Archive for February, 2016

The Technospheratu Hypothesis


[ L\’hypothèse Technosferatu]
[Die Technosphäratu-Hypothese]
[L\’Ipotese Tecnosferatu]

My next book, Shrinking the Technosphere: Getting a grip on the technologies that limit our autonomy, self-sufficiency and freedom, is due out from New Society Publishers this fall. I am about halfway through writing the first draft of the manuscript. Here is an excerpt.

It can sometimes seem that the technosphere thwarts its own purpose. What sense is there in wasting resources on weapons, when there is already enough war materiel to kill all of us several times over? What sense is there in contaminating the environment with long-lived chemical toxins and radioactive radionuclides, producing high rates of cancer in the technosphere\’s human servants? What purpose is there in fostering extreme levels of corruption in government and in banking, or in creating conditions for extreme social inequality? How does it help the technosphere grow stronger and more controlling to provoke international conflicts and split up the world into warring sides? Are these all failings, or are they just little problems that are too small to matter? Or—here\’s a shocking thought—maybe they are all perfectly on strategy as far as the technosphere is concerned.

If we look closely, we will discover that all of these manifestations of the technosphere, although on a superficial level they appear to be problems, are, in fact, helpful to the technosphere in many interrelated ways. They help the technosphere to grow, to become more complex, and to more fully dominate the biosphere. There are far too many of them to trace out all of them, so let\’s just examine a few of the more important ones—the ones I alluded to above.

With regard to cancer, it would seem that minimizing rates of cancer by keeping carcinogenic chemicals and radioactive contamination out of the environment and eliminating microwave and ionizing radiation would be a very good idea. However, this turns out to be suboptimal from the technosphere\’s point of view. First, this would violate one of its prime directives by prioritizing the interests of the biosphere above its own technical concerns. Second, this would limit the need for technical intervention. Cancer treatment is a tour de force for the technosphere, allowing it to use its favorite techniques— chemistry (in the form of chemotheraphy) and physics (in the form of radiation therapy)—to kill living things (cancer cells, that is). Third, it would forgo the opportunity to exercise control over people, and to force them to serve and to obey, lest they find themselves deprived of very expensive, supposedly life-saving cancer therapies. What is optimal for the technosphere, then, is a situation where everybody gets treatable forms of cancer and where nobody can hope to survive without chemo and radiation therapy. The technosphere likes us to be patient with it, and medical patients are patient by definition.

When it comes to fostering extreme levels of corruption in government and banking, this again seems at first counterproductive: wouldn\’t a lawful, efficient financial sector and a transparent, moral government be expected to produce better results? Yes, but results for whom? Moral governance and proper banking regulation would serve the purposes of… humans! That\’s right, it would be bits of the biosphere reaping the benefits again! And so it is far more efficient, from the technosphere\’s perspective, for the major banks to corrupt government officials by funneling money to them through a variety of schemes, and to have these officials then refuse to regulate them or to prosecute them for their crimes. Once all of this corruption is in place, the allegiance of public officials is no longer to the tricky, willful living entities known as “voters” but to abstract tokens of wealth, which are much easier for the technosphere to manipulate to its fullest advantage.

Finally, wouldn\’t world peace, and a benevolent and unified world government, be of much more use to the technosphere than having humanity continually split up into warring sides? Perhaps, but what would that do for enhancing the technosphere\’s ability to murder people? When the great nations have to constantly prepare for war, they are forced to arm themselves, and to arm themselves they have to industrialize—to develop and maintain an independent industrial base. Were it not for the need to keep up with the arms race, some nations might prefer to forgo industrialization and remain agrarian, but because of the threat of war the choice is between industrialization and defeat.

War has other benefits as well. War requires swords which, once war is over, are beaten into ploughshares, which lead to increases in agricultural efficiency, which make peasant labor redundant and drive peasants off the land and into the cities, where they are forced to work in factories driving more industrialization. War offers an easy way for industrialized armies to exterminate or enslave nonindustrial tribes, who would otherwise be setting a bad example of people who are able to live happily outside the technosphere. Lastly, without a powerful war machine, people would be able to self-organize and provide for their own security, making them harder to control, while the existence of powerful military weapons makes it necessary to put security in the hands of tightly controlled, strictly disciplined, technocratic, hierarchical organizations—just the sort the technosphere prefers.

Thus it appears that the technosphere, viewed as an organism, possesses a sort of primitive emergent intelligence. If this claim seems like an outlandish conjecture, then compare it to James Lovelock\’s Gaia hypothesis. According to Lovelock, all of the living organisms that inhabit the Earth\’s biosphere can be viewed as a single super-organism. It is a complex, self-regulating system that interacts with the inorganic elements of the planet in such a way as to make it habitable. Its basic functions include regulation of temperature, atmospheric concentrations of various gases and ocean salinity. This ability of the biosphere to maintain homeostatic equilibrium, and to restore it in case of disruptions in the form of, say, volcanic eruptions and major asteroid impacts, can be viewed as an emergent intelligence that strives for the greatest possible complexity and diversity of the web of life. Although somewhat controversial, and not directly testable, the Gaia hypothesis is taken quite seriously in a number of academic disciplines.

Taken in this context, my hypothesis—let\’s call it the Technospheratu hypothesis—seems rather less outlandish. It is that the technosphere, having risen up on top of and in opposition to Gaia and the biosphere, possesses a certain primitive emergent intelligence that allows it to grow in complexity and power and to dominate the biosphere to an ever-greater extent.

Unlike Gaia, which is an organism unto itself, the technosphere is a parasite upon the biosphere, using living organisms as if they were machines, and striving to replace them with machines as much as possible. This is perfectly obvious in industrial agriculture, which replaces complex ecosystems with machine-like simplicity of chemically fertilized monoculture. The factory farm, in which animals are confined in a sort of mechanized hell, is a perfect example of how the technosphere prefers to treat higher life forms. When it comes to us humans, the best example of technosphere\’s influence is the modern corporation, in which people are incentivized (and in fact required by law) to act as perfect psychopaths, blindly pursuing shareholder profits to the neglect of all human concerns. In politics, the technosphere gives rise to political machines, which treat voters as if they are laboratory animals, conditioning them to press certain voting machine levers in response to certain mass media stimuli.

Also unlike Gaia, which strives to maintain homeostatic equilibrium, this intelligence strives for disequilibrium—for continuous growth, which, on a finite planet with limited stores of nonrenewable natural resources, is an obvious dead end—“dead” as in “extinct.” To compensate, the technosphere dreams (with the help of certain humans who are in thrall to it) of universal conquest: it dreams of breeding a race of self-reproducing, space-faring robots. It dreams of leaving this exhausted, devastated planet behind and of colonizing other worlds—ones with lots more nonrenewable natural resources for it to mindlessly squander and, crucially, whole new biospheres for it to dominate and destroy. This last bit is very important, because the technosphere\’s existence loses all meaning without living things it can force to act like machines. Without a biosphere to destroy, the technosphere becomes just a blind, deaf robot whistling to itself in the dark. Without the miraculous, wondrous goodness that is life, the technosphere cannot even aspire to being evil—only banal. “Widgets in space! Yawn…”

Os cinco estágios do colapso



A Editora Revan lança o livro Os cinco estágios do colapso, do escritor russo Dmitry Orlov. Nesta obra, o autor mostra como a crise profunda que atravessa o capitalismo em escala mundial torna iminente e inevitável um colapso, uma crise sistêmica – econômica, política, social e cultural. Diante da impotência da população no tocante à paralisia política, às crescentes escassezes de recursos e ao rápido aquecimento global, ele propõe que se realize uma radical mudança cultural, a fim de que nos preparemos para o colapso aparentemente inevitável.

Orlov trabalhou em diversas áreas, inclusive pesquisa em física de alta energia, comércio eletrônico e segurança na Internet. Também já escreveu muito sobre o colapso, sendo o primeiro a comparar o fim da antiga União Soviética a um segundo colapso que se delineia, o dos Estados Unidos. Apesar do quadro pessimista, neste livro ele explica que, se os três primeiros estágios do processo (financeiro, comercial e político) forem enfrentados com as transformações pessoais e sociais adequadas, as piores consequências da derrocada social e cultural (seus estágios finais) poderão ser evitadas.

Com uma narrativa ácida, o autor não só descreve os cinco estágios do declínio, como também apresenta algumas soluções para sobreviver a ele, detalhando as características típicas das comunidades altamente resistentes. Para isso, ele utiliza como base um exame aprofundado das sociedades pré e pós-colapso.

Em comentário, o membro do Post Carbon Institute Richard Heinberg, destaca a importância das ferramentas criadas por Orlov na intenção de criar soluções viáveis pós-colapso na escala da família e da comunidade. “Mesmo se pensasse que o colapso é impossível, ainda assim eu leria tudo o que Dmitry Orlov escreve, por ele ser um escritor muito divertido. Infelizmente, contudo, algum tipo de colapso, de um grau ou outro, é quase garantido. Orlov presta um ótimo serviço para todos nós ao destrinchar os tipos e graus de colapso de forma a podermos nos preparar para o que é provável e nos mantermos firmes na rejeição do que não vai sobreviver.”, afirma.

What Are We Smelling?


[Qu’est-ce qui pue comme ça ?]

So far I have mostly tried to ignore the US presidential race. It\’s a distraction from doing things that are either pleasant or useful—of which it is neither. I haven\’t always tried to completely ignore these torrents of nonsense that erupt every four years like a gushing sewer, but, in general, I was never interested in the outcome, because in all but one case I genuinely disliked all of the candidates. Jimmy Carter is the only one whose hand I would shake. I wouldn\’t want to breathe the same air with any of the others—all lizard-brained miscreants who have left a slimy trail through the White House.

As I understand it, the way this system is supposed to work is as follows. There is just one good, solid reason to vote for the Democratic candidate: to keep out the Republicans, who are so much worse than the Democrats. And there is just one good, solid reason to vote for the Republican candidate: to keep out the Democrats, who are so much worse than the Republicans. Now, you may ask yourself, How is it possible for both sides to be worse at the same time? Well, you are right, that\’s not possible. Obviously, they have to take turns at becoming the worst. Whoever happens to be in office adds another turn to the downward spiral.

This seems like a good, solid arrangement—if the goal is to produce the most bloated, corrupt, criminal, warmongering, terrorist-coddling, bankrupt government the Earth has ever known—it is, indeed, all of these things. But it has just one tiny flaw: getting people to vote for you by teaching them to hate the other side is effective, but it\’s purely negative. To introduce a positive, aspirational element, it is necessary to somehow make people feel that it is possible to bring about political change by voting for someone within the Democratic or the Republican party. Of course, this is sheer nonsense, because the only people pulling the strings are the ones who write the checks, and you don\’t get to vote for any of them. But people don\’t want to believe that they are completely powerless, and the same people who fell for it in thinking that they could bring about change by voting for Obama are now falling for it again, thinking that they can bring about change by voting for Bernie. No, you can\’t possibly ever change things by voting for the Democratic/Republican duopoly. Oh, and you can\’t possibly ever change things by voting against it either. Sorry, Jill Stein.

So that\’s how it goes, generally, getting worse and worse each time. But things can\’t just continue to going from bad to worse forever; eventually, something has to give. At some point there must come a phase transition, or an inflection point, or some sort of political collapse scenario. And this year seems somewhat atypical because the quality of the candidates is so poor.

On the Democratic side, we have Hillary the Giant Flying Lizard, but she seems rather impaired by just about everything she has ever done, some of which was so illegal that it will be hard to keep her from being indicted prior to the election. She seems only popular in the sense that, if she were stuffed and mounted and put on display, lots of folks would pay good money to take turns throwing things at her. And then we have Bernie, the pied piper for the “I can\’t believe I can\’t change things by voting” crowd. He seems to be doing a good job of it—as if that mattered.

On the Republican side we have Donald and the Seven Dwarfs. I previously wrote that I consider Donald to be a mannequin worthy of being installed as a figurehead at the to-be-rebranded Trump White House and Casino (it is beneath my dignity to mention any of the Dwarfs by name) but Donald has a problem: he sometime tells the truth. In the most recent debate with the Dwarfs he said that Bush lied in order to justify the invasion of Iraq. Candidates must lie—lie like, you know, like they are running for office. And the problem with telling the truth is that it becomes hard to stop. What bit of truthiness is he going to deliver next? That 9/11 was an inside job? That Osama bin Laden worked for the CIA, and that his death was faked? That the Boston Marathon bombing was staged, and the two Chechen lads were patsies? That the US military is a complete waste of money and cannot win? That the financial and economic collapse of the US is now unavoidable? Even if he can stop himself from letting any more truthiness leak out, the trust has been broken: now that he\’s dropped the T-bomb, how can he be relied upon to lie like he\’s supposed to?

And so we may be treated to quite a spectacle: the Flying Lizard, slouching toward a federal penitentiary, squaring off against the Donald the T-bomber. That would be fun to watch. Or maybe the Lizard will implode on impact with the voting booth and then we\’ll have Bernie vs. the T-bomber. Being a batty old bugger, and not wanting to be outdone, he might drop some T-bombs of his own. That would be fun to watch too.

Not that any of this matters, of course, because the country\’s trajectory is all set. And no matter who gets elected—Bernie or Donald—on their first day at the White House they will be shown a short video which will explain to them what exactly they need to do to avoid being assassinated. But I won\’t be around to see any of that. I\’ve seen enough. This summer I am sailing off: out Port Royal Sound, then across the Gulf Stream and over to the Abacos, then a series of pleasant day-sails down the Bahamas chain with breaks for fishing, snorkeling and partying with other sailors (I know, life is so hard!), then through the Windward Passage, a stop at Port Antonio in Jamaica, and then onward across the Caribbean to an undisclosed location. Please let me know if you want to crew. I guarantee that there will be absolutely no election coverage aboard the boat.



Many thanks to Helder Silva of Lisbon for making these 3D models in Sketchup.

Life on board is much too hard!

Read more…

A positive reconciling force


This is an excerpt from the latest title to be published by Club Orlov Press: 150-Strong: A Pathway to a Different Future by Rob O\’Grady, available as both paperback and Kindle e-book via This is a key passage that does nothing less than define a new modus vivendi that allows us to get past selfish motivations and the blind pursuit of ever more ephemeral profits, and to empower ourselves to build something much more solid that amplifies the energy of personal relationships. And now, without further ado, Rob O\’Grady:

On the most basic level, human fallibility is regulated in two ways. The first is through fear, which motivates us to avoid negative outcomes. The second is through aspiration, which motivates us to achieve positive outcomes. A person may refrain from stealing to avoid prison; another out of respect for others’ property and a belief in the value of harmonious living. One day we may work because we need the money; the next because we want to contribute to something useful and worthwhile. Aspects of both our baser and our better nature are always at work, and both the carrot and the stick are needed in any system for organizing people.

One of the great strengths of the profit motive-driven system is that this carrot-and-stick dynamic is well-defined and robust. But this strength is also a weakness, for it contains a serious flaw: only a limited few can do well in chasing the carrot of profit, while the remainder of the population, along with the environment, get the stick and become collateral damage. Anyone who can’t make a profit is denied access to resources and is subjected to the depravity of war, poverty, bondage and defilement.

I therefore propose an alternative carrot-and-stick mechanism, which is predicated on one important imperative: people must be firmly reconnected with the consequences of their actions. As chance would have it, there is a remarkable transformation happening in our culture at present, which is enabling this exact thing. While many of us are not yet aware of its significance, I believe that it has huge potential.

The new ubiquity of mobile computing coupled with widespread internet access has made us potentially visible to the world in nearly all contexts—even in our bedrooms. We are becoming acutely aware of the dangers inherent in a situation in which privacy is disappearing, and of powerful entities with sinister, self-serving agendas that are able to monitor our every move. But there is also a very positive potential developing, and we should not lose sight of it.

In a world where all of our actions can to be recorded on video at any time, and the resultant video distributed for all to see in perpetuity, a brief descent into the red mist of anger may make us the star in an online viral hit, while a moment of ill-advised conduct may land us on the evening news. The world has become smaller and the channels of communication much broader. The filters of the establishment media and the limitations of the physical published word no longer apply, and almost anywhere we go we can be called to account using electronic evidence that can be distributed for all to see. The actions of a shoplifter may be caught on CCTV and posted to YouTube; a public official taking a bribe may be covertly filmed and shamed on Facebook; mendacious establishment narratives can be swiftly discredited by anyone with a phone, an internet connection and a more enlightened point of view. Thus, the “stick” of public scrutiny is evolving into something imbued with new power and vitality. This is happening naturally, without overt direction—and that is a hallmark of something that is resilient and robust. It may in due course provide an emergent new context for the development of a more moral society.

While views of morality can differ, the Golden Rule—“Do unto others as you would have them do unto you”—is something that almost all of us accept as natural and right. Applying it implies being considerate of others ahead of one’s own narrow interests—while expecting others to reciprocate. It is this very dynamic that I propose as a new reconciling force for our society. It is the ideal of selfless service—an ethic that embodies what must become the aspirational part of a new carrot-and-stick regime to live by. In a world where selfishness seems to reign supreme, this may sound like a utopian dream, but I contend that it is eminently achievable. Despite our current situation, almost all of us are able to relate to idea of a fair deal for others. The creation of the correct social context is all that is required for this reconciling force to become operative.



Interview on Extinction Radio


I discuss collapse, weird old America, why Facebook is like a cross between animal husbandry and data processing, the book 150-Strong which has just been published, my upcoming book Shrinking the Technosphere and all the reasons why Near-Term Human Extinction is something of a faulty intellectual product.


New Release from Club Orlov Press: 150-STRONG


I am very happy to announce that another Club Orlov Press title, on which Rob and I worked for most of a year, is finally available. Its cover doesn\’t lie: this book does provide a pathway to a different future—and, in my estimation, a better one.

It is the happy end of a longish story.

In early 2013 I was invited to speak at the North House Folk School in Grand Marais, Minnesota. It is a school that teaches a wide variety of native and folk arts, from building canoes to baking bread. One of the things that this school does rather well is teach people how to become part of the community that has grown up around the school. This had been happening spontaneously for some time, and it was thought that a conscious effort in this direction would produce even better results. And so, I was invited to address this topic in a seminar.

This was a new topic for me, and so I spent a few weeks at the library researching small communities that have stood the test of time. I looked at a great many of them: religious communities, such as the Anabaptists—the Amish, Mennonites and Hutterites, as well as the Mormons in Utah and the Dukhobors in British Columbia; secular ones, such as the Kibbutzim in Israel; ethnically defined ones such as the Roma (also called Gypsies) and the Pashtun tribesmen of Afghanistan and Pakistan.

My criteria were simple: I looked at small communities that had stood the test of time—a century at least, ideally longer. What I was looking for was not their particulars (although I found them engrossing) but their commonalities. This was as diverse a set as could be imagined, defying any attempt to categorize: religious and secular, liberal and conservative, settled and nomadic, pacifist and warlike, isolationist and cosmopolitan, with different and similar roles for men and women, with and without private property, with and without a formal authority, with and without written law, democratic and authoritarian… and yet in spite of all these differences a consistent picture emerged: all of them exhibited a certain set of common traits.

Amazed by my discoveries, I presented my findings, first at the North House Folk School, and a few weeks later at the “Age of Limits” Conference at the Four Quarters Interfaith Sanctuary in Pennsylvania. While the audience at the school was very receptive and attentive, and used my presentation to jump-start a very serious set of discussions, the audience at the conference rose up in rebellion. You see, none of the communities I described as exemplifying the common set of successful traits was acceptable to every part of the audience: they were either too much of one thing, or too little of something else.

A particular sticking point was the lack of gender equality in almost all of them (the Kibbutzim were the one exception). Their lack of gender equality is not the least bit surprising, given that most of these communities were founded (and became set in their ways) a long time ago—which was the reason I thought they were worth a look. Back then “gender” was strictly a grammatical term, while the ideal of égalité was yet to be proclaimed by the French revolutionaries. Nevertheless, I was loudly criticized for holding up such retrograde communities as examples.

Since I was not interested in specifics and peculiarities, but in generalities and commonalities, I put this criticism down to certain people’s inability to see the forest for the trees, and went on to publish a collection of articles on the topic, titled Communities that Abide. In it I laid out my case, supplemented by a number of articles along similar lines by some quite illustrious contributors. In it, I distilled the set of traits that I thought were responsible for the ability of these communities to abide to “thirteen commandments,” which I playfully cast in the same form as the commandments of Pastafarianism, a.k.a. the Church of the Flying Spaghetti Monster: “You probably shouldn’t…” in place of “Thou shalt not…”

Although Communities that Abide sold out the initial print run and has continued to sell quite well ever since, it has left something to be desired. It’s an interesting little book, but as an organizational tool it has turned out to be quite useless. You see, it’s not just a matter of not seeing the forest for the trees—it’s more a question of there being a forest in place of an open meadow. What’s needed is not a set of recommendations (or commandments, however playfully expressed) but a set of first principles. People want to be able to think things through on their own, and come up with their own recommendations. People don’t want to just apply a recipe, no matter how scrupulously and impartially it was formulated.

And now… the happy ending. Into the breach steps Rob O’Grady. He had read and was inspired by Communities that Abide, as had many others, but what he then did with it was nontrivial and unique. He took the basic message of Communities that Abide, stripped it of every bit of extraneous detail, and then built up the case from the ground up, based on first principles.

He explains the urgency with which society needs to be reorganized should we wish to leave to our children a pleasant and survivable world. He explains why none of the existing large-scale systems of social control—be they capitalist or communist—would work. He lays out the basic requirements that must be fulfilled in order for a community to function well. He explains the basic principle—the reconciling principle—which can resolve conflicts as they arise. This principle cannot be based on selfishness (a.k.a. the profit motive). Also, it cannot be impersonal: it can only operate if we personally know every other person. This limits the maximum size of the community to Dunbar’s Number—around 150 individuals.

Rob manages to do all this without introducing any cultural, religious or ideological specifics. His text is so ecumenical that it is not even specifically Christian—or based on any other religion, other than a spiritual bond with our living planet—the only one we will ever know—that is universally human. His writing appeals not to any culture, class, tribe, group or party, but directly to human nature.

These are weighty matters, but Rob’s book is not a scientific treatise on the problematics of social organization: it is a textbook suitable for an introductory course. But it is also a guide that contains a call to action; not any specific set of actions—that is left entirely up to you—but perfectly general action that will bring you together with the 150 people who are closest to you in a way that will make each one of us 150-strong.