don't worry so much about gene-designed humans or the Internet version of a 1984 total survelliance culture. Because they will cost too much, and the money won't be there.

Neither will the energy. People are virtually blind to the cost in energy of the virtual worlds of the Internet, of GPS, cell phones and BlackBerries and all the other interlocking electronics. But it is huge. And the infrastructure is pretty fragile.

The energy cost of massive survelliance alone is incredible. In James Banford's revealing look at the dubious recent history of U.S. "intelligence," he notes that a new data-mining National Security Agency facility in Salt Lake City will use "the same amount of energy as every house in Salt Lake City combined."

So nobody's geeky toys are going to be worth much, especially if we don't get a better and greener energy infrastructure. It's the heroic struggle of the age, and President Obama was out there on Tuesday, standing in front of solar collectors and reminding everyone that his Recovery Act stimulus includes about three and a half billion bucks to modernize the country's energy grid, matched and exceeded to the tune of nearly five billion bucks from the private sector. This is small stuff so far that can make a big difference. It's a start. (Update: Another link to NPR report on other administration announcements.)

President Obama also used the occasion to assert that consensus is building for a climate bill in Congress, and a climate treaty in Copenhagen. He is using the true and often effective strategy of making this a fight between the future and the past. You can say a lot of things about the Obama administration so far, but it's hard to dispute that symbolically in just about every way, this guy stands for the future. He's out there trying hard to make it happen. Keep hope alive.

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Emerson for the Day

"I am sane only when I have risen above my common sense, when I do not take the foolish view of things which is commonly taken, when I do not live for the low ends for which men commonly live. Wisdom is not common. To what purpose have I senses, if I am thus absorbed in affairs? My pulse must beat with Nature."
H.D. Thoreau
Journal 1851
[Image: Nebula ngc 6599 Sagitarius]

Monday, October 26, 2009

Yes We Can

On the day that Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid announced that the consensus Senate healthcare bill will contain a public option (with a state opt-out provision), supported by statements from progressive Senators, the conservative Max Baucus and the White House, there's this report from Reuters:

"The U.S. healthcare system is just as wasteful as President Barack Obama says it is, and proposed reforms could be paid for by fixing some of the most obvious inefficiencies, preventing mistakes and fighting fraud, according to a Thomson Reuters report released on Monday.

The U.S. healthcare system wastes between $505 billion and $850 billion every year, the report from Robert Kelley, vice president of healthcare analytics at Thomson Reuters, found.

"America's healthcare system is indeed hemorrhaging billions of dollars, and the opportunities to slow the fiscal bleeding are substantial," the report reads."

As for the opt-out provision, it doesn't hurt the principle (no individual mandate without public option) or very likely the practice. With the public option pretty popular now, and likely to be even more popular once it is working, it's going to be politically difficult for states to opt out, and will tend to marginalize the Rabid Right even more.

But key to that is getting the reforms working, and some Dems are looking to move up the date for the reforms to go into effect, from 2013 to next year.

Breaking News! He's Still Pretty Popular

Sure, the enthusiasm isn't what it was during the election, which could be because it's not during the election. And people do disagree with stuff you do, once you've done something. But for all the negative spin on poll numbers, there's Obama at the percentage he got in 2008 or higher, and these numbers from Public Policy Polling: President Obama's approval rating with people who didn't vote for him is 14% and his disapproval rating with people who voted for him is 6%."So he's won over twice as many people as he's lost since he got elected. Who in the national media is going to write that story? Not bad for someone whose support is supposedly falling apart."