Monday, September 24, 2012

Reinventing Collapse

Dmitry Orlov grew up in the Soviet Union (USSR), before it collapsed and was reborn as the Russian Federation.  In the mid-’70s he moved to the US.  On extended visits to his Leningrad home, he directly observed the unpleasant process of a powerful empire collapsing.  On later visits he observed how the Russians had adjusted to living in a post-empire society. 
It’s very clear to him that America is also a rotting powerful empire — socially, politically, economically.  We spend far too much on the military, our debt levels defy the imagination, Peak Cheap Energy is behind us, and big storm clouds are moving in.  America is heading toward collapse, and there’s nothing we can do to prevent it, but there’s a lot we can do to prepare for it.
In his book Reinventing Collapse, Orlov provided suggestions and warnings for Americans, based on his ringside experience at the Soviet collapse.  Orlov is not a dark, creepy prophet of doom, but a witty comrade who is amused by the absurdity of our indifference to the huge and obvious dangers we face.  All civilizations collapse; it’s nothing to be embarrassed about.  Civilizations can take decades or centuries to decompose, but economies can disintegrate suddenly, with a high human cost.
In its final months, the USSR was limping and wheezing.  Then the price of oil fell sharply, slashing their income from oil exports.  The system could no longer afford to function — crash!  Families began struggling, and the government did little to help them.  Factories shut down, traffic disappeared, and the air became clean and fresh.  There were long lines at the few open gas stations, where sales were limited to ten liters (2.5 gallons), paid for with a bottle of vodka (money was worthless).  Middle class folks discovered rewarding new careers in dumpster diving.  The birth rate fell, and the death rate surged.  Many drank themselves into the next realm.
Despite this, many homes remained heated, all lights stayed on, nobody starved to death, and the trains ran on time.  It turned out that an excellent place to experience a collapse was in a communist land, where the state owned everything.  Nobody received an eviction notice, because there were no private homes.  The Soviets brilliantly decided not to create a car-based transportation system, because that would have been a foolish waste of precious resources.  Gasoline shortages were not a serious problem for a society that was largely car-free.  Importantly, their economy did not depend on imported energy.
Housing projects were always located conveniently close to the excellent mass transit system.  They wisely did not create a nightmare of endless sprawling suburbs.  Instead, Soviets lived in unglamorous, energy-efficient, solidly built, high-rise apartment complexes, many of which provided garden plots for the residents.
The Soviet collapse lasted about ten years, and then the nation got back on its feet.  While Russian oil production had passed its peak, they still had significant reserves of oil and natural gas to sell, and this was their salvation.  It gave them another decade or two to live in the industrial lane.  They were able to bounce back — temporarily.  The US will not be so bouncy.
The American collapse will be harsher, because we live in a market economy, and free markets have zero tolerance for providing free goods and services to the destitute.  The bank that owns your home will foreclose if you can’t pay.  The tax collector will evict you if taxes aren’t paid.  The power, phone, and water will be shut off.  The repo man will snatch your cars.  The food production system will stumble.  Say bye-bye to law enforcement and for-profit health care.  If the railroad system isn’t modernized before the crash, the USA is likely to break apart.
Near the end of the Soviet empire, there was widespread contempt for the system.  Driven by resentment, many highly educated people deliberately shifted to menial work, and sought their pleasure in nature, books, and friends.  When the crash came, they didn’t lose their identity, have an anxiety attack, and submerge into despair.  “The ability to stop and smell the roses — to let it all go, to refuse to harbor regrets or nurture grievances, to confine one’s serious attention only to that which is immediately necessary and not to worry too much about the rest — is perhaps the one most critical to post-collapse survival.”
Air, water, and food are necessary for survival.  Many of us have been brainwashed into believing that life is impossible without flush toilets, automobiles, cell phones, electricity, computers, and on and on.  These are wants, not needs.  Orlov recommends that we begin the process of mental preparation now, so that we can become more flexible, and better able to roll with the punches when the storm arrives.  Simplify your life now, and learn how to be comfortable living without non-essential luxuries and frivolous status trinkets.  Imagine how you will live when money becomes worthless.  Learn practical skills.
The USSR provided its citizens with a place to live, and most people stayed put.  They knew the people around them, which encouraged mutual support.  Americans are highly mobile, moving every five years.  We often feel like space aliens in a world of strangers.  It’s smart to get to know your neighbors, so you can help each other.
When hard times come, be generous with others.  Keep possessions to a bare minimum, so you aren’t attractive to thugs and thieves.  Outwardly, blend in with the herd — dress like them, act like them, and think like them.  Create a wardrobe that’s in harmony with the trendy down-and-out look.  During collapse, being an oddball of any kind will be risky.  Angry mobs have a big appetite for finding folks to blame and punish, and American mobs are very well armed.
Before the revolution of 1918, the Russian people were well fed by a system of small, low-tech peasant farms.  The communist collectivization of agriculture was a disaster.  On the bright side, this inspired big interest in kitchen gardens.  At the time of the Soviet collapse, these gardens comprised ten percent of cropland, and they generated 90 percent of domestic food production.  The average garden was just one-tenth of a hectare (a quarter acre).  The US also blundered into industrial agriculture.  In the coming years, rising energy costs will eventually derail our highly mechanized food production system. 
Reading this book is a sobering and mind-expanding experience.  It gives us a vitally important subject to contemplate.  Readers are served an all-you-can-eat buffet of good old-fashioned common sense — the best antidote there is for magical thinking, denial, and the intense never-ending hallucinations of consumer fantasyland.  It’s a valuable book for people who have “krugozor” (a broad mental horizon that allows outside-the-box thinking).  I read the first edition, published before the crash of 2008.  Following the crash, Orlov published a new and improved second edition. 
Orlov, Dmitry, Reinventing Collapse — The Soviet Example and American Prospects, 1st ed, New Society Publishers, Gabriola Island, British Columbia, Canada, 2008.

Tuesday, September 18, 2012

A Hundred Years of Psychotherapy

The Industrial Revolution blew the lid off Pandora’s Box, releasing a poisonous whirlwind of evils into the world.  Millions of rural people were herded into vast, filthy, disease-ridden cities to live among hordes of strangers, perform miserable work, and die young.  It was pure hell, and many people snapped.  Insane asylums began popping up like mushrooms, and the psychotherapy industry was born. 
In Vienna, Freud kept busy treating hysterical Austrians, and Jung worked with “schizy” inmates at a Z├╝rich asylum.  They launched an insurgency against European Puritanism, a mindset that drove many out of their minds — desire was bad, and punctual, robotic conformity to a system of pleasure-free maximum productivity was the compulsory objective.
So, the first wave of psychotherapy was radical and rebellious, but a second wave that emerged in the ‘50s has been regressive.  The new mode purported that newborns were pure, innocent, blank slates.  Once born, the beautiful, helpless “inner child” was vulnerable to abuse from others that could knock it off balance, sometimes permanently. 
In the therapy room, attention was focused on the patient’s past — a hunt for abuse that may have happened decades ago.  Mental illness was usually the result of a screwed up childhood, and it was believed to reside within the patient.  The endless bombardment of dark influences from the surrounding insane society was off the radar.  The goal of mainstream therapy was helping wounded patients adapt to living in an insane society.  Mainstream therapists now practice everywhere in America.
James Hillman (1926-2011) was a student of Jung, and once served as the director of the C. G. Jung Institute.  Over the years, he became a vocal critic of modern psychotherapy.  In his opinion, newborns were not blank slates, and they were not born whole and perfect — they were unique acorns with a calling and a destiny, tuned into the voices of their ancestors.  
He thought that mainstream therapy was turning the educated middle class into docile plebes, trained to “cope (and not protest), to adapt (and not rebel) to… make it work for you (rather than refuse the unacceptable).”  He strongly believed that the therapy room should become a cell of revolution.  Patients needed to become involved in the insane world, and transform it into a healthier place for all life.  Aim at the core of the problem, not the side effects.
Michael Ventura (born 1945) was a popular journalist for the trendy L.A. Weekly.  He had abundant experience as a consumer of therapy.  Mental illness was a significant theme in his family history.  Most of the people he knew were either in therapy, practicing therapists, or both.  At the same time, he saw that most marriages and relationships around him were dysfunctional to varying degrees.  How could this be, at the zenith of human progress?
In 1990, he interviewed Hillman, and the article generated abundant buzz.  This inspired them to do a book: We’ve Had a Hundred Years of Psychotherapy — And the World’s Getting Worse.  It’s a scrapbook of interviews, conversations, and written correspondence, an informal jam session of passionate ideas.  Their two minds soar and play, and the result is a stimulating duet.  The book was published prior to the Prozac Revolution.
According to Jung, “individuation” was the ideal destination — the lifelong process of becoming more and more who you are.  (He also said: “The most terrifying thing is to know yourself.”)  Individuation involved throwing overboard the stuff that was not who you are.  This shifted us from a realm of comfortable habits to unfamiliar territory, where growth was more likely to happen.  When we strayed onto a path where we didn’t belong, our inner life force sent us clear warning messages, “symptoms” (anxiety, depression, etc.).  Hillman said, “Only the unconscious can save us: in your pathology is your salvation.” 
It’s wacky to help people adjust to living in an insane society, to stifle their healthy resistance, and encourage their submission.  Hillman denounced “therapeutic Puritanism,” with its psychic numbing and sensual numbing.  America had been anaesthetized by the Puritan mindset.  “Just look at our land — this continent’s astonishing beauty — and then look at what we immigrants, Bibles in hand, priests and preachers in tow, have done to it.”
The authors linked the rise of mental illness to the rise of individualism and its shadows, alienation and oppression.  For them, the psyche did not live inside the individual, the individual dwelled within the vast timeless collective psyche, like a fish in the ocean.  In the good old days, life was tribal and communal.  Spirituality embraced all sacred beings, animate and inanimate.  Both feet were firmly planted in a stable sense of time and place.  Life was rich with meaning, power, and beauty.  Ventura suspected that “the quality of wholeness is not located in the individual but in a community that includes the environment.”
Christianism blindsided the ancient balance with its new concept of individual salvation.  Suddenly, the creator of the entire universe was paying around-the-clock attention to ME — watching everything I did, continuously reading my mind, and remembering all of my errors.
Following Columbus, the disintegration of ancient balance went into warp drive.  Europeans, their slaves, and the people they conquered were uprooted and scattered across the planet.  The social glue of ancient cultures dissolved.  “Nothing needed to be permanent anymore.”
In the last hundred years, life has gone totally crazy.  Our sense of time and place has vaporized.  Ventura called it “the avalanche.”  We lived in an era of “simultaneous, massive changes on every level of life everywhere, that have built up unstoppable momentum as they speed us toward God knows where.”  Obviously, we’re heading for disaster.  “You can’t negotiate with an avalanche.  Nothing, nothing, nothing is going to stop the shipwreck of this civilization.”
Understand that the world is not ending, just this pathological civilization.  We should not regret its passing, but honor its death with song.  The good news here is that “I” am not sick, my society is.  The good news is that the sick society is busy dying, setting the stage for rebirth and renewal.  Hillman: “Any major change requires a breakdown.”  The next century or two may be rough, but it won’t last forever.  “The only solution can come when the world is reanimated, when we recognize how alive everything is, and how desirable.”
What should we do?  In a nutshell, two things are essential.  (1) We cannot move toward healing without the power of imagination.  Imagination allows us to break out of ruts, overcome barriers, and see farther, with greater clarity.  It strengthens our ability to envision a healthier future.  (2) Individualism is a toxic ball and chain, and we need to leave it behind, in the rubble of the past.  We must remember community living and rejoin the family of life.
Ventura said it like this: “You don’t %@&# around.  You don’t waste your life trying to find a secure place in the avalanche, ‘cause there ain’t no such animal.  You do the work of the soul.”  He told his son, “If you wanted to volunteer for fascinating, dangerous, necessary work, this would be a great job to volunteer for — trying to be a wide-awake human during a Dark Age and keeping alive what you think is beautiful and important.”

Hillman, James and Ventura, Michael, We’ve Had a Hundred Years of Psychotherapy — And the World’s Getting Worse, Harper Collins, New York, 1992.

Tuesday, September 11, 2012

Too Much Magic

Far, far away, on the misty frontiers of knowledge, dwells a small and widely scattered clan of clear thinkers who live with their eyes wide open, their minds always set to the “on” position, and their powers of reasoning cranked up to 10.  They have an acute ability to instantly recognize the presence of balderdash and poppycock, even in parts per billion quantities.  Even if the source is a slick-talking president, a gray-haired instructor, an industry expert, or a famous sexy celebrity, they know with without a doubt when claptrap and twaddle are shamelessly being ejaculated.  They can keep their eyes on the ball, even in the thick fog of a never-ending propaganda blitzkrieg. 
These isolated wizards refuse to drink the Kool-Aid and dream away their lives in the colorful cartoon fantasy world of consumer society.  They aren’t giddy with childlike excitement about the latest new cars, shoes, cell phones, and hairdos.  They have no throbbing hunger for RVs, McMansions, or jet skis.  They don’t rot and soak into the couch cushions while sitting in front of flashing screaming TVs.  Their minds are capable of voyaging to realms far beyond the dreary two-step death march of working and shopping.
They often dwell on mountaintops, sitting beside a fire, horrified at the spectacular stupidity of the industrial civilization spread out below them — killing the oceans, killing the forests, killing the prairies, killing their children, killing everything they touch — all for no good reason!  Nothing could be more befuddling and painful to watch!  What could they be thinking?  Why can’t they see what’s happening?
James Howard Kunstler is one of those clear thinkers, and the twenty-first century is just driving him bonkers!  It’s ridiculously easy for clear thinkers to comprehend the glaring, obvious truth, and they can’t understand why most of humankind seems to be incapable of doing this, too.  He can see that consumer society remains on the worst possible path, and at every fork in the path, they choose the bigger mistake.  It’s immensely pathetic, to the degree that the tragedy develops a ticklish aroma of comedy, and Kunstler uses wit like a sharp whip.
Consumers behave as if they are completely disconnected from almost every aspect of reality, spending their lives in an artificial world of pure whimsy.  They are like excited children waiting for piles of fun presents from Santa Claus.  They have a profound blind faith that science and technology will protect everyone with its boundless magic.  Kunstler calls this the Jiminy Cricket Syndrome: “When you wish upon a star your dreams come true.”
In his book, Too Much Magic, Kunstler hurls a super-sized bucket of ice water in a heroic attempt to rouse sleeping zombies into a state of consciousness.  “By the time you read this, the empire in question may be a smoldering ruin.”  He rips down the curtains and reveals the stinking, burning, fever-crazed world outside.  Wake up!  We’re speeding toward multiple catastrophes!  “This entire book is about the manifold failures of all kinds of people to anticipate the changes we face.”
Fossil energy is the foundation of our world economy.  The global production of conventional oil peaked in 2006.  By 2008, the price of oil had skyrocketed to $147 — big trouble.  With regard to the miraculous new shale oil and shale gas fields, he’s convinced that most of the hope is based on industry hype, intended to attract dreamy investors and half-smart high-risk gamblers.  All the magic in the world cannot replace fossil energy with alternative energy, or even come close.
The end of the 90-year era of “Happy Motoring” is approaching, and we’re not far from the peak of suburban sprawl.  American style suburbia was “the greatest misallocation of resources in the history of the world.”  Suburbia has no future, but Americans haven’t grasped this yet.  “I expect many suburbs will become slums, ruins, and salvage yards.”  Southern California will turn into a ghost town.
Shortly after oil hit $147, the housing bubble popped, the financial system collapsed, and trillions of dollars vaporized.  The collapse is far from over, since banks still hold a huge number of worthless mortgages, pretending that they are assets — pretending that they are not the living dead.  A shortage of capital means that perpetual economic growth is close to finished.  This means that trillions of dollars of debt are never going to be repaid. 
This means that the party is over.  This means that we’re moving into an age of contraction.  Economic life is going to get much smaller, more local, and will use far less energy.  Much of the labor force will be shifted toward the production of food.  If we choose to acknowledge this, then we could make efforts to contract in an orderly manner.  If we choose to bet everything on magic, the trip down will be more brutal, painful, and dumb.  This is the core message of the book.
Kunstler takes us on a tour of a number of problems that are major threats to our future, and a few lesser issues that he just enjoys kvetching about (like infantile young bozos who wear their baggie pants way too low).  He laments that the overpopulation problem has been assigned to Mother Nature to fix, since we’re not capable of giving it serious thought.  He grieves over our unwillingness to do anything to slow the advance of climate change.  (Well, we’re totally eager to help in any way that doesn’t involve changing our lifestyle to the slightest degree.)  He spews extra large doses of venom on the political system and the finance industry.
George W. Bush was a memorable president.  He involved us in two expensive wars for no good reason.  He nearly succeeded in obliterating our economy.  He made conservatives look like a clown act.  Many believed that his shenanigans would drive the Republican Party into extinction.  Nobody imagined that Barack Obama would grab the baton and simply maintain the same policies (his #1 campaign contributor was Goldman Sachs).
Obama approved borrowing hundreds of billions of dollars for stimulus spending, mostly for highway projects and runway improvements, updating a transportation system that has no future.  Tens of thousands of finance industry fraudsters are never going to wait in line at the guillotine, because the president completely refused to enforce existing laws.  Obama will be remembered for “botched health care reform, a dumb energy policy, keeping two of the longest wars in our history going, and not reestablishing the rule of law in banking in the face of arrant misconduct.”
He gives us Reality for Dummies, but not Solutions for Dummies.  No amount of magic can undo climate change, painlessly shrink our population, make coal burning clean, or fix our economy.  But today is an excellent day to open our eyes, and make an effort to comprehend our dire predicament.  Today is an excellent day to take a good look, to see if there are less catastrophic places to crash land our airborne Titanic.  At this point, it’s all about damage control, and trying very hard to learn as much as possible from our mistakes.  It’s about clear thinking.
Kunstler, James Howard, Too Much Magic, Atlantic Monthly Press, New York, 2012.

Sunday, September 2, 2012

The Antibiotic Paradox

Antibiotics are a family of drugs used to treat bacterial infections, including diseases like the bubonic plague, pneumonia, typhus, cholera, and tuberculosis.  The first antibiotic to hit the market was penicillin, in 1941.  It was soon seen to be a wonder drug, because it saved so many lives.  Prior to antibiotics, there were no effective treatments for many life-threatening diseases — they were incurable.  The new drugs revolutionized the practice of medicine, giving doctors power that had previously been unimaginable.
Of course, every technological miracle has a dark shadow of harmful side effects, unintended consequences, and fatal flaws.  Dr. Stuart Levy described this ominous shadow in his book, The Antibiotic Paradox.  He did an excellent job of explaining a very complicated subject in a manner that ordinary folks could readily comprehend.
Our skin and digestive system are home to far more bacteria than the number of cells in our body.  Sometimes bacteria get under our skin, and reproduce faster than our immune system can kill them.  This is an infection, and infections can sometimes be fatal.
“An antibiotic is a natural substance made by one microorganism that inhibits growth of another microorganism.”  Most antibiotics originated as molds or soil bacteria.  Both friendly and unfriendly microorganisms enjoy reproducing at a phenomenal rate, and they often mutate genetically.  Some of these mutants are drug-resistant, because they can survive contact with one or more antibiotics.  These resistant survivors then proceed to produce large numbers of bulletproof offspring. 
Science has attempted to eliminate resistant strains by developing new forms of antibiotics.  Naturally, the bacteria continued reproducing and mutating until they became resistant to the new super drug in town, sometimes as soon as two years after its introduction.
As fast as science created new antibiotics, infectious bacteria developed resistance to them.  It’s the same story with herbicide-resistant weeds, fungicide-resistant plant diseases, and insecticide-resistant crop pests.  No matter how hard they try, or how much money they spend, scientists will never put Mother Nature in a cage.
There are a finite number of substances suitable for use as antibiotics.  They must be effective, free of serious side effects, and capable of being mass produced.  The low-hanging fruit has already been picked, and inventing new antibiotics is becoming more and more challenging and expensive.
Drug companies are losing interest in creating new antibiotics, because they are not highly profitable.  This is because they usually work very well, curing the patient in a matter of days, ending the need for further treatment.  Drug makers are far more interested in creating medicines that patients have to take for the rest of their lives, because they are goldmines.
Everyone agrees that the problem of antibiotic-resistant disease pathogens will never be solved.  The microbes will inevitably develop resistance to any new pharmaceutical weapon.  It’s only a matter of time.  No amount of money or magic can fix this.  Most antibiotic-resistant pathogens are resistant to more than one antibiotic, or MDR (multiple drug resistant).  Some MDR pathogens are resistant to all drugs, and are uncontrollable.  The magic bullets are losing their spunk. 
We are moving inevitably toward the post-antibiotic world, and we are doing little to delay this.  Indeed, the way we are using these drugs is speeding us toward the end of their usefulness.  Many forms of antibiotic use result in increased profits, and we are far more interested in profits than in the future.
The more we use antibiotics, the faster resistance develops.  If our main objectives were to protect human lives, and to delay the arrival of the post-antibiotic era, we would limit their use to treating sick humans.  Doctors would quit giving antibiotics to patients suffering from colds or flu, no matter how loud they whine, because these drugs are useless against viral diseases.  The misuse of antibiotics by doctors is widespread.
The US produces 50 million pounds of antibiotics annually, and about 70 percent of them are given to livestock and poultry.  Most of the drugs given to animals are not to treat disease, but to prevent disease, and to make them grow bigger and faster.  Typically, the drugs pass through the animals in active form, in their manure, and persist in the environment.  The manure is often spread on fields where food crops are grown.  Some of the drugs run off the farm and into drinking water and fish. 
Antibiotics are also used on dogs, cats, fur-bearing animals, shellfish, aquarium fish, fish farms, horses, fruit trees, palm trees, ornamental plants, honey bees, potatoes, tobacco, peppers, tomatoes, and celery.  The drugs are everywhere, and wherever they are, they promote drug resistance.  MDR pathogens are also literally everywhere.
The world of microorganisms is a spooky place.  There are harmless bacteria that are MDR, and they can transfer their drug-resistant characteristics to disease-causing bacteria.  Genetic material is readily exchanged between different types of microbes.
In one experiment, a calf was given a marked variety of E. coli bacteria.  Before long, the bacteria were found in nearby mice and flies.  It spread to pigs, chickens, and turkeys living at a significant distance from the calf.  Humans on the farm began excreting the E. coli. 
Antimicrobial hand soaps provide no real protection, and may actually be harmful.  After the collapse of the Soviet Union, we discovered that rates of allergies and asthma were far lower in Eastern Europe, an environmental disaster area.  Some theorize that reduced hygiene inspires healthier immune systems, because they get regular “exercise.”  Being too tidy may be unhealthy.
Levy’s objective was to publicize the problem of antibiotic misuse.  If we used them with great care, then we could extend their usefulness in treating human diseases.  The future of antibiotics is highly uncertain, but Levy is not out to scare us.  He suspects that we might not experience a complete antibiotic wipeout in the “foreseeable future” (a fuzzy timeframe). 
But the danger is real and substantial.  MDR pathogens are now very common.  “This situation raises the staggering possibility that a time will come when antibiotics as a mode of therapy will be only a fact of historic interest.”  Optimists can celebrate the notion that when antibiotics become useless, far fewer people will die from cancer and heart disease.
Our wild ancestors experienced far less infectious disease because they lived in small, isolated groups.  They didn’t live in close contact with other species, nor did they congregate in filthy cities.  By living in their traditional, time-proven manner, they remained healthy, and had no need for wonder drugs.
Levy, Stuart B., M.D., The Antibiotic Paradox, Second Edition, Perseus Publishing, Cambridge, Massachusetts, 2002.