07 March 2011

the current condition pt. 1

Over the past several years I have had the opportunity to speak at universities, conferences with teams, organizations, governments, academics, etc. on the topics of sustainability, sufficiency, resilience, change and transition. Before I say anything else I typically say:

"I do not really know why you have asked me to speak to you. I do not know anything about these topics you are considering. I have been involved in a number of efforts related to these topics, read a fair amount on the subject, spent time with people who are experts in these areas. Let me say what I do know about. I know how to fluently participate in a globalized system of objectification, extraction, burning, manipulation, consumption and profit. I am, culturally speaking, quite skilled at this. I consider myself an industrial era refugee, though when I consider the vast majority of people on the planet living in that condition, as a result of these globalized systems of the industrial era, I recognize that such a view of myself is not supportable."

I might then go on to talk about the nature of the industrial era as a paradigm or enacted point of view, rather than a given condition of reality. This might involve something about the nature of meaningful deconstruction and 'non-action.' None of it is useful and much of it is offensive. On the other hand, since such conferences in the US and China are often attended by people participating in and enacting those very systems as a day to day way of life it can also be liberating in some ways.

It seems important to me to say that I am not simply saying these things in some facetious way or strategically speaking for some effect. It is more or less the truth for me. I do not experience myself as particularly competent, possessed of any special knowledge or expertise or useful in any meaningful way. Of course such speaking has contained within it the implication that most people involved in such activities are themselves involved from within the context of the industrial era and its systems and may share some of these qualities. It has contained within it my feeling that such efforts and expertise are not particularly useful and can even be damaging.

Still, I am thinking about and considering these questions.  I am considering resilience and collapse.  I am considering the simple question of how to live. I typically begin my consideration by exposing myself to a kind of seemingly unbearable structural tension that involves something about contact with our current condition and something about feeling and remembering a non-idealized and aspirational way of living.  Like 'sustainability' this word 'aspirational' has been acquired by the globalized system of profit maximization and consolidation that operates as if it were separate from the life systems of the planet.  TV programming is now designed to be "aspirational."  Perhaps I could start with a version of the current condition.  This version is not meant to be exhaustive or definitive.  It is just illustrative with regard to my own process.

Currently there are 1 billion people on the planet who are chronically hungry or starving.  That is 1 in 6 people on the planet.  It is an institutionalized condition.  Each day 34,000 children die of starvation and preventable disease.  Also an institutionalized condition.  The vast majority of people on the planet live on less than the equivalent of USD$2/day.  The median income is less than USD$12,500 per year.  The US has the third greatest economic inequity, trailing only the tiny nations of Hong Kong and Singapore, both of which are basically 'offshore' havens and financial centers.  Less than 25% of global population has a bank account.  The largest prison population is in the US, with 743 out of every 100,000 people in prison.  Israel is second, with half that.  There are about 250 private, for profit prisons in the US with an incarcerated population of around 100,000.  The US has almost 70M hectares of proprietary GMO foods planted.  This is more than the next 5 largest countries, though the India, Argentina and Brazil are growing very rapidly.  Foreign policy is directed at increasing this acreage.  Food is now traded on an index created by Goldman Sachs, that is itself abstracted from the actual amount of food present and available on the planet at any moment.  This is an institutionalized form of profiting from starvation on the planet.  In our current system of production, food in the industrialized economies requires 10 calories of energy to produce 1 calorie of nutrition.  In 2500 calorie per day diet this comes out to something like 10BOE (barrel of oil equivalent) for one person in a year.  The water footprint is worse.  I used to track the number of active armed conflicts, but I do not currently do that.  Since the beginning of the industrial era, the kill ratio of the industrialized nation-states and non-industrialized peoples is 400:1.  The gross numbers are so staggering I cannot keep them in my head.  The World Bank holds the view that the purpose of a nation-state is to ensure the necessary conditions for a free market to function.  The World Bank also actively holds the economy as separate from the environment and the carrying capacity of the planet. Globally, humanity now consumes in excess of the carrying capacity of the planet on an annualized basis in the first several months of each year.  Most of that consumption is carried out by minority of people on the planet.

As I said, this sort of thing is not exhaustive or definitive in any way.  I have not said anything about climate change, shifting energy profiles, socio-political volatility, nuclear arms, the debt based economy as a whole, corporate history and structure, issues of gender, class, ethnicity, built environment, infrastructure, transportation, dynamics of collapse, bio-diversity and mass extinction, governmental and civic corruption, etc., etc., etc.  I have not really dealt with the basic profile of modern consumer society.  There is nothing here about the dual traps of dystopian and utopian thinking.  I am talking about my own process, not trying to make some sort of case for something.  I wrote the above numbers from what I remember and a carry around in memory.

As you read the things I did write, what happened?  Perhaps you would like sources for all those numbers?  I encourage you to look into them rather than reading anything I might say as some authorized version of anything at all.  I am talking about my own process.  It may or may not be useful or interesting to you in some way.  I do not imagine that it will be.  I am not trying to persuade of you something or shame you, make you angry, etc.  I am not seeking agreement or consensus or anything like that.  It is not 'a call to action.'  I do encourage you to examine the motive and assumptions in relation to whatever response you may have had.  Such numbers are shifting and contextualized. They are after all 'numbers.'  The question I have is whether or not such a picture is indicative of what is being enacted on the planet as a whole?  Is it possible to feel that directly?  Even if most of those figures were off by some factor does it reveal something about the trends and patterns currently enacted?  Do I understand my own intimate and immediate participation in that?  How do I relate to the actuality of such participation or even coming into contact with the possibility of it?

Do I have a complex system of denial in place?  Am I angry, distancing myself and blaming others?  Perhaps I feel that even such simple numbers are all politically motivated.  Do I have a rationalized view of my participation?  Perhaps I believe my localized activity is intended to 'make a difference' or 'have an impact' even as I directly participate in the system of living that produces such a current condition?  Maybe I am angry at the person who is considering the meaning of such a current condition?  Perhaps I find a way to discount and undercut the possibility of such a current condition?  What are my motives for doing so?  To what extent are they strategic in a way that is intended to allow me to keep aspects of my own living and ideology in tact, even if those same ways of living and ideology directly contribute to such a current condition?  Perhaps I have a moralistic or historical view that conceptualizes and minimizes something about the current condition.  Do I assign particular blame and fault to some particular group of 'others' who are doing all this?  Do I have a view that this is fated, inevitable or merely an expression of 'human nature?'  Do I have economic or scientific theory explaining something about that the current condition is necessary and inevitable?  Perhaps I feel this has always been happening and that it is even better now.  Do I relate to the current condition as a massive problem to be solved?  Am I out for justice?  Do I feel human beings are killing the planet and should be punished in some way?  Do I hold world ending apocalyptic views of some sort, perhaps even justifying something in this way?  Do I view all of this as a mere passing illusion?  Do I believe I will be someplace else better soon?  Perhaps I feel this is all a necessary and unfortunate price we have to pay for the sake of something else I value?  Maybe I dismiss any ability to sense beyond the quantitative and strategically invest in doubt?  Maybe I feel certain groups of human beings should be punished?  I may feel they are inherently evil.  Perhaps I despair in some way?  Am I paralyzed?  Am I frenetically active?  Am I simply doing 'my best?'

Absent my theory, what do I feel the as the current condition of the human enactment on the planet, at this moment?

How do I account for this?  How do I feel the magnitude of the current condition? Do I relate to it as 'my', 'their' or 'our' current condition?  Is it immediate for me or distanced?  Do I experience myself as 'face-to-face' with all of us enacting and living this current condition?

Then there is the inventory of my 'personal' condition.  What is the artifactual inventory of my living?  Do I know the history of my place of dwelling?  Do I understand for instance the 'footprint' of the physical structure in which I live?  What did it take to build that?  What does it take to maintain it?  What is the likely future of it?  What is this profile for all the artifacts of my immediate local living?  The neighborhood, town, city, etc.  What about the process of my living as an integrated part of world systems?  Do I understand the footprint of writing this now?  Do I understand the implications of turning on a light switch or how I use water?  Do I know where my food came from?  What about my clothes?  What are the implications of my technological, automated and machine based living?  How am I involved in those processes and artifacts?  Is it transparent to me?  Am I aware of this?  Do I even have curiosity about it, any willingness to explore it?  And there is my 'mental' landscape.  To what extent are my thoughts and the structures of thought and assumption in which I participate taken up with this current enactment on the planet?  How many ads do I see in a day?  How am I participating in the abstract financial processes of thought and action?  How do I participate in the corporate and consumer ideologies and paradigms?  How do I view my relationship to the planet, immediately and as a whole?  What is the inventory and nature of that reality and current condition for me?  Am I invested in linear growth models or living and exploring a cyclic reality?  What do I assert as necessary and why?  What do I experience as or contend is self evident?  What is the ecology of my own structure of thought?  What am I feeling and circulating?  Where am I investing my attention?  How does that condition my thought, emoted and enacted world?  What am I cultivating in this way and in general?

In general, when I come into contact with various levels and expressions of such a current condition, what narrative do I encounter within myself and around me?  What is my relationship to that narrative?

My own observation in my own process is that simple acceptance in the face of such a reality is very challenging.  It is also my feeling that in the absence of such a moment to moment presence and acceptance that most actions, ways of organizing, problem solving, etc. are themselves part of the enactment creating the current condition.  This is bad news I think, since the moments of acceptance, without distancing ourselves in some way, are overwhelming, self-obliterating and heartbreaking.  This is different than depression or despair with which it can easily be confused.

I have not yet gotten to the explicit nature of the felt discomfort of 'structural tension' applied to this.  I have not yet included the domain of aspiration, which as I understand it, is distinct from hope, good intentions, action plans, problem solving, good works, etc.  The absence of such a conscious aspirational frame in contact with the current condition at this particular moment in human history can simply lead to an investment in dystopian thought and action.  Contact with an aspirational state in the absence of real acceptance of the current condition can lead to a kind of investment in idealized solutions and utopian thinking.  Such idealized solutions are in great part integral to the system we are enacting that creates this current condition.  Such aspirational contemplation is not undertaken as a solution to the current condition.  The aspirational frame is not a contextualized response or reaction to the current condition.  

What is that aspirational frame for you?  This is different than the goals and things you might want to accomplish or attain.  It is a frame of response, wherein we understand our acts and participation in the context of something 'larger' than us, from which we are not separate, and of which we are fully a part.  This can be confused with a religious view.  Typically a religious view involves the enactment of the frame itself as separate, or conversely the world as illusionary.  In essence such aspirations are quite simple.  The tendency to complexify the aspirational is often a sign that we are defending or rationalizing something about a held world view that justifies or explains our actions in some way.  Sometimes this occurs because the felt tension between the complexity of the current condition and the felt aspiration is so great that we must enact some strategy in order to cope with it.  The tendency to simplify the current condition is also often a sign of such a coping mechanism at play.

You may notice that I am not offering up a bunch of specific examples of aspirational context.  You already know what the aspirational context is.  Such a state is not contained by or a function of ideation.  As a result it is formally specific.  It can be as hard to accept as the complexity of the current condition, perhaps in part because it does not seem to immediately solve something about the current condition, or even offer comfort or consolation with regard to that.  Such a state is not a solution to anything.  In the absence of anything else, however, you already know the nature of such an aspirational state.  If you are still for a sufficient period of time, that becomes evident.  Being still in this way can represent a kind of challenge in and of itself, of course.  We can 'remember.' We can rapidly and immediately distinguish between literal needs and metaphorical needs, particularly when we are aware of a direct participation in the planetary systems themselves.  We can easily 'remember' and recognize an aspirational state, not as something out there to be attained, but as a component of our moment to moment breathed reality.  


  1. i think it may be coming together for me.

  2. When I read your vision of current reality, i observed despair. And It became clear all the hopeful feeling/idealised visions/narratives I invested in, and how they crumbles. It is how unsurprising and yet deadly the numbers are. I observed how my thoughts became frenetically active for the whole day, trying to think of all these action plans. In class, i actively agree/disagree, searching for idea/people as object of blame. I am aware of all these, yet i cannot help it. I wish i can have a heartbreak, so i can understand me/other, but that doesn't come.

  3. Hi Lisa, not sure exactly what that means, but I am hoping it is a good thing for you. -r

  4. Serena - It really wasn't my intent to stimulate despair, and it makes sense to me that you might initially feel that when considering those numbers. It seems to me that there are many beautiful numbers too.Such numbers either way are not the truth, they are just indicative of something. Such an indicators can allow for reflection. You know it seems to me that what you are describing is something like what most of us are doing in some way, though I am sure it is not helpful to consider that. I myself am interested in that, since I feel that the unexamined impulse to anger, despair, idealization, etc. is intimately connected for me to many of the things I do to contribute to, or keep in place such 'numbers.'

    Perhaps it is possible to feel that entire motion as a whole? To feel all the different flavors of it as a sort of expression of one thing. Feeling it that way, perhaps it is possible to also feel the motion toward the aspirational, the recognition of beauty, love, freedom and such also as a sort of whole.

    Perhaps it is possible to feel those two motions at once, also as a whole?