Archive for November, 2013

The Story of “Er”

Once upon a time Western Europe was a land of clear consonants and pure vowels. People would fill their lungs and shout to each other over great distances—across rivers and valleys—and understand every word. But then, just as one Western European nation after another was embarking on an empire-building campaign, something very strange happened. You see, they had to distinguish themselves somehow, to confuse and frighten each other, but the European Parliament hadn\’t been invented yet, and so they couldn\’t exercise their precious ethnic differences simply by talking a great deal of nonsense. They had to achieve the same effect through more traditional means: by distinguishing themselves in manners, attire and speech. In the case of manners and attire their approach was quite traditional as well: they cultivated a pompous and arrogant demeanor, and they sported crazy hats and lots of frills and embroidery. But in the matter of speech the way they chose to distinguish themselves was decidedly strange. I call it the Battle of Speech Impediments.

The Portuguese were probably the ones who started the fray by switching from ‘s’ to ‘sh’ whenever possible. Whenever the Portugueshe opened their mouthsh their enemiesh ran for the hillsh. Not to be outdone, the Spaniards responded by developing a frightening lisp, and started saying Tharagotha instead of Saragossa. The Dutch response was to cleverly turn a problem into a solution. Their problem was that they lived in a swamp while breathing smoke from the peat moss they burned to keep from freezing in winter. This caused them to constantly cough up phlegm and clear their throats, even in mid-sentence. Their solution was to incorporate this incessant throat-clearing into their language, saying “kh-kh-khood” instead of “good” and so on, achieving an effect that was truly terrifying. The French innovated even further by switching over to a complex system of gargles and honks. These were lethal at close range, but made shouting in French an exercise in futility, since it is physiologically impossible to project one\’s voice through one\’s nose while gargling. Not to be left behind, the Germans got rid of a lot of their ‘r’ sounds and instead learned to dislocate their jaws, snapping them back and forth ever so efficiently and precisely, being clever to do it in such a way that it did not interfere with their shouting. “Deutsch ist sehr schön wenn es laut gesprochen ist,” a German once told me very loudly. But anyone who attempted to imitate them ran the risk of chipping a tooth.
Meanwhile, on the other side of the English Channel, similarly odd developments were afoot: the English learned to curl their tongues backwards, and replaced the usual, trilled ‘r’ that is found in the vast majority of the world\’s languages with an upside-down-and-backwards ‘r’ called a retroflex approximant. The IPA symbol for it is ‘ɻ’. It is clearly upside down and backwards, plus it has a little hook to indicate that it involves doing unnatural things with your tongue, namely, curving the tip of the tongue backward toward the palate. That is quite a trick! We do not know how many Englishmen died from choking on their tongues while trying to learn it.
What we do know is that, of all the fashionable speech impediments affected by the Western Europeans, this one is by far the most debilitating. This is because it is physiologically impossible to combine the retroflex ‘ɻ’ with most vowels: ‘oɻ’ and ‘aɻ’ are possible, but ‘eɻ’ ‘iɻ’ and ‘uɻ’ all end up as the same sound, the IPA symbol for which is ‘ɝ’. Moreover, even ‘oɻ’ and ‘aɻ’ tend to only occur in a stressed syllable; when unstressed, they too end up as the same sound, the IPA symbol for which is ‘ɚ’, called a rhoticized schwa. The term “rhoticized” is named after the Greek letter rho—ρ, and the term “schwa” is a catch-all term for “indistinct vowel”.
All of these different vowel+‘r’ combinations once sounded different but now all sound the same. Nevertheless, they are still preserved in English spelling, like long-extinct insects eternalized in droplets of amber. The only place where they can still be heard is Scotland, which never shifted from its trilled ‘r’. In Scotland, “fur” and “fir” sound distinct; everywhere else they sound the same. And so it tɝned out that [w]ɻitten English is littɚd with coɻpses of dead vowels, which must be pɻesɝved in memɚy by all those who aspiɚ to being considɚd litɚate by theɚ bettɚs.
The upside of that is that a new vowel was born, the beautiful English vowel ‘er’. But it would appear that some people do not appreciate its beauty, and use it in expressions such as “herp-derp” and “hurr-durr,” which signify anything from lopsidedness to ineptness, brutishness and imbecility. I believe that this is wrong: if you happen to have a giant horn sticking out of your forehead, then you might as well call yourself a unicorn and claim to be magic.
To be fair, this new vowel is not without some shortcomings; for one thing, it is almost impossible to shout with one\’s tongue halfway down one\’s throat. This is why the British gave up on the standard international military cheer “Hurrah!” (which, some suspect, came from Mongolia with Genghis Khan) and switched to shouting “Huzzah!” instead. Imperial troops are not supposed to sound like little animals that are trying to growl while being choked. Moreover, since curling one\’s tongue backwards is a rather taxing operation, there is a tendency for the tongue to cramp up and get stuck in the retroflex position for extended periods of time—something linguists call rhotic harmony. The ultimate result is a dialect called Ermahgerd. Here is the result of feeding the beginning of Abraham Lincoln\’s Gettysburg Address through the Ermahgerd Translator (and cleaning up the result by hand, since the translator is a bit “derp”):
Fershker ernd servern yers erger er ferthers brerght ferth ern thers kernternernt, a nerw nershern, kerncerverd ern lerberter, ernd derderkerterd ter der perrpersershern thert erl mahn er crerterd erqerl.”
We do not know whether Abraham Lincoln sounded quite like that, but then he was from Illinois, which was at the time not far from the bleeding edge of civilization, and so there is a good chance that what he spoke was Frontier Gibberish—a dialect that exhibited pronounced rhotic harmony.
Meanwhile, back in England, the British decided that Frontier Gibberish was unbecoming of their various and assorted imperial majesties and dropped the little rhotic tails from ‘ɝ’ and ‘ɚ’, de-rhotacizing their speech to the greatest extent possible. They also started insisting that what they have is not a class system but a “clahss” system, a bit like the “cahste” system of the Hindoos. I suspect they discovered that curling their tongue like that all the time interfered with shouting, because, you see, the British were doing a lot of shouting at the time, there being so many different peoples for them to be shouting at: the Hundoos, the Chinamen, the Kaffirs…
This change was propagated to most British colonies. It did not catch on in Ireland or Scotland, and affected only the Eastern Seaboard of North America. To this day certain Bostonians are attempting to “Pahk theah cah neah Hahvahd Yahd” (which is, by the way, the most futile pursuit imaginable). The rest of the country laughs at them. But then the out-of-towners do not ever seem able to figure out which subway stop could possibly be pronounced “Gumincenah” and keep getting lost, so maybe the Bostonians will have the last laugh.
Perhaps the English did manage to claw back a bit of linguistic sanity by chopping those irksome little tails off ‘ɝ’ and ‘ɚ’, perhaps not. But the damage had already been done: when the English switched from ‘r’ to ‘ɻ’, lots of vowel+‘ɻ’ combinations decayed to either ‘ɝ’ or ‘ɚ’, and when the English subsequently chopped the tails off ‘ɝ’ and ‘ɚ’, the vowels remained dead, or, rather, undead, because they are still being preserved as orthographic vestiges. And there we have it: there are three different ways to write ‘ɝ’ and five different ways to write ‘ɚ’. Everyone has to memorize these distinctions without a difference. You might perhaps think that there is something wrong with this scheme, and perhaps you\’d be right. Herp-derp-hurrah, everyone!

I Need Your Help


I have been writing and speaking on the subject of collapse for the past seven years. Many people have found what I had to say interesting and significant. Some people have even made major changes in their lives, based in part on insights they were able to glean from my writings. But now I am ready for a major change myself. I feel that I have already said everything I could possibly say on the subject of collapse. My books remain in print, and this blog will stay online, available to anyone who wants to use these resources as collapse unfolds. But I need to take a break.

About a year ago, while overwintering back in St. Petersburg, Russia and helping take care of our newborn son, I conceived a scheme for making written English easier to learn and more accessible to everyone from special needs students and dyslexics to home-schooled children to just about everyone who has ever struggled with the horribly irregular English spelling. This scheme, which I called \”Unspell,\” uses a dialect-neutral phonemic representation of spoken English. I invented a special set of symbols for this purpose. A year of work went into perfecting a system that captures all the significant phonological distinctions of English and that is easy to read, easy to write and easy to learn. Two pieces of software—called “unspell” and “respell”—will convert from English text to this representation and back in a process that is largely automatic, allowing people who have good command of spoken English to read and write perfect English without having to so much as look at English spelling!

While I was writing and speaking on the subject of collapse I was often asked what my qualifications are for doing so. Am I an economist, a historian, an anthropologist, a sociologist? Alas, I am none of the above, and that makes me an amateur. But as far as Unspell is concerned, I have all of the requisite qualifications: I have an advanced degree in applied linguistics, a degree in computer engineering, and well over a decade of experience working as a software engineer, engineering manager and systems architect in a variety of high-tech start-up companies.
I have been able to complete the design for Unspell in my spare time working together with a few volunteers. But now that it is time to develop and deliver software, this model will no longer suffice. I have to register and organize a company, buy software licenses, lease servers, pay contractors and so on. The first step is to raise some seed money, which will be used to put together a demo that can be shown to prospective investors. I hope to raise the seed money this month and to complete the demo during the first quarter of 2014.
And this is where I need your help. Writing and talking on the subject of collapse was interesting and perhaps useful. It was also very time-consuming, and definitely nonrenumerative. I hope that, in recognition of my efforts, you will consider helping me raise the seed money I need to launch this venture, either directly, by donating yourself, or by spreading word of Unspell among people you know. In return, I promise to do my utmost to give you the satisfaction of having helped create a major public good.
To find out more about Unspell, please visit
Thank you!

Collapsing Consciously

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Pawel Kuczyński
Carolyn Baker\’s CollapsingConsciously: Transformative Truths for Turbulent Times is perhaps the most approachable book on collapse you are likely to find. Compared to Jarred Diamond\’s Collapse, which weighs in at just over 600 pages, Baker\’s is well under 200. And yet in these few pages Baker manages to tackle a topic which Diamond studiously avoids: Whatever shall we do about the fact that collapse is happening all around us right now?
The reason Diamond avoids it is obvious: collapse is an unacceptable topic of discussion if it relates to us. It is perfectly fine to talk about past collapses, and perhaps even muse about future collapses, provided they happen to someone else. That\’s because we are exceptional and will go on forever. Here\’s a memorable example: I once gave a talk for the Long Now Foundation in San Francisco, and during the Q&A afterwards someone asked me about Russia\’s demographic crisis. Stewart Brand, who was reading off the questions from cards, chimed in to say that it looks like the Russians will be extinct in just a couple of generations (they aren\’t). So, Stewart, in how many generations are Americans going to be extinct? I need a number; what\’s the Long Now Foundation\’s estimate on that? Crickets…
And the reason collapse is an unacceptable topic of discussion if it relates to us, in the present or the foreseeable future, is that the moment you mention it, the topic stops being it, or us; the topic becomes you. What is wrong with you, why are you collapsing, and is it contagious? (Actually, just go away anyway, because you are probably bad luck.) This society operates on a combination of conformism and one-upmanship. Collapse as reality is nonconformist—in a society that worships success it is seen as defeatist and unpatriotic. It is also noncompetitive—because who on earth would want to buy it? “After all, who wants to hear that their very identity—the industrially civilized ego they have built throughout their entire lives, the ego that defines who they are—is, well, dying?” (p. 89) (By the way, this explains why my last book hasn\’t sold all that well.) In any case, if you keep at it, you come to be seen as a loser. Then you start feeling like an unlucky outcast, and before too long you end up with a psychological problem, and start asking yourself questions such as : “What\’s wrong with me?” “Have I gone mad?” and “Should I kill myself?”
Which is where Baker comes in: she is a trained psychotherapist, and her book is a self-help book. She takes your subjective reactions of hurt, loss, and bewilderment and gives them the status of objective reality. Yes, insanity is just around the corner from where you are standing, but that\’s a perfectly normal, justifiable reaction: “Anyone preparing for colapse inevitably, on some occasions, feels mad. How at odds with circumstance we are, and how profoundly crazy-making it feels!” (p. 8) Helpfully, she enumerates the panoply of emotions that normally accompany the dicovery of collapse: “crazy, angry, joyful, depressed, terrified, giddy, relieved, paranoid, stupid, guilty, liberated, grateful, despairing, heartbroken, courageous, compassionate, lonely, loved, hated.” (p. 8) For some, the discovery of collapse may not even be necessary: “…I have never met any resident of industrial civilization who doesn\’t carry some form of trauma in their bodies.\” (p. 20) And, I would add, their minds and souls as well. Symptoms may include “…sleepless nights, a weakened immune system, moodiness, anger, depression, despair, and, often suicidal thinking.” (p. 26)
Baker\’s prescription is to heal thyself: “…to become familiar with internal resources; to practice skills of self-soothing, deep listening and truth telling with friends and family, and regular journaling; and to have an ongoing, daily stillness practice that provides grounding and centering in the midst of chaos.” (p. 15) “Healing our own trauma prepares us for navigating the trauma of a world in collapse and also equips us to assist others who are traumatized by the changes and losses of an unraveling society.” (p. 22) And although much of the job that awaits us is a sort of post-collapse hospice care for the severely disturbed, that is by no means the full extent of it: “…hold in your mind the reality of what is and what is yet to come and, at the same time, hold in your heart the vision of what is possible for a transformed humanity, no matter how few in numbers, that is willing to step over the evolutionary threshold and become a new kind of human being.” (p. 83, my emphasis)
The old kind of human being comes in for a good thrashing. Baker singles out the emptiness of the pursuit of happiness: “…many people confess that their greatest happiness is derived from shopping… [and from] having no constraints on consumption…” (p. 32) The commercialized mind control field in which many people are trapped defines happiness by positive thinking, which “…has become an integral aspect of corporate culture.” (p. 32) “I believe that since the end of World War II, positive thinking has become the quasi-religion of industrial civilization, and the failure to maintain it has become tantamount to treason.” (p. 33) This almost totalitarian emphasis on happiness and positive thinking amounts to a system of enforced stupidity. To Baker, what matters is not happiness but joyand not positive thinking but meaning: “Happiness comes and goes, but meaning doesn\’t. The truth, of course, is that we can find meaning in experiences that are anything but happy.” (For example, in war.)
Finding meaning doesn\’t necessarily lift our mood or make us happy. But it does amplify our existence, making it less than completely trivial. To find meaning, we have to confront sadness, loss, and, ultimately, death. This is why the message of collapse is almost universally rejected: “To speak of collapse, peak oil, demise, downturns, economic depression, or unraveling is anathema, because it rattles the rice paper-thin bulwarks we have constructed around darkness and death.” This is rather at odds with the dominant culture: “It\’s so easy to disregard death, especially if one is an [Anglo-]American.” (p. 55) (The English tend to regard death as the ultimate embarrassment, and their cultural baggage is unfortunately still with us.) Add to it a dollop of positive thinking and sprinkle on the “New Agey mindset,” and you get people who act “as if human beings are the only species that matter and as if the most crucial issue is that those humans are able to feel good about themselves as the world burns.” (p. 55) Such people will not fare well: “The collapse of industrial civilization will be challenging for those who have been preparing for it; for those who haven\’t, it will involve massive trauma.” (p. 29)
But what does it mean to prepare of collapse? There is, of course, the question of the logistics of surviving collapse: reskilling, relocalization, community organizing and the like. There is also the task of finding meaning in it, beyond mere physical survival; to borrow an aphorism from Nietzsche, the task of gazing into the abyss, until the abyss gazes back at you. But “…most human beings who do have the capacity to stare down collapse seem to lack the ability to dig deeper into its myriad emotional and spiritual ramifications, focusing only on physical survival issues.” (p 12). (I suppose preparing for the zombie apocalypse does make you a bit of a zombie, as your attitude becomes: “Sure, I\’ll resort to eating brains if I have to!”)
Baker wonders whether the “emotionally myopic survivalists” might be busy creating a world eerily similar to the “vapid, vacuous, barren inner landscape engendered by industrial civilization?” It\’s largely a question of how they were brought up. Western education is riddled with binary thinking: “Black or white, either-or, this way or that way permeate the educational systems of modernity and torment our thinking about and preparation for collapse. When will it happen—in this decade or in the next? Will it be fast or slow? Should I take the lone survivor approach or go live in an ecovillage? Should I stay in my home country or expatriate? The binary questions are endless, and limitless obsession with them is likely to leave us in the same predicament as the proverbial dog chasing its own tail.” (p. 7)
People who have been conditioned to think that to make such binary distinctions is to be rational, analytical and productive are loathe to accept that perhaps black or white are just moods: on some days they may feel like collapse is already here, while on other days it may feel far off; sometimes it may feels fast, other days slow; some days you want to be alone, on other days you crave companionship; sometimes you want to flee the country and give up your passport, while on other days you contemplate wanting to coming back to visit.
The crisp delineation between the present and the future is an artificial construct too: both the present and the future are works of fiction—a bit of “framing” created for us by those expert professionals who craft “consensual reality” on our behalf. The emphasis on rational responses to collapse has produced efforts to achieve logistical resilience: “Anyone not involved in this kind of logistical preparation is only half-awake, yet many individuals believe that no other preparation is necessary. Might that not, in fact, be one characteristic of trauma?” (p. 27) Taking it just one step further, strictly logistical collapse preparation may be a form of compulsive behavior that is quite obviously maladaptive “…building one\’s isolated doomstead or underground bunker is not only profoundly dangerous but astoundingly unrealistic.” (p. 97, my emphasis)
Much of the doomsteading activity is a projection of middle-class angst—to which much of the world is immune: “…for all the suffering of abjectly impoverished human beings, they have seldom known any other standard of living and have learned how to survive on virtually nothing.” (p. 26) On the other hand, “Those living a middle-class existence can comfort themselves only for so long by reflecting on the plight of the destitute in far-off places. Their immediate reality is an anomalous deprivation, a stark loss of the familiar, and the looming reality that things will not get better, but only worse.” (p. 26) Lastly, “…it is much easier to build cooperative relationships with individuals who are fundamentally like us than it is to build them with those who, for a variety of reasons, may be very different.” (p. 69) And if the only acceptable way to prepare for collapse within your middle-class, anglocentric cultural milieu is doomsteading, then I suppose you build some doomsteads, even though this is “not only profoundly dangerous but astoundingly unrealistic.” (p. 97) To understand why this is so is to challenge some deeply held assumptions: that “…the privileges afforded to people of Anglo ethnicity…” (p. 73) will remain in place, or that “the dominant culture will prevail alongside a number of subcultures.” (p. 74) And this is already manifestly not the case.
But the thought that part of what is collapsing is the Anglo cultural hegemony would be so profoundly angst-inducing that it might provoke a psychotic break in some of her readers, and so Baker avoids spelling it out, tap-dancing around the issue in a way that strikes me as slightly comic. “To be ‘civilized’ is synonymous with being domesticated, restrained, and repressed, and if we participate in sexual behavior at all, we are encouraged to do so in a controlled, sanitized, or even surreptitious fashion.” (p. 63) Yes, she gets that part, which is why she puts “civilized” in quotes. It is apparent that she has wandered outside the mental security perimeter, has tasted the forbidden fruit, and knows what it means to be fully human: “Benjamin Franklin said it best, after returning from living with the Iroquois: ‘No European who has tasted Savage life can afterward bear to live in our societies.’” (p. 56) And it is clear why she thinks that staying within the cultural perimeter would be “profoundly dangerous [and] astoundingly unrealistic.” (p. 97): “…collapse will decimate our anti-tribal, individualistic, Anglo-American programming by forcing us to join with others for survival.” (p. 105) Yes, it would appear that the Anglo ethnicity will go down in history as the oddest of the odd: the anti-tribal tribe.
But if you are a fully paid-up member of that tribe, then it is perhaps Baker who can speak to you like no other. This comes through most clearly when she talks about the soul, by which I think she means the Anglo soul, because it seems that there are some differences here. “The soul blossoms and flourishes not by going upward but by going down into the depths of emotion, body sensation, and intimate communion with nature.” (p. 38) “The soul … loves darkness, descent, downward mobility, and the razor-sharp adversities of the human condition. In dark times, it doesn\’t have to be guided; it knows exactly what to do.” (p. 39) To me, this all sounds very strange. In my native language, the words soul, spirit and breath are all variations on the same theme. This is not accidental but nearly universal: the Sanskrit ātman (soul) and the German atmen(to breathe) are the same word that has spanned continents and millennia. Like breath, the soul is light (weightless). It is luminous and lucid, not heavy or dark or drunk with emotion. It is apparent and visible, and shines in the eyes of those who happen to have one. (Soulless people have eyes like fish, and even children can be taught to spot them.) The action of soul and spirit is roughly analogous to magnetism: when another soul touches yours, it strengthens it withought weakening itself. A person whose soul is great is said to be selfless, accommodating, forbearing, self-sacrificing… And so when Baker writes that the “[s]oul waits like a crouched predator to deepen us…” (p. 40) I can\’t help feeling that she is talking about something a little bit different. Be that as it may; perhaps it speaks to you, and, cultural differences aside, I fully agree with her that “…what will be most valuable will not necessarily be a sharp intellect but a well-honed intuition” (p. 65) Being able to tell at a glance whether someone has a soul is definitely part of that intuition.
I also sense that Baker\’s soul is great, and that she is selfless, accommodating, forbearing and self-sacrificing. She worries about “…people of color, women, children, the elderly, and the LGBT community—the most vulnerable members of a society in chaos” (p. 43) and that “…the gains experienced by ethnic minorities, women, and gays in the past forty years will essentially be erased as berserk, belligerent males succeed in ruling the day.” (p. 43) Now, it bears pointing out that this has largely happened already. Look at the prison population, at the gangs that are active throughout the US military, and at narcocartels; look at the perpetually depressed, disintegrating inner cities or the rapidly slummifying suburbs. Only the still-sheltered middle class can place such things in the future rather than the present. She does point out that “[c]ircumstances will vary from one community and region to another. I use the word lumpy to describe this phenomenon.” (p. 44) “Avoid the lumps” is the only advice I can give.
But some of these lumps are rather large—as large as the Roman Catholic Church—making them hard to avoid. (One former Catholic described it as “[a] large multi-national, tax-exempt, authoritarian corporation, with a history of child sex abuse [that is] selling an invisible product.”) Baker points out that much of the mysogyny present in Western culture comes from the “irrational dread of the feminine archetype in general and women in particular” (p. 49) that has been present in Christian relgious thought ever since the church fathers expelled the Gnostics. She quotes St. Augustine, who thought that women “should be segregated as they are the cause of hideous and involuntary erections in men…” (Whereas those caused by the choir-boys are what?) She also points out both the Catholic church\’s and the Republican party\’s “war on women … in which funding for contraception and abortion has been savagely cut, along with funding for programs that alleviate poverty.” (p. 51)
Not all of us can hope to avoid such lumps, and this brings us to what is perhaps the most important message of Baker\’s book: there is much to do, so get cracking! A change of direction is called for. Many people are still attempting to work jobs, while “…employment as we know it will probably not exist a decade from now and … this time of massive unemployment creates space in our lives that allows us to prepare for a future of permanent unemployment.” (p. 5) Many people are still trying to stockpile advanced degrees or paper wealth, while “[i]n a post-collapse world, academic degrees and stock portfolios matter little.” (p. 104) In the meantime, there is much to do: “Volunteering in a homeless shelter, a daycare ceter for homeless children, a nursing home, or other agencies still in existence that serve vulnerable popultions is excellent psychological preparation for a time when none of these services exist. First, it puts you in a serving mode. You allow your innate compassion to reach out to other human beings in need. In addition, it causes you to ponder how you might deal with the situation in the future when members of the population you are serving are symbolically or literally on your doorstep. Furthermore, it expands your horizons beyond ‘me and mine’ to a sense of the commons and a camaraderie with the rest of humanity. (p. 67) “There is something about being of service in the current time that could have lasting benefits for us in the future, simply because a service mentality and especially a willingness to see the suffering of others in this moment provide us with critical emotional skills. In many cases, we may need to provide nothing except the capacity to listen.” (p. 67) “I venture to say that most collapse-aware individuals cherish some fantasies, no matter how frail or infrequently spoken of, of a new culture in which we live in authentic community, sharing resources, food, tasks, and recreation with each other. And we already know that such a culture will not be possible without an attitude of service and cooperation.” (p. 68) Such efforts may start out as responses to practical, mundane needs, but their results can transcend them: “Paradoxically, collapse may bring to our lives meaning and purpose that might otherwise have eluded us … With civilization\’s collapse, we may be forced to evaluate daily, perhaps moment to moment, why we are here, if we want to remain here, if life is worth living, and if there is something greater than ourselves for which we are willing to remain alive and to which we choose to contribute energy.” (p. 106)
There are quite a few books on collapse that provide “food for thought.” Baker\’s does some of that too; but more importantly, she guides the reader in feeling about collapse, progressing from hopelessness and helplessness to hope, self-realization and a sense of belonging. And this, I think, is a singular achievement.

From the Mouths of Babes

Gottfried Helnwein

[This week\’s guest post is by Scott Erickson, who is an award-winning humor writer and the author of a satirical novel titled The Diary of Amy, the 14-Year-Old Girl Who Saved the Earth. I liked it. It is entirely disarming and strikes a good balance between humor and seriousness. There are enough jeremiads and diatribes and rants on this topic out there. Luckily, this isn\’t one of them because Scott\’s scathing social critique and mordant wit are delivered via a charming narrative device: a smart, earnest, precocious 14-year-old girl.]


Hi! I’m Amy Johnson-Martinez, the 14-year-old girl who’s saving the earth from environmental destruction. A lot of people don’t understand how the destruction of the earth is connected to our addiction to economic growth. Actually, a lot of people don’t even realize that we’re addicted!

Personally speaking, I think it’s kind of weird that economists don’t tell us about this. So I guess it takes a 14-year-old girl to tell you about it!

Economists always say, “The economy has to keep growing or else it will collapse.” But it can’t grow forever, because the earth is running out of resources. Actually, it’s already starting to happen. That’s a big reason why the economy is getting worse.

Our economy is giving us a totally stupid choice: Save the economy or save the earth. It won’t let us save both! I personally think that’s pretty crazy!

On my journey to save the earth from environmental destruction, I figured out pretty quickly that the main problem is the economy. Pretty much every time there’s an idea that would make things less destructive and more sustainable, the argument against it is always: “It will be bad for economic growth.”

That’s when I found out the economy has to grow or else it collapses. But when I asked why, nobody knew the answer. So I had to figure it out myself.

I looked at a bunch of economic books, but none of them said anything about why we’re addicted to economic growth. I couldn’t even find out how the economy could grow. That’s another basic question: How can money grow?

Isn’t that an interesting question?

This led to another question, “How is money introduced into the economy?”

The answer wasn\’t easy to find. At first I thought the answer was that the government prints it, but that was back when I was young and naive. It turns out that the government prints only a tiny percentage of the money in circulation, and the rest is just promises, based on future growth (which is kind of weird if you think about it.)

Then I found out about “quantitative easing,” which sounds intellectually sophisticated. But it’s not the “real” answer, because quantitative easing only creates more promises. And the only way to live up to these promises is by overall growth of the economy. So we’re back to where we started: How does the economy grow?

Since I couldn’t find any answers in books about contemporary economics, I tried looking at books about the history of economics. I focused a lot on John Maynard Keynes, who was from England and invented the basic economic ideas we still use.

I found something interesting that he wrote in 1933. It’s the first thing I found that talks about economic growth. Basically, he thinks it’s important to have the economy grow, but when everybody is doing OK then growth should stop:

Suppose that a hundred years hence we are eight times better off than today. The economic problem may be solved.

The economic problem, the struggle for subsistence, always has been the primary, most pressing problem of the human race. Thus for the first time since his creation man will be faced with his real, his permanent problem – how to use his freedom from pressing economic cares, how to live wisely and agreeably and well.

When the accumulation of wealth is no longer of high social importance, there will be great changes in the code of morals. The love of money will be recognized for what it is, a somewhat disgusting morbidity, one of those semi-criminal, semi-pathological propensities which one hands over with a shudder to the specialists in mental disease.

I see us free, therefore, to return to some of the most sure and certain principles of religion and traditional virtue – that avarice is a vice, that the exaction of usury is a misdemeanor, and the love of money is detestable.

But the prediction that economic growth would end poverty hasn’t happened. In fact, even with all the economic growth that’s happened since then, poverty is getting worse. Obviously, the idea that economic growth will end poverty isn’t right.

I had to look up what the word “avarice” means, and basically it means “greed.” I also had to look up what “usury” means. It means to charge interest on loaning money. It’s a religious word and at one time all religions were against it as unethical.

Even though the quote was interesting, it didn’t answer the question about how money can grow. So I had to go back even farther. The ideas of John Maynard Keynes were influenced by another guy – John Law.

What a weird person! According to one book, in addition to being a banker and an economist he was “a gambler, swindler, rake and adventurer forced to flee the British Isles after killing an opponent in a duel.” This kind of person helped invent our economic system?

I found something in a book about John Law that seemed important: “Law made clear the distinction between a passive treasury, where money just accumulated, and an active bank, where money was created.”

Banks create money? That was news to me! I thought they just kept money and loaned some of it out.

The answer has to do with the “fractional reserve system” which started in the 1700s. It used to be that money was sort of a “receipt” for gold. The receipt was called a “banknote,” which was printed by the bank. But then some bankers figured out they could print more “receipts” than the gold they had, therefore they only had a “fraction” of the gold compared to the “receipts” (actual money).

That explains how it came to be that banks could create money, but it didn’t explain how money could “grow” – since banks were only allowed to print a certain percentage extra.

Then, some bankers figured out a way to become even more wealthy with this “extra money” they could print themselves. What they did is to give out the money in the form of a loan. Since they charged interest on the loan, they would get back more than they gave out. This next part is where the addiction starts.

Let’s say you get a loan for $100, but because of the interest you pay back $110. Here’s an interesting question: Where did that extra $10 come from?

It didn’t come from you, since you can’t create money. Only banks can – by making loans. So the extra money could only come from one place: More loans! If you trace money to where money comes from, it almost always comes from a loan.

People can get personal loans, but what’s more important for the economy is business loans – loans to start or expand a business. Of course all the loans have interest, which means paying back more money. But we’ve already figured out that money is “created” by banks issuing loans. So to pay off past loans, somewhere else in the economy there has to be new loans which create more money. But then THOSE loans have to be paid off with money, which means MORE loans.

It always comes back to the banks making more loans to pay off the existing loans. This has been going on for hundreds of years, which is how the economy “grows.”

Economic growth needs more money, but more money needs more economic growth, which needs more money. And it doesn’t stop. It can’t stop.

That’s not only how the economy grows, but why it HAS to grow. We can never get to a point where growth is “enough.”

This is why we’re addicted to economic growth. We’re not creating money; we’re creating debt!Like with any addiction, we keep doing it even when it’s not working any more. This is why even when it’s obvious that economic growth isn’t solving unemployment or ending poverty or doing any of the other stuff it says it can do, we keep trying it anyway. It’s why even though we have more money than ever before in history, we still need more.

The funny thing is that the solution is super-easy. All we have to do is stop the banks from creating money as debt.

You know what’s really interesting? I discovered that our greatest president Abraham Lincoln figured this out and tried to stop it. Lincoln tried to fix the problem by having the government print a kind of money called “greenbacks”—$450 million of interest-free money. But the banks did NOT like this because they wanted to create all the money themselves! So they bought up all the “greenbacks” and forced the government to buy them back in exchange for gold.

Lincoln had the right idea, but he didn’t go far enough. We have to eliminate interest on ALL money. The answer is actually super-easy.

To end the addiction to economic growth and save the earth, this is what we need to do: End the creation of money as interest-bearing loans. Put an end to fractional reserve banking and make it so banks can’t create money. Then give the U.S. Treasury the exclusive right to issue U.S. currency free of debt.

Of course, the big banks won’t like this, because they make money from keeping us addicted. But as I learned in school, we live in a democracy which means companies aren’t the boss of us; we’re the boss of them. Yay for democracy!

Let’s stop the addiction before the economy collapses and destroys the earth, which is very beautiful. In fact, it’s my favorite planet!