Archive for June, 2014

Post-collapse professional credentials


[Guest post by Peter.]

At first sight you may think that this is a nonsensical topic. Is anyone really going to care about your professional credentials post-collapse? Unfortunately the answer may be “yes.” In order to illustrate the problems you may face, I am going to present you with a hypothetical scenario of a physician providing general medical services in an ongoing-collapse or post-collapse environment. The general principles are also applicable to other professions such as nursing, dentistry and pharmacy, civil engineering, etc.

Imagine that you are the sole physician in a large village or small town providing medical services to a few hundred people. You are going through a “slow collapse” scenario where there is no dramatic crash, but services are slowly deteriorating. The electricity supply is intermittent and the telephones, television, internet and banking ceased to function a while ago. The postal service is slow and unreliable but you can still tune in some radio stations. These tell you that there is fighting and civil disorder in some parts of the country, but your area has been relatively spared and remains peaceful.

You provide basic medical services to the community, doing the best you can with what you have. These include minor surgery, suturing wounds, setting broken bones, delivering babies, using herbal medicine and comforting the dying. You also provide the community with public health advice on clean water, sewage disposal and limiting the spread of infectious diseases. There is little paper money in circulation and you are mostly paid in kind with food, favors and maybe a little gold and silver. There are few supplies coming in from outside the area, and consequently consumable/disposable items like latex gloves, paper towels, plastic syringes and plastic speculum tips are in short supply. Because of the lack of writing paper, you make brief, if any, medical notes, and store most of the information in your head. You sterilize and re-use most of your surgical equipment. You haven’t been approached for annual subscriptions by your medical licensing board or malpractice insurers for a couple of years, so you have let those lapse, considering them no longer important. Nobody has the time, the money or the inclination to hire lawyers any more anyway. The community understands the limitations on what is available and is grateful for your services.

One day you receive an unexpected visit from representatives of the state medical licensing board. The board’s head office is in the state capital some 200 miles away. The representatives are touring the outlying areas ensuring that standards of medical services are being maintained even in these difficult times. They ask to inspect your premises and your charts, and you comply. At the end of their inspection they state that they are dissatisfied with many aspects of your care. You have not paid your malpractice or licensing board subscriptions. You are not using sterile disposable items. You are not keeping adequate records. You are setting fractures without taking x-rays. You are growing opium poppies and preparing opium for medical purposes but you do not have a license to do this.

The representatives of the board inform you that you have 14 days in which to remedy all of these deficiencies, failing which your medical license will be revoked and you will be required to close your practice.

What should you do? Here is a suggested 9-point plan.

1. DON’T PANIC. Similar scenarios have probably been played out many thousands of times during this and other collapses. There are multiple ways out of this dilemma. What you are observing here is the struggle between the dying old order and the emerging new order. Slow collapses are messy and confusing because people are unsure of who is in charge, what rules apply and what their roles should be. The old order is like a fatally wounded dinosaur: doomed, increasingly irrelevant, but still dangerous until it is completely dead.

2. Maintain the four C’s: stay cool, calm, collected and courteous. There is nothing to be gained by appearing angry, rude or flustered. Be cooperative. These people are here to do business with you and, like it or not, you will have to do business with them. Tell the board representatives that of course you understand their concerns, and any misunderstandings or defects in performance will soon be rectified. Offer them your hospitality. Smile a lot. (People rarely hit a man who is smiling: they might cut their knuckles on his teeth.) Tell them you need a little time to sort things out and to wait while you go and speak to some people.

3. Comply with their requests if it is possible to do so. In normal times the medical licensing boards do a reasonably good job of maintaining medical standards and protecting the public, and they deserve the cooperation of practitioners. However, these are not normal times, and in the scenario I have outlined, it is not possible to comply with the requests because there is neither the money nor the materials to do so.

4. Try to establish the facts. In times of slow collapse and increasing lawlessness, things (and people) may not always be what they seem. Your visitors may indeed be representatives of the medical licensing board, as they claim, and the board may just be out of touch with reality. Or they may be former employees of the board who have discovered a lucrative sideline in extracting money from physicians. Or they may be con artists with no connection to the board at all. Your response may have to be tailored depending on the reality of the situation. But you can’t rely on the facts being what your visitors say they are: try to verify them from third party sources (see Step 5, below).

5. Recognize that this is a situation you cannot handle on your own. You need the support of the community, both for information about the situation and, if necessary, for bodies on the ground. It helps if you already have the support of the community before trouble occurs; in other words, if you have been providing a good service to the community, and they are grateful for it and don’t want to see you go. If this is the case, then go and see whoever is in charge (village elders, mayor, chief of police, sheriff, chair of town council), explain the situation and see if they have any information which could shed light on it (see Step 4, above). Does anyone know these people? Are they who they say they are? Have they visited other physicians or communities in the area and what was the result?

6. If the visitors are genuinely from the medical licensing board, try to make a realistic assessment of what powers of enforcement they have. In normal times, if a physician continues to practice after his license is revoked, this becomes a criminal offence and enforcement is handed over to the police and the criminal justice system. However, if the police and the justice system are locally based and not willing to carry out enforcement, or absent altogether, the board has no power to enforce its orders. Explain the situation to the local sheriff or police chief if you haven’t already done so, and see what his view is. He may be quite happy to throw the visitors in the local jail, under a charge such as the all-purpose “Vagrancy with intent to commit a felony,” and release them once they come up with the requisite paperwork to certify your practice as fully compliant with their demands.

7. If collapse is quite far advanced in your area, the ultimate person in charge may be local representative of an organized crime syndicate, who has extensive (although informal) powers of persuasion, enforcement and protection. Let’s call him Mr. Big for short. His people may already have approached you and persuaded you to purchase an insurance policy of sorts; if not, it may be time to inquire about their services, because it may soon be the time to make a claim on that policy. If you feel squeamish about this, you need to overcome that squeamishness; these are different times and you need to adapt to the new ways of doing business, or perish. Go and see Mr. Big and explain the situation. He will probably be eager to help because, as a matter of principle, he can\’t allow outsiders coming onto his turf to interfere with his clients. Also, he won’t want to lose a paying customer, and he won’t want to lose a physician who is a useful resource to him and his men. Lastly, his men need something to do, to keep them in practice. However, having informed him of the situation, do not make any specific suggestions or requests. Instead, tell him that you still hope that the matter can be settled amicably. If he laughs in your face, don\’t argue.

8. Now report back to your visitors. The exact conversation you have with them will depend on the information you have been able to gather and the resources available to you, but it will probably be something like this. Tell them that although you would like very much to comply with their requests, unfortunately the lack of money and materials makes it very difficult to do so, and request their patience and understanding. Tell them that, even more unfortunately, their visit has come to the attention of some very influential locals, who are not happy about the situation. Tell them that you will do everything you can to ensure their safety, provided they leave, but if they choose to return, then all bets are off. Say that you would be very grateful if they would give you a good inspection report and recommend to the board that your license be renewed. Make it look like a win-win situation all round. Keep smiling (see Step 2, above).

9. Ideally, this business should be concluded with Step 8. There should be no need for any physical unpleasantness, which should be kept as an absolute last resort. However, if all else fails you may have to return to Mr. Big, explain that despite your best efforts, the business could not be concluded peaceably, and call in your insurance policy. It is then up to Mr. Big, as a matter of principle, to find and negotiate an equitable settlement with your visitors\’ “insurer,” provided they happen to have one. And, in case they do not, be sure say a prayer for them.

Although the discussion above used a medical practice as an example, the exact same principles apply in most other professional activities that currently require licenses, certificates, liability insurance and memberships in professional associations.

Answers to Tough Questions


Over the past two weeks I have been reaching out to my readers in an effort to come up with some answers to four very difficult questions that have come out of the third annual Age of Limits Conference. Some of the answers that have rolled in, via blog comments and emails, are very good—much better than anything I could have come up with. All I had to do was select the best of the bunch and edit them for clarity. I omitted the names, to help you take them in the right spirit: as anonymous gifts from disembodied voices on the internet. That\’s probably the best that a transitory virtual community, linked together by a predominantly coal-fired energy technology that powers some unbelievably resource-intensive microchips, should ever hope to achieve.

First, here are some meta-level observations that are worthwhile:

“Thank you for leading this conversation. I am sure we all feel the same emptiness that comes with the certainty of what\’s happening. I live with a quiet sense of sadness even as I fight to at least try to be ready. In truth there is probably no such thing as ‘ready.’ Humans are, like all creatures, expedient actors: we choose and decide based on conditions as they appear at the present moment, and we project our present experience into the future. Disrupting that projection is what we are doing when we try to teach others about collapse: very difficult! The real, soul-searching question is, What can I do and how do I live with myself when I have to abandon others who have no hope of adapting? Ultimately, we will all find ourselves in situations where we will be forced do things that will shame us in order to survive.”

“Your four questions remind me of Zen koans, existential questions that help bring about a change in outlook and behavior if the person questioned pursues the answers diligently. Just like koans, your four questions are existential questions and, as such, they need existential answers. Intellectual answers are of no use.”

And here are the answers:

1. How can we communicate the reality of collapse to family and friends in ways that are constructive rather than destructive and find helpful ways to reflect our “endarkenment” in our everyday behavior?

“In many cases I don’t think it’s possible to communicate the reality of collapse to family and friends, because some people are simply unable to shake themselves loose from the dominant paradigm of endless growth, and will go to their graves believing that a return to growth is just around the corner, regardless of all evidence to the contrary. There are many intelligent, educated people—chairmen of central banks and professors of economics—who believe in infinite growth, even though it is mathematically impossible, and they are educated in math. Given this level of denial, how can I even start to communicate collapse to my wife if she believes in infinite growth, while neither of us are professors of economics?”

“If friends and family have a vested interest in the status quo, they will stay with it. It doesn\’t matter if it\’s crumbling or increasingly insecure. It\’s a bit like the scenario depicted in E.M. Forster\’s old story ‘The Machine Stops.’ Inertia and reluctance to make abrupt changes is a major factor—not only for others but for oneself. And exactly what alternative is on offer? Jettison one\’s attachment to the current status quo—for what exactly? What is one to do if one has a job and needs it to put food on the table? The consequence is that as the ship goes down, the passengers remain willfully oblivious, and even the few who do know what\’s going on are confused about what is to be done.”

“If you can\’t fix this problem then you are on your own—and lost. It took each of us a lifetime to build our closest family relationships and we are not going to be able to walk out on them and start afresh. It also took us a long time to get to our individual understandings of where we are in terms of collapse, and there is no shortcut—so the answer is patience, mutual tolerance, and facilitating the learning process in one\’s nearest circle.”

“I\’ve warned everyone I know about imminent collapse. Now I no longer have any friends. But seriously, I approach it from a different angle altogether, where preparing for collapse becomes logical from the standpoint of offering a less threatening reality. For example, start by discussing medicinal plants as a way of resolving health issues. Then extend that discussion to freedom from expensive doctors and costly pharmaceuticals. Then project it further to the joys of developing the personal security and independence from large bureaucratic systems, Before you know it, you can talk about collapse without ever dropping the ‘C’ word.”

“The trick is to have a consistent message and to not overstate the situation. Anyone who remembers your position from a few years ago, and can see that your story for how the world works is more consistent with reality than the mainstream story, is going to become your ally. Trying to convince people quickly is counterproductive.”

“When people are confronted with a shock—such as a drastic lack of fuel—they become like stunned mullets. That is an opportune time to make a constructive intervention, and to warm them up to the choices this moment provides. Timing is important because they soon stop flapping around like mullets and start looking around for the nearest bag to put over their heads to shut out the nastiness and relieve the pain. The truth is a secret to those who do not seek it. Knowing the truth about the state of the world equips us to make interventions with individuals and groups when they may be open to making the right choices.”

“I find it essential to avoid trying to convince people of my conclusions, judgments and solutions, because this inevitably creates a sense of threat. I find that most of us have our very sense of survival tied up in the positions we\’ve identified with: our conclusions about reality, about what\’s true and false, right and wrong, and what we should or shouldn\’t do. When someone\’s position is threatened, they naturally become defensive: the reptilian brain kicks in and limits access to our reasoning abilities. There is an emotional factor which limits what we are willing to face—because fully facing something requires not just thought, but feeling too. What I find important is to create a safe space for a conversation, where the other person can face what might otherwise seem too threatening. There is an art to this. Part of it involves noticing how, where and to what extent you are judging the other person, their beliefs, their way of life, etc., and realigning with what and who you stand for, rather than with own judgment and position. When done well, there is a response from the heart, and the walls come down: you are open, and the other person feels you to be offering an inviting, welcoming and safe space. Part of it includes avoiding the use of what I call positional speaking: speaking in terms of conclusions, problems, solutions, and judgements of other people. Part of it includes being ready and willing to feel your own pain and discomfort, in that moment, with that person. The extent to which you are closed to feeling is the extent to which the other person will not feel it safe enough to let their guard down. Part of it includes listening and speaking in a way that generates a sense of reverence and care for the other person, listening not for how their position is opposed to yours, but for what underlies their position: the challenges, feelings and pain they are facing, and the people and values for which they stand. In this way, they learn to see you as their ally in a common quest, not their adversary. All of this is not so much an intellectual challenge as an emotional one. We are bred to be tough and can discuss arbitrarily disturbing ideas without feeling the impact of these ideas on us. Positional thinking is a great way to build walls to protect ourselves, and those we talk to, from facing what we\’re about to face. We can judge them for not opening themselves up to hear, but so long as we are using a language that expresses opposition, we can\’t blame them for remaining aloof, indifferent and detached, because we are giving them good reason to experience us as a threat, even if unconsciously. First priority, I\’d say, is choosing to be ‘the one’ for your people, come what may. Sooner or later your people will feel that you are fully ‘for them,’ and from that point on sharing difficult information will become less difficult.”

2. How can we form personal relationships with people that can survive the disappearance of official life support systems based on finance, commerce and centralized authority?

“It is like any group situation, be it who you work with or your neighbors. You don\’t get to choose the people you are going to be washed up with, and there are bound to be a few awkward characters among them. Most people will moan and whinge about them, and hope that they get fired or move house, but generally you have no influence over this and you are stuck with them. The best policy is to accept that they are there to stay and that you cannot change them. You can only change how you react to them. They will respond to how you react, so if you continue to show respect and listen to their views, however negative they may be, they are more likely to feel secure and become less of a problem. If they sense a negative vibe, then, chances are, the situation will deteriorate.”

“Collapse won\’t wait for anyone\’s personal change, so we\’re all going to be renovating the people we\’re living with, and there will be a lot more disassembling and reassembling than starting from scratch. You may not survive, but some other spirit that inhabits your body just might, and being willing and able to discard your old self-image will be crucial. Once I started letting old opinions go, then, much to my surprise, old bad habits fell away as well. I once thought that this was impossible, that humans couldn\’t change sufficiently; now I know that it is possible, but see that it is unthinkable for most.”

“It helps to start living as if you believe that collapse is inevitable; that is, preaching by example rather than by word. Specifically, it is important for other people to see that you can be happy without all the trappings of wealth and prosperity that we have come to expect. Once you start living a post-collapse lifestyle, others that are aware of collapse will recognize that you are one of them and will engage with you. People who are attached to growth and prosperity will avoid you like they avoid panhandlers. That is, they will pretend that you do not exist. If the rest of your family is firmly mired in the status quo, you may have a hard time living a post-collapse lifestyle right now. If you care for them and their well-being, then there is not much you can do other than be kind to them, knowing that they might form the core of your post-collapse community.”

“We need to be focusing on those relationships that are not dependent on the official life support systems. A relationship that is based on occupying a shared physical space is more likely to persist. The shared space must be physical. If it is conceptual—such as relationships with those who share a belief system with you—then there must also be a physical element to it. I will never meet most of you who are reading this, although we do occupy a shared conceptual space on this blog, and so there is no basis for this relationship to persist if electronic communication becomes unavailable (the internet being an example of an official life support system).”

“It looks like we are on a journey back toward a wild state, and away from pyramid-shaped social hierarchies. We have to form transitional communities, because the bands that thrive in the wilderness are family-based, while most of us can\’t take our blood relations with us because they don\’t want to come with us. So we have to form our bands with whoever we end up with, and later form families—if we survive. Right now, the rigid social forms are shaking so much they are turning to liquid. If you notice, nation-states seem to be on their way out.”

“Building healthy, useful relationships with people is something that happens spontaneously when you back away from corporate and institutional life. You then get a chance to meet other refugees from the system. Don\’t expect to meet fellow collapsniks in the boardroom or at faculty meetings. It is also necessary to let go of some very unhelpful notions of status, knowledge and intellectual superiority, which very much get in the way of friendships of the more useful kind. I see this all the time, often amongst those who imagine themselves as members of the elect.”

“One of my degrees is in sociology, and I\’ve always had a deep interest in and appreciation for groups like the Amish, Hutterites, Mennonites and various religious orders including the Buddhist traditions. The various groups, structures and numbers make enlightening, required reading and discussion. These groups are often rather closed. Little tolerance is given for wandering in and out. The Mormons are a classic structure with their Wards: you go where you are assigned, based on where you live, not wherever you please. The best chance for survival would be in groups of 50-100 persons of all ages who share a common bond. Spiritual practice is strongest in such groups. Very often they have very healthy practices: no smoking or drinking, a vegetarian diet and so on. Do study the group structures of these groups!”

“Growing your own food has a brilliant side effect: if you grow too much of something (inevitable if you are doing it right) then you can parcel it off to neighbors. It\’s a great ice breaker, and a way to quickly distinguish those who are worth the bother from those you might want to avoid.”

“People will need to make a big shift from: individual responsibility to collective responsibility; individual accountability to collective accountability; individual ownership to collective ownership; rights of the individual to rights of the group; survival of the individual to survival of the group. I have observed over the years that my educated friends are stuck in a world full of individuals and don\’t have a clue on how to embrace the collective ways and values of successful ethnic communities.”

“There are so many good reasons to make the necessary preparations: improving health, getting out of debt, living frugally, building community, becoming better prepared for power outages and price spikes in food and fuel. A culture of resilience can be built without ever uttering the word ‘collapse,’ by paying attention to the people around you and doing little things to strengthen connections and build up goodwill.”

3. How can we transform our physical selves into ones that will stand a chance, by eliminating lifestyle diseases, bad habits, luxuries and comforts, and by finding maximally independent and resilient ways to provide the necessities?

“Leave the US! Because of the very high-energy intensive lifestyle baked into the car-centric living arrangement there, collapse will be sudden, devastating and violent. The government is already mobilizing the military to contain the riots and chaos they now see coming. Go south—to Mexico, Columbia, Bolivia or Vietnam, where the living is cheaper, easier and much more family- and community-centric. You may think this is hard to do. It is not. I did it.”

“To the extent that I\’ve been able to rid myself of industrial capitalism, I\’ve tried to avoid profligate use of oil. For things that aren\’t clear-cut, my criteria usually are that if ‘they’—the pure profit-seekers—show any interest in something, I\’d best avoid it. The pure profit-seekers seem to love cars. They hate buses, they really hate trains, and streetcars make them apoplectic. As a general rule, the lower-powered something is, the less they like it. But I find that I like lower-powered more and more as time goes on.”

“Personal action to promote the personal changes is available to everyone. Get rid of the TV, stop consuming news, start growing your own food, or go foraging for it. Take steps to disconnect yourself from the system. Cultivate invisibility, flexibility. Be open to trying new things: try living in a tent or on a boat for a few days; spend a day—or more—without using fossil fuels or electricity. Doing this in little bits makes it possible to do more and more.”

“Our culture has been built on patterns of addiction. Freeing yourself from them is a long journey, and the first step has to be personal, and start with a realization: ‘This isn\’t working for me!’ Without it, all this talk will fall on deaf ears. Someone may agree about the limits to growth, for example, but cannot detach themselves from their patterns of addiction. As long as there\’s a feeling of ‘This works for me!’ there\’s no motive to change.”

“I found the ritual of buying junk food, opening it, looking at it, smelling it, and then throwing it away to be very helpful: the commercially programmed sequence of anticipation/instant gratification is destroyed, and you end up grateful that you didn\’t eat the rubbish. It makes you focus on the money you just wasted as well. I wonder if a neo-Luddite movement that features ritualized disposal of the trappings of modern life could take off and give people a starting point.”

“This is the state we are in: adjusting our habits. Unfortunately, to the extent that this is within the current menu of shopping choices, it can be difficult to maintain motivation. Opting out is the right and ultimate choice we must make. But we will still need some money, because the rent seekers will throw you out if they find that your opting out interferes with their ability to collect rent.”

4. How can we make use of ritual and spiritual practice to transform a group of individuals into a community?

“Some people have a knack for ritual and are good at initiating it. It may be as simple as sharing a meal, building a fire or saying out loud what everyone is feeling. Some people are also intuitives: they have a certain knack for deciding in which direction to turn. Invariably, any group will discover who these people are and will turn to them when decisions need to be made. They are the shamans, the people who feel a connection to the spirit world. Then there are musicians and artists and story tellers, people who in our industrial society are marginal but who in a post-collapse society are important weavers of community.”

“You can\’t create a community; it evolves. Shared rituals that give a spiritual dimension to life are important elements of abiding communities, but they needs to start in very simple ways. Once a day we come together to eat; once a week we come together to sing. The meaning of these repeated acts evolves over time. You can\’t start off by saying ‘We are doing this as a shared spiritual ritual!’ You have to start by saying ‘We are doing this because we need to eat,’ or ‘We like singing together,’ and allow the rituals to develop.”

“Religion and belief are what holds people together. Get back to that! This means going back on your modernism, but maybe this is the price of survival. If modernism implies amorality—and then your family falls apart—then what are you left with? No family—no community. Looking at China, perhaps you don\’t even need a god; perhaps traditional ancestor worship, Buddhist and Confucian values, respect for authority and parents, are enough. I think that a resurgent traditionalism will stabilize cultures, as we get back to working with our hands and relying on ourselves—not on systems or machines.”

“This will sound flip, but I don\’t mean it that way. I joined the Mormons. All four questions are being realistically addressed by them. This became my choice after years of study and prayer. There may be other answers for other people, but this one works—if you are willing to make the commitment. I realize that this answer will not be popular, but if serious and sustained change is needed, any answer is going to require commitment, and you will need a way to find others who share the ability to commit.”

“Cultural change is one of the big missing pieces in this evolution that we are trying to spark in ourselves. History is full of reasons to despair that humanity will veer from the destructive course it is on, but history also can teach us how to alter this course in small ways that can add up to a massive shift.”

“The absolute magnificence and incomprehensible mystery of the very fact of existence, and the very fact of this sentience that is peering out of these eyes right now, thrills me and sustains me. I am still hopeful in the face of all of this; not sure why, given that I know what is coming.”

“Celebrate the seasons, the harvests, the migrations of birds. Treat nature, life, knowledge and wisdom with reverence.”

American Foreign Policy Fiascos

Jon Shireman

The US has been quite busy this century trying to undo itself as a world power. This was slow going in the beginning—after all, mighty empires don\’t tend to fail overnight—but after a decade of assiduous effort the pace has started picking up speed. Like most collapses, the fiascos the US has been creating proceed slowly at first, then all at once.

Take the 2008 “war” in former Soviet Georgia. The Pentagon spent years trying to form Georgia into an anti-Russian, US-dominated puppet. Then, during the Olympic games in Beijing, the US-educatated president of Georgia decided to please his masters by initiating artillery bombardment of civilians in a disputed enclave in Georgia inhabited by Russian citizens. In response, the Russians rolled into Georgia, mopped it up, annexed the disputed territory (plus another one) and left. Western media dutifully whitewashed Georgian war crimes and did their best to paint Russia as the aggressor. But his masters were not pleased, and its US-educated president was left to twist in the wind as a political corpse.

A similar fiasco started unfolding in Ukraine in the spring of 2014. You see, the US foreign policy and military establishments are quite compulsive in their unceasing efforts to undermine Russia. The 1%ers who own the US government also have a personal vendetta gainst Putin. They can\’t forgive him for what he did to Russia\’s oligarchs who did so much to undermine Russia under Yeltsin: he de-fanged and de-clawed them, banning them from politics and depriving them of political influence. During the Winter Olympics in Sochi, the democratically elected president of Ukraine was overthrown in a coup supported by a false flag operation in which mercenary snipers killed scores of civilians and policemen. In his place the US installed a hand-picked junta that included some neo-Nazi elements. This fiasco is still unfolding; I will return to it in a moment.

Another fiasco that is still brewing is the return to power of the Taliban in Afghanistan. This is likely to be the end result of the longest US military campaign ever, which cost two trillion dollars, and resulted in a few thousand dead and tens of thousands wounded. The US blundered into Afghanistan looking for Osama bin Laden, who, it later turned out, was quietly living next to an army base in Pakistan. Oops, wrong country! Speaking of Pakistan, as a bonus point, the US has managed to destabilize this nuclear-armed nation, as the recent attack on the airport in Karachi has shown. Two fiascos for the price of one!

The foreign policy fiascos in Ukraine and Afghanistan are not quite at the “all at once” stage. But last week we were treated to a rare spectacle: two trillion dollars of US investment in the Iraqi nation-building experiment, including four thousand dead and fifty thousand wounded US soldiers went up in smoke. A group called ISIS, which is far too radical for Al Qaeda, has emerged out of Syria and has swiftly slaughtered its way across northern Iraq and is now knocking on the gates of Baghdad. In response, members of the US-trained, US-equipped Iraqi police and military have been taking off their uniforms, abandoning their weapons and fleeing. Internally displaced persons in northern Iraq now number in the millions. The fiasco in Iraq works synergistically with the fiasco in Syria, where a long-running US attempt at regime change has produced a civil war that has allowed ISIS to organize and arm itself. The end result may turn out to be a rabidly anti-American caliphate spanning much of what was formerly known as Syria and Iraq, and a southern Iraq dominated by Iran: success indeed!

In the meantime, the US attempt to stage-manage Ukraine has been going so well that there is pretty much a full Western media blackout on what\’s happening there. This is not the case in Russia: in spite of fully accredited Russian journalists being harassed and kidnapped by pro-government people, Russian media is filled with detailed coverage of Ukrainian neo-Fascist marches, death squads and atrocities. Just last night the Ukrainians shelled a maternity ward, killing a midwife. This makes the Russians very, very angry—not so much at the Ukrainians, mind you, or even the Ukrainian troops, who are, you guessed it, taking off their uniforms and abandoning their weapons every chance they get. No, the Russians are angry at the American puppet-masters behind the mess.

The Russians also seem to understand full well that they are being provoked with the idea of drawing Russia into an armed conflict. Here is a short list of American provocations against Russia (a big thank-you to Saker for putting this together):

  • Recognition of an illegal regime which came to power through violence
  • Supporting a neo-Nazi regime on Russia\’s border
  • Massive anti-Russian propaganda in Western (oligarch-owned) media
  • Kidnapping of fully accredited Russian journalists
  • Whitewashing of massacres of civilians in Odessa and Mariupol
  • Illegal use of prohibited cluster bombs and white phosphorus munitions on civilians
  • Artillery bombardment of entire towns
  • Attack on the Russian embassy in Kiev
  • Blocking of UN Security Council resolution condemning the attack on the Russian embassy in Kiev
  • Car-bombing of public officials in eastern Ukraine
  • (Unsuccessful) attempts at imposing sanctions on Russia
  • Covert importation into Ukraine of planes and helicopters from NATO countries to be deployed against civilians
  • Covert use of several hundred Western mercenaries from Academi (former Blackwater)
  • Massacres of wounded soldiers in hospitals
  • Systematic violations of all agreements reached with the participation of Russia
  • Bombing of churches and hospitals (this has started happening in the last 24 hours)
  • Refusal to provide escape corridors for trapped civilians
These are just some of the things you are unlikely to hear about if you live in the West. What you are likely to hear instead is that Putin invaded Crimea. He didn\’t; the Russian troops were in Crimea the entire time, based on a long-standing international agreement, and Russian troop levels never exceeded agreed-upon levels. You are also likely to hear that Putin forcibly annexed Crimea. He didn\’t; the people of Crimea overwhelmingly voted to annul the Soviet decision to lump them into Ukraine and rejoined Russia of their own free will. But Crimea now part of Russia, peaceful and prosperous, and taking in Russian refugees that are streaming in from across the Ukrainian border, and the new mantra repeated endlessly by Western media is that Ukrainian forces (the good guys) are battling “pro-Russian separatists” (the bad guys) who are causing chaos in the east of the country. First of all, they are not “pro-Russian”—they are Russian, no different from the ones right across the border in Russia. Second, they are not “separatists,”—they want to rejoin Russia, undoing the Soviet-era decision to lump their bit of Russia into Ukraine.

So how are these valiant defenders of Ukraine\’s sovereignty and territorial integrity doing? The pro-Ukrainian separatists are more or less able to hold onto one airport and one hill near Slaviansk and Kramatorsk. They have taken Krasny Liman, and committed a massacre in the hospital there. And they apparently have about a thousand troops surrounded in the Lugansk airport. They sent an IL-76 (world\’s largest transport plane) to rescue and resupply them, but it got shot down. This is not for lack of trying. The Ukrainians started their Nazi-inspired reign of terror with baseball bats, then moved on to knives, then guns, assault rifles, machine guns, mortars, artillery, multiple rocket launchers, attack helicopters, attack aircraft, cluster munitions, and now even white phosphorus.

Meanwhile, hundreds of Ukrainian soldiers have defected to the other side—with their weapons, including APCs and tanks. A huge number of their conscripts have been killed. Some of their remaining units are surrounded, and there are all the signs of a desperate attempt to break through to them, even though some of them have already switched sides.

As for the Russian self-defense forces, they seem to be doing better and better. They have a good air-defense network up and running, and may soon be in a position to impose a no-fly zone. They are quite well-armed, mostly with trophy weapons taken from the Ukrainians. The initial trickle of volunteers is now a steady stream, and includes plenty of volunteers streaming in across the porous Russian border (remember, these are Russians, on both sides of it). They also have some new, fancy toys that definitely came from Russia, such as electronic warfare and advanced air defense systems. And with all of that they are starting to engage in offensive operations against the Ukrainian military.

So much for Ukraine as a success story. But never mind Ukraine, because this is all run from Washington, and Washington doesn\’t care about Ukraine—it only cares about creating problems for Russia. So far, there really isn\’t much success to report here as well. The sanctions prompted Russians to sell off their dollar holdings and repatriate their money from US banks. The effort to free the Russian economy from the dollar system has picked up speed, and Gazprom has announced that it will no longer be selling its natural gas for dollars. The Russian stock market has done much better since the sanctions were imposed. Putin\’s approval rating is over 80% (while Obama\’s is at a record low). The obvious double standards and dirty dealing by the EU and the US has turned the Russian population away from Europe and toward the east, putting the Eurasian integration project into high gear. (What does that mean for the US? Well, the US isn\’t in Eurasia, now, is it? It has plenty of military bases in Eurasia, but if you want to know how useful they are, see above.) So far, the effort to use Ukraine to create problems for Russia has backfired grandly: Russia cherry-picked the best bit of (former) Ukraine—Crimea—and now has the political impetus to free itself of US and Western influence. The need to resettle Russian refugees streaming in from Ukraine gives Russian officials something to do. Yes, the news of Ukrainian atrocities and death squads tends to radicalize the Russian population, and the government has to appear to be doing something about the problem, but then the news of Russian volunteers organizing and scoring victories makes this less of a problem.

And so, time is definitely on Russia\’s side. The Russian military doesn\’t need to respond to American provocations by invading Ukraine: the volunteer self-defense forces are taking care of themselves quite well. In the meantime, Ukraine remains a bankrupt, disintegrating non-state. Russia used to outsource quite a bit of industrial production to eastern Ukraine, but not any more, while the west of Ukraine (the part where some people actually speak Ukrainian) is mainly agricultural, and with all of the disruptions of recent months this year\’s grain harvest promises to be a disaster.

Add to this the imbroglio over natural gas. Europe gets a third of its natural gas from Russia, and half of it flows through Ukraine. Some time ago, Americans came up with a truly delirious plan to take over supplying Europe with natural gas, pushing out Russia. Never mind that building the required liquified natural gas terminals and tankers would have taken years. Never mind that this gas would cost twice as much as Russian gas. The key point is the required gas does not exist. The US is a net natural gas importer, and its conventional gas production is in terminal decline. What previously allowed the US to make outrageous statements about its future gas production was the idea that its shale gas would be sufficiently bountiful to take on Gazprom. But then shale gas reserves in the US got downgraded by 96%. End of story. But in the meantime, US officials have been pushing to make it harder for Russia to supply Europe. Russia has been working diligently on a new pipeline network, called South Stream, which bypasses Ukraine, but American officials forced Bulgaria to halt construction of its segment because the company doing the construction is Russian, and was unilaterally sanctioned by Washington. They have also instructed their Ukrainian puppets to refuse to reach an agreement with Gazprom. Gazprom has asked Ukraine to settle its debt for the gas it has already burned (a not unreasonable request) and to start making payments in advance. It also offered Ukraine the same price for gas paid by other European customers. The Ukrainians refused, and so the spigot was turned off this morning. The gas transiting Ukraine on its way west is still flowing, but at this rate it is a matter of months before the Europeans will have to start sacrificing some of it just to keep the lights on in Kiev. Keep in mind, Ukraine has some Chernobyl-style nuclear reactors that are still operating, and require a functioning electric grid to avoid meltdown if they shut down—which they very well might if there is a war going on.

As we all know, it is difficult to make predictions (especially if they are about the future) but it seems safe to already place Ukraine among the other US foreign policy fiascos. It is at this time still a slow-moving fiasco, but we should expect it to pick up pace. We should also expect it to get bigger: come next winter, if Kiev is dark and much of Europe is shivering in the cold, and Ukrainian nuclear reactors are on the verge of meltdown, the Europeans may start thinking that perhaps Americans are not their friends at all, that NATO membership is a bad idea, and that America\’s sycophants in Brussels should be given the boot along with the EU and the Euro. And this would make the spring of 2015 very interesting.

Village Medicine

[The Four Questions have drawn an incredible number of responses, both as blog comments and as much longer emails. They are still coming in, and will take me some time to process.]

The e-book edition of Communities that Abide includes a chapter by Peter Gray, which didn\’t make it into the paper edition. Peter is a family physician in Canada (as is James, who contributed another chapter on medicine; it is nice that Canadian medics are stepping up to helping people deal with the medical madness that reigns south of the border). He set out to explain “how a village healer in a post-collapse community of a few hundred people, with some basic knowledge and simple tools, might make a positive difference to health, illness and suffering in that community. Peter is not any sort of alternative practitioner: “The tools and techniques described in this essay are only to be used in scenarios where conventional Western medicine is unavailable.” But unlike the vast majority of his colleagues, Peter has spent a great deal of time thinking forward to the time when the tools Western medicine takes for granted are unavailable, and finding out which alternatives are effective, which medical interventions should still be attempted, and which are pointless to try.

The topic of the future of medicine hits a nerve with a great many people. We all know people whose ability to function depends on an uninterrupted flow of “regimen” drugs. Even those who are healthy (in the sense of not having to take anything except air, water, food and a bit of sunshine) still worry about having access to medical care for emergencies, for giving birth, and for palliative care in our final months and days. It is good to know that there can be recourse (with a bit of preparation); it is also good to know what to expect and what not to expect.

Western medicine starts with the promise of eternal life but ends with hospital hallways filled with the dying while the rest of the population avoids them like the plague, for fear of getting sick. Somewhere in between, if the conditions are right, it goes through a phase of financial gluttony: how much should Americans spend on health care (whether they are healthy or not)? 20%? 30%? The sky is the limit. But the end result will be the same.

The alternative does exist. Peter picks up where James left off, responding to questions that my readers have asked me, and that we will all find ourselves trying to answer as we search for alternatives to the “radical cashectomy”—a non-elective surgery with a poor survival rate that is currently on offer at most of our contemporary medical establishments. The areas he addresses are:

  • Keeping healthy
  • Stockpiling medications
  • Insulin-dependent diabetics
  • Immunization
  • Psychological medicine
  • Herbal medicines (legal and illegal)
  • Surgery
  • Making difficult choices
At the outset, Peter debunks the thesis that regular check-ups are somehow useful or necessary: “From my personal observations as a family physician, the patients who show up at my office regularly tend to be the least healthy, while the patients who remain healthy well into their 80s and 90s are seen rarely, if at all, and are usually on minimal or no medication. … The main problem with the ‘doctor knows best’ narrative is that it places the responsibility for staying healthy on the physician rather than the patient. This type of health care is a luxury we can barely afford even in today’s affluent, technologically advanced society, and it will not be available in a post-peak village community. Maintaining your health in the future will probably come down to just this: ‘Look in the mirror. Are you obese? Are you undernourished? Do you smoke? Do you drink to excess? Do you engage in risky behavior?’ People know these things for themselves without needing a physician or expensive tests to tell them.”

Of course, people do get sick, and if certain life-saving drugs have been stockpiled beforehand, then their chances of recovery can be much better. Peter goes into some detail about the Shelf Life Extension Program (SLEP), “a secretive US Government program which was set up to conduct research into whether pharmaceuticals which have passed their expiration date are safe and/or effective to use.” Don\’t ask your government, because the pharmaceutical companies have forbidden it from telling you, but the conclusion is this: “Overall, the available evidence suggests … that most solid pharmaceuticals (capsules and tablets) are safe and effective to use long after their official expiration date provided they have been stored in cool, dark and dry conditions. The same cannot necessarily be said of liquids or of pharmaceuticals which have been stored in sub-optimal conditions. The maximum length of time for which pharmaceuticals can be kept is uncertain, but I understand that some pharmaceuticals which have been kept from the start of the SLEP program in 1986 may still be effective.” Another key point: over time, pharmaceuticals generally do not become dangerous; they just become less effective. Thus, a stockpile of the right drugs in the right form makes it much easier to handle a variety of medical emergencies, while supplies last.

When the supplies start running out, the remaining recourse is to start using herbal medicines. Peter separates them into three groups:

1. Herbal medicines which probably work
2. Herbal medicines which probably don’t work
3. Herbal medicines which definitely work but are illegal to produce without a government license

The “probably work” list is rather long and deserves plenty of study. The “definitely work” list is quite short and, in some ways, more important: you wouldn\’t want to perform most kinds of surgery without having a bit of opium on hand, by which point having a government license to produce it will be rather beside the point, because, you see, government officials sometimes require surgery too.

Speaking of surgery, Peter singles out the single most common surgical procedure village practitioners will be called upon to perform: lower limb amputation: “Diabetes is the most common reason for lower limb amputation today. One third of all foot amputations are performed on diabetics with foot wounds or ulcers. The reason why so many diabetics need amputations is because high circulating blood sugar levels over many years cause damage to the interior of blood vessels, making them them narrower and less efficient at delivering blood and oxygen to where they are needed. As the condition progresses, the flow of blood and oxygen drops below critical levels, at which point the tissue dies. …  If modern pharmaceuticals become unavailable, we will have a large number of untreated diabetics developing complications much faster than they would have previously. The numbers are difficult to estimate, but let\’s say that the number of amputations needed may increase five-fold. Then, instead of looking at just four amputations in a working lifetime, [a village doctor] may now be looking at 20 amputations—one every couple of years. Whatever the exact numbers may turn out to be, there will be a significant number of these procedures needed.” How will you handle these? Peter walks you through the steps. Yeah, the patient might die. But if gangrene is allowed to run its course, the patient will die. It\’s the patient\’s decision.

And this is perhaps the most important point of all: we will all be forced to make life-or-death decisions. Currently, our decisions are a matter of consumer choice—hamburger or cheeseburger? In the future, it will be “Should I allow an untrained person to amputate my gangrenous leg without a general anesthetic, or should I succumb to gangrene? … The era we are entering into has been called “the Age of Limits.” It might as well also be called “the Age of Difficult Choices.” Good luck.

Communities that Abide Kindle Edition


The e-book (Amazon Kindle) edition of the book is now available worldwide, and includes a bonus chapter on Village Medicine by Peter Gray, an allopathic practitioner who has been giving the inevitable future of his profession a lot of thought.

Please order it here.

Interview on Voice America


How Near is the U.S. to a USSR-like Economic Collapse?

You can listen to it here.

The Four Questions

At the end of last week\’s review of Age of Limits 2014, I posed the following four questions, which I think are key to moving beyond merely intellectualizing the predicament we face, and toward making actual meaningful changes to the way we live:

1. How can we communicate the reality of collapse to family and friends in ways that are constructive rather than destructive and find helpful ways to reflect our “endarkenment” in our everyday behavior?

2. How can we form personal relationships with people that can survive the disappearance of official life support systems based on finance, commerce and centralized authority?

3. How can we transform our physical selves into ones that will stand a chance, by eliminating lifestyle diseases, bad habits, luxuries and comforts, and by finding maximally independent and resilient ways to provide the necessities?

4. How can we make use of ritual and spiritual practice to transform a group of individuals into a community?

Over the past week I have collected a number of responses from a number of people. Rachel jumped the gun, sending in comments even before I posted my questions:

The biggest specific suggestion I have for next year is something you mentioned on Monday morning: the need for a session on how to respond and deal with family and friends around us who have a different worldview that does not involve a collapse narrative. I don\’t know a single person who wouldn\’t benefit from this discussion. … I talked to my sister when I got home. She had attended … just [on] Saturday and got a lot out of hearing both you and Dennis Meadows speak. … After coming home, she tried to explain the conference to her husband, who dismissed the conclusions, saying the usual types of things, like “Paul Ehrlich was proved wrong.” My sister didn\’t know how to talk about it. How then can she even start making changes in her own family? … How can one make important changes if one\’s spouse, parent, close friend, or whoever has a different worldview? Maybe in some cases it\’s simply impossible without divorcing from a relationship. But maybe there are strategies.

Ellen wrote:

Your questions just posed need to be answered. … I don\’t know if the human species can or even should survive. What poor stewards of the earth we have been. But if there is to be anything of value salvaged, if we as a species are not to degenerate into mindless barbarism, then we have to create a new paradigm and a new culture. Somehow I would like to save the intellectual capital our species has evolved over the millennia. How to accomplish that is worthy of prolonged and thoughtful debate and discussion.

Pete wrote:

[Collapse] is a very depressing subject for [my family] (not so much for me) and they therefore resist because they cannot “live there”. Well, I don’t live there. I am open to what comes, will do the best I can when it does and have made common sense preparations, in addition to putting some of my savings into precious metals. I am doubtful that we can convince most people of anything. Here in the US especially they live in their own made-up world, having always during their lifetime experienced nothing but relative prosperity.

Liam wrote:

Nobody can be … sold on collapse without first experiencing it in the own lives (illness, tragedy, dissolution, etc.) and then also being curious enough about the larger world to look.

Yossi wrote:

I worked as a psychotherapist and often used the [Kübler-Ross] model with people who had experienced loss. I was able to invest in the model emotionally as well as intellectually because I too had suffered losses. None of the people attending your conference have actually experienced collapse – if they had you would not be attending a conference, using a flush toilet, eating two nice meals a day and commenting about it on the internet. Nobody really knows how they will react to loss until they have suffered it and I think that the same will apply to collapse. I am not saying that it isn\’t useful to think deeply about it and have a considered response ready but when it happens the trauma will be unimaginable and emotions will overwhelm people.

On question 2, Robert wrote:

The current deep drought in California may be a valuable empirical model of how very large numbers of people respond to accelerating depletion of an essential resource. The water supply situation in California is dire. … There is abundant data on the accelerating trend of water resource depletion and the situation will worsen in the coming months. If the drought persists through the coming winter the situation will take a dramatic turn to the realm of disaster. How will the populous behave? How is California government respond? Much handwrining in State government, especially the legislature, but no tangible plan and little action. Folks watering their front lawn at mid-afternoon on hot days.

Kathy wrote:

Thank you … for writing about the Ik and introducing me to the concept of culture death. It gave me a new way to perceive that what has happened to my people was a kinder gentler version of what happened to the Ik, and [that] we are simply a little kinder and gentler than the Ik but otherwise—well the mean-as-a-snake hillbilly is not a myth. … John Michael Greer [once] mentioned in a throw-away line that if you want to understand what culture death looks like, consider Southern Appalachia.

John wrote:

At some point there will be a turning of the collective ship towards the ominous black clouds of the collapse storm. I suspect the world will quickly divide into three groups, the hopeless/helpless/abandoned urban and suburban folk (dead) the pull together/circle the wagons/we can adapt folk (mostly dead, unless lucky in location) and the various flavors of nomads, prepared and unprepared (mostly dead as well, for where is there to go?).

Jerry wrote:

I have personal experience with recently moving to a small (pop 1,200) rural but compact town that is traditionally conservative, and down on its luck economically, but also has a small community of white, middle-aged liberal progressives (for lack of a better term). Those folks are somewhat aware of the problems we face, although it rarely goes beyond the usual litany of white middle class environmental issues such as GMO\’s, factory farms, etc. As such, they have recently started a food co-op that sells VERY expensive and supposedly organic food. A few of them are currently engaged in trying to get a transition movement off the ground, but whenever I try to raise the issue of global ecological overshoot and collapse with them I am literally told to shut up for being too “negative.” Right to my face. There are one or two white, middle aged, right wing preppers in town, living in luxury RV\’s and stockpiling guns, ammo, rice, and beans. I can talk to those folks about collapse, but mention anything remotely like an ecological basis for our predicament and I can expect a wild-eyed, spittle-flecked tirade against the climate change “hoax.” The vast majority of the remaining population are either low-wage working class, or people living in outright poverty. Most are politically conservative and very religious. Drugs and alcohol are big problems. How then can you present the challenges we face in terms that are not political, religious, or environmental, but which somehow still communicates the urgency of the situation? And how can you communicate that urgency in a way that is not perceived as fatalistic or unnecessarily negative? How can you ask people to explore the possibility of radically rethinking their living arrangements without posing a direct threat to their worldview? I am increasingly convinced that the answer lies in one word: Security.

Kevin wrote:

You need a clan. Not a bunch of folks like you or that you like, but a group that accepts each other and will circle the wagons and not bitch too much. We need to practice it on the crowded plane, the local fair, the funerals and weddings, the office, the home. It requires virtually no moving parts, and it is what keeps folks sane when things are crappy. So when the blowhard is yammering on at conference, I have been there, just see it as practice. You have socks! And a chair! And you’re not dead!

Doug wrote:

The greatest conundrum our species faces in this dire time is our tendency toward hierarchy. 10000 years of it may be too much for our species to overcome. I feel anarchy is the only way forward, but honestly can\’t see how we get from here to there.

Liam wrote:

Get into the habit of trading favors, being reliable and nonjudgmental, and the relationships will blossom. Remember we live in a toxic social context, anything less pathological sells itself.

Only Pete ventured to say anything on question 3:

I’d say by knowing what’s what, exercising common sense and doing what’s sensible and prudent while we can. The milieu with which we will be confronted is so complex that any sort of detailed planning is useless. … I would include as sensible getting rid of as much debt as is possible, owning some precious metals and storing some food, water, currency and “tradeables”.

On question 4, Pete again:

I don’t think it can be done. … For myself, I have for decades looked into that realm between religion and science, if you will, with an open mind while accepting no dogmas, and have found, I think, a few answers. But these are just for myself, unburdened by any felt need to seek agreement.

Kathy wrote:

I\’ve thought and thought about this … and I can\’t really justify my stand from a secular point of view. I no longer have the proper secular vocabulary to do so. So anything I said would be meant specifically for a Christian struggling to come to terms [with collapse].

Don wrote:

I would like to make a suggestion relative to rituals. Paul Woodruff, a philosopher at the University of Texas and a former military officer, has written Reverence. As a philosopher, he makes fine discriminations so that we are able to communicate with a minimum or misunderstanding. For exsample, a religious person may be reverent, but a reverent person need not be religious. On page 250, Woodruff identifies music, poetry, and ritual as key languages of reverence. Sacraments and liturgy are not generally useful languages of reverence. Giving a knife blade a sharp edge can be an exercise in reverence, I think. Watching a skilled sharpener we experience the reverence also. My guess is that we need to “re-reverence” as much of our mundane world as possible. As the distractions wind down, we will need to satisfy ourselves with reverence for what we need to do.

I hope that this conversation continues, and actually leads us to something. In the meantime, here are some interim thoughts:

• I am sorry that I didn\’t make it clear from the outset, but failure is not an option. If you can\’t bring your family and friends on board, then by definition they will end up overboard, and, if you don\’t find yourself another group, so will you. If any of us succeed at answering question 1 but fail at 2, 3 or 4, then, again, your chances will be slim to none. Needless to say, commentary along the lines of “We\’re all gonna die!” is less than entirely helpful.

• Existing society, be it urban or rural, will be of minimal use. Practice saying “culture death.” At best it will be a source of recycled material—human, animal, vegetable and mineral. Urban settings are definitely a better place to scavenge/recruit: it\’s a richer environment, there are more people, a greater diversity of experience, and more immigrants (who have experienced something other than an overfed life on autopilot).

• Those who have led a sheltered and comfortable existence never having had a reason to question the assumptions on which their lives have been based will also be of minimal use. Understanding collapse requires going through it, or at least observing it directly. Prosperity, affluence and security have the same effect on character as a windless environment has on trees: even a weak gust of wind can snap them in half.

• Finally, an entirely intellectual approach will likewise be minimally useful. The task is to get people out of their heads and connect them to each other emotionally (feel the right “vibe,” if you will) and to nature physically (by dropping bad habits and developing good ones), all served up with a sense of reverence for nature (human and otherwise) and a healthy sense of awe for all that which we can never hope to understand.

Now, I would like to hear from someone—anyone—who has succeeded, to whatever small extent, and could tell us what it took and what it was like.