What do you think about AI?

We were at a memorial service for a family friend who died a few months back. During a period of stories and remembrances, a man got up and said he had lived next door to P for a number of years; that they often had coffee in the morning or a beer in the afternoon, and would talk about many things; that in his professional life he developed AI; that he and P would have extended conversations about AI. P had been a journalist, published in the New York Times, The New Yorker, Life magazine and other publications. P, of course, felt AI would never be able to write as well as a good human writer. It lacked experience of the world. P knew about experience with the world. He traveled extensively, was an expert spear fisherman, and quite the lady’s man. He wrote from his experiences. He wrote well. How could AI match that without his direct experience of the cosmos?

After the memorial service, my 92 year old mother-in-law asked me what I thought about AI. I told her that AI is here to stay; that it will get better at making human beings feel; that I wondered what the place of humanity would become in relation to it.

Much of the criticism of AI centers on the human experience which AI will never have. Because it will never have that experience, it will never be able to create as well as the best writers or artists or musicians.

When the essay, called “Ghosts,” came out in The Believer in the summer of 2021, it quickly went viral. I started hearing from others who had lost loved ones and felt that the piece captured grief better than anything they’d ever read. I waited for the backlash, expecting people to criticize the publication of an AI-assisted piece of writing. It never came. Instead the essay was adapted for This American Life and anthologized in Best American Essays. It was better received, by far, than anything else I’d ever written.1

In Confessions of a Viral AI Writer, Vauhini Vara writes about the experience of having an essay written with the assistance of AI go viral. She talks about her ambivalence about having sought assistance from AI to write an essay about the death of her sister at a young age. She tells us that she has decided not to use AI for anything more than research going forward.

I don’t know where, in the pantheon of writers and journalists, Ms. Vara falls. Her Wired article seemed well enough written. In the viral AI-assisted article, AI provided her with the description of a moment between her and her dying sister that, as she described it, was pivotal to the essay. It also wasn’t something that had actually happened between them. Poetic license I suppose. You tell a little bit of a lie because it gets at a bigger truth, or a fuller emotion, which certainly was there. Would she have come up with this line herself, or would her knowledge of what did and didn’t happen between her and her sister have made that difficult? AI didn’t have that knowledge and was free to indulge in a plausible fantasy for the situation.

Ms. Vara writes in her essay that,

… writing is an attempt to clarify what the world is like from where I stand in it.

If writing is my attempt to clarify what the world is like for me, the problem with AI is not just that it can’t come up with an individual perspective on the world. It’s that it can’t even comprehend what the world is.2

This, I think, is the core truth of the matter. Writing, is how writers understand themselves in relation to the cosmos, and good writing helps fellow travelers locate themselves within that cosmos. Since civilization became a thing, we have been understanding and locating ourselves through story telling, which requires human to human connection. Story teller to story listener. Writer to reader. Whether it be an oral tradition, scrawling on papyrus, or keyboarding collections of ones and zeros into the cloud, it is a chain of relationship, of connection.

If we retain AI to write for us, how are we gaining that understanding of self and world? How are we weaving humanity together?

But what if I, the writer, don’t matter? I joined a Slack channel for people using Sudowrite3 and scrolled through the comments. One caught my eye, posted by a mother who didn’t like the bookstore options for stories to read to her little boy. She was using the product to compose her own adventure tale for him. Maybe, I realized, these products that are supposedly built for writers will actually be of more use to readers? 4

The corporate capitalist drive to mechanize everything humans can do devalues what it means to be human. To be removed from craft is to be removed from our humanity. In his essay, _Buddhist Economics,_E. F. Schumacher distinguished between machines that assist the craftsman, and machines that take over the work of the craftsman through this quote of Ananda Coomaraswamy,

“The craftsman himself, can always, if allowed to, draw the delicate distinction between the machine and the tool. The carpet loom is a tool, a contrivance for holding warp threads at a stretch for the pile to be woven round them by the craftsmen’s fingers; but the power loom is a machine, and its significance as a destroyer of culture lies in the fact that it does the essentially human part of the work.”5

Machines as destroyers of culture. That’s a powerful image. Large language models (LLMs) are capable of being either the carpet loom, or the power loom. That is, they can assist the writer with her writing, or they can do the writing themselves.

In Buddhist Economics, E. F. Schumacher identifies two different approaches to work. The capitalist economics approach, and the Buddhist economics approach. About the capitalist economics approach he had this to say…

There is universal agreement that a fundamental source of wealth is human labour. Now, the modern economist has been brought up to consider “labour” or work as little more than a necessary evil. From the point of view of the employer, it is in any case simply an item of cost, to be reduced to a minimum if it can not be eliminated altogether, say, by automation. From the point of view of the workman, it is a “disutility”; to work is to make a sacrifice of one’s leisure and comfort, and wages are a kind of compensation for the sacrifice. Hence the ideal from the point of view of the employer is to have output without employees, and the ideal from the point of view of the employee is to have income without employment.6

and this to say about a Buddhist concept of work…

The Buddhist point of view takes the function of work to be at least threefold: to give man a chance to utilise and develop his faculties; to enable him to overcome his ego-centredness by joining with other people in a common task; and to bring forth the goods and services needed for a becoming existence.

There is, then, a distinction to be made about the use of AI. Do we use it to take human beings out of the labor equation, or, do we use it to assist us with the work of being human? It is the difference between a capitalist view of labor and a Buddhist view of labor. I know which I prefer.

  1. Vara, Vauhini, Confessions of a Viral AI Writer, Wired Magazine ↩︎

  2. Ibid. ↩︎

  3. An AI product developed to write novels. ↩︎

  4. Vara, Vauhini, Confessions of a Viral AI Writer, Wired Magazine ↩︎

  5. Schumacher, E. F., Buddhist Economics ↩︎

  6. Ibid. ↩︎

I’m 68, my time is precious!

I am not in a place of grace right now.

This week, a new struggle with a corporation arrived. Central Hudson, provider of our gas and electric service, lobbed a $1400 bill over our virtual transom. No, we didn’t consume $1400 of gas and electric in one month. We have solar panels that provide about 90% of our electrical power during the summer. And we only use gas for our stovetop to cook, our oven is electric. So no, there is no way we could have used that much gas and electric in one month. Or even several months.

The situation might be that we are finally being charged for electric and gas over many months. I don’t know. I have dutifully checked my account every month and when there was a bill, I paid it. There has been, for the past few months, a credit showing on our account. It seemed a little strange, but we are level billing customers. Twice a year, there is a recalculation of the average monthly usage, and a leveling up of the difference between projected and actual usage. In the past, this has meant we wound up with a credit that could cover a few months of payments. So, it didn’t seem that strange, given it was about time for the new calculations to be made and differences settled.

I am not the only customer having this sort of experience. There have been big problems with Central Hudson’s billing practices. There is a Facebook page dedicated to it. There is a class action lawsuit in progress. The phrase, “I’ve been Central Hudson-ed,” has become a thing.

Utility company bills have always been opaque. Central Hudson bills are particularly bad in this regard. It feels like you need an advanced degree in accounting to be able to sort them out. They admit that an attempt to improve their billing system has been a disaster, leading to all kinds of wild billing errors. Word on the street is that they still like to insist that the big bill is the bill. But really, which bills am I to believe? Those that showed a credit, or this seemingly outrageous and impossible bill? I suppose perspective is everything.

This weekend I will be devoting myself to researching our billing for the past year to see if I can develop a theory of where we stand. Then I will begin the process of getting things straightened out. Or at least to a place where I am pretty sure of what I do, or do not, owe.

You will recall that just a couple of weeks ago, I got embroiled in a fios-by-Verizon debacle. That has turned out reasonably well as I was able to find my way to a case manager, Wilson, who got it straightened out. It still required more time and energy than I wanted to give it, but at least I had a competent case manager who made sure I didn’t get lost in the wasteland of their bureaucracy.

I wonder if humanity made a mistake when people turned, or were forced to turn, away from a direct connection to the earth for their sustenance. When we began to allow bureaucracies, public, corporate, etc., to manage us and determine how we spent our time. Evilly conceived, ill-conceived and/or incompetently conceived bureaucracies suck up so much of our time with soul-deadening work and labyrinthian challenges to sort our consumer lives out.

I rather like this description of labor…

Representing an economy in which most people worked directly on the land or water to pull wheat into wagons and fish into barrels, Lincoln believed that “labor is prior to, and independent of, capital; that, in fact, capital is the fruit of labor, and could never have existed if labor had not first existed—that labor can exist without capital, but that capital could never have existed without labor. Hence, they hold that labor is the superior—greatly the superior of capital.”12

And this observation about corporations is all the more true in present times:

“The gulf between employers and the employed is constantly widening, and classes are rapidly forming, one comprising the very rich and powerful, while in another are found the toiling poor…. Corporations, which should be the carefully restrained creatures of the law and the servants of the people, are fast becoming the people’s masters.3

They are not only the masters of our time and effort, they are the chief wasters of our time too. I resent that. At 68, my time is more precious than ever.

The idea of a tiny cabin in the woods, completely off the grid, is starting to appeal. Do you think my wife would go for it?


Yesterday, I logged on to my Central Hudson account to begin the process of sorting out what was going on. The $1400 owed had become $109. There were a bunch of credits, negating most of what I had owed just three days earlier. I paid that bill. I am going to have to keep a close eye on things. I resent that too.

  1. September 2, 2023 - by Heather Cox Richardson ↩︎

  2. Here, the interesting concept of holons is echoed. The idea of a hierarchical system of organization in which each successive level of the hierarchy is dependent on all the levels below it, a fact which humanity, driven by capitalism, steadfastly ignores in all kinds of ways. Ken Wilbur describes holonic organization in Sex, Ecology and Spirituality↩︎

  3. September 3, 2023 - by Heather Cox Richardson ↩︎

2024, A Pivotal Year? You Bet!

As David Kurtz of _Talking Points Memo_put it two days later, “America is living through a reign of white supremacist terror,” and in a speech to the Lawyers' Committee for Civil Rights Under the Law on Monday, President Joe Biden reminded listeners that “the U.S. intelligence community has determined that domestic terrorism, rooted in white supremacy, is the greatest terrorist threat we face in the homeland–the greatest threat.”1

When Joe Biden and Kamala Harris won the 2020 election, I breathed a massive sigh of relief, as I am sure many people did. I was certain that a 45 second term would be the end of our democratic republic. That we would descend into some form of authoritarianism or fascism. 45 came very close to seizing full control of the leavers of power. How close, we would discover in the many months that followed.

As relieved as I was, I also knew we had only stopped the advance of the threat of authoritarian rule at that moment. We had not turned it back. As has been clear for some time, hard right conservatives had no use for a democratic republic form of government. If it functioned properly, and they were trying very hard to make sure it didn’t, they increasingly could not win. Their policy positions were too unpopular, and they were refusing to represent the interests of people of color, youth, and women.

Conservatives have invested decades of disciplined work in gaining control of state houses and governorships, especially those in what have become known as battleground states. They used this control to gerrymander districts and pass laws that made it more burdensome for minorities and the young to vote, and therefore, certain that they would have complete control. They had also invested decades into getting a conservative judiciary in place, which culminated with the appointment of three very conservative Supreme Court justices during the Trump administration.

White conservatives have done all this because the demographic writing was on the wall. White people are loosing ground as a percentage of the population. Minorities are projected to outnumber them by 2046.

Indeed, today’s white supremacist violence has everything to do with the 1965 Voting Rights Act that protected the right to vote guaranteed by the Fifteenth Amendment to the Constitution, ratified in 1870 after white supremacists refused to recognize the right of Black Americans to vote and hold office. Minority voting means a government–and a country–that white men don’t dominate.2

From the data gathered in the last census, it has become clear that white population slippage is accelerating. For the first time, between 2010 and 2020, the white population has shrunk and minorities, principally asian and hispanic, have more than made up the difference, through both birth and immigration. In 1980, whites were 80% of the population. By 2020 that percentage had fallen to a little over 60%. Nearly 4 in 10 Americans identify as a race other than white.

By the end of the nineteenth century, white southerners greeted any attempt to protect Black voting as an attempt to destroy true America. Finally, in North Carolina in 1898, Democrats recognized they were losing ground to a biracial fusion ticket of Republicans and Populists who promised economic and political reforms. Before that year’s election, white Democratic leaders ran a viciously racist campaign to fire up their white base. “It is time for the oft quoted shotgun to play a part, and an active one,” one woman wrote, “in the elections.”3

For those to whom this decline matters—it doesn’t to me—the news is bleak. Not only has the white population shrunk for the first time, but its median age is the highest of all racial groups at 43.7, compared to 29.8 for Latinos or Hispanics, 34.6 for Black residents, 37.5 for Asian Americans. The younger the median age, the greater the fertility of the group.

Here is a list of the current demographic trends:

  • Six states are majority-minority as of July 2019: Hawaii, New Mexico, California, Texas, Nevada, and Maryland.
  • Washington, D.C., and all populated United States territories (Puerto Rico, Guam, the U.S. Virgin Islands, the Northern Mariana Islands, and American Samoa) are also majority-minority. None of the current United States territories ever had a white majority.
  • As of 2011, minority births (children under age 1) are the majority among births nationwide.
  • As of 2017, minority children comprise the majority among children in fourteen states: the six that are already majority-minority, plus the following eight: Arizona, Florida, Georgia, New Jersey, Delaware, Alaska, New York, and Mississippi.
  • As of 2019, children are majority minority nationwide.
  • Per the 2020 United States Census, the percentage of non-Hispanic white residents is below 60% in seventeen states: the six that are already majority-minority, plus the following eleven: Georgia (50.1%), Florida (51.5%), New Jersey (51.9%), New York (52.5%), Arizona (53.4%), Mississippi (55.4%), Louisiana (55.8%), Alaska (57.5%), Illinois (58.3%), Delaware (58.6%), and Virginia (58.6%).
  • The whole United States of America is projected to become majority-minority by the middle of the 21st century if current trends continue. The U.S. will then become the first major post-industrial society in the world where the dominant group established in an earlier period transitioned from majority to minority under the influence of changing demographics. With alternate immigration scenarios, the whole United States is projected to become majority-minority sometime between 2041 and 2046 (depending on the amount of net immigration into the U.S., birth/death rates, and intermarriage rates over the preceding years).4

It’s important to emphasize the uniqueness of this situation. As the quotes I have shared from a recent Heather Cox Richardson post indicate, the specter of white supremacy has a long history. During that history, white people always had the demographic upper hand, until now.

This political side of white supremacy is all around us. As Democracy Docket put it last month, “Republicans have a math problem, and they know it. Regardless of their candidate, it is nearly certain that more people will vote to reelect Joe Biden than his Republican opponent.” After all, Democrats have won the popular vote since 2008. Under these circumstances and unwilling to moderate their platform, “Republicans need to make it harder to vote and easier to cheat.”

So, to me, it looks like 2024 is a pivotal year. The one that likely decides what kind of government we have going forward. The white patriarchal authoritarian play won’t be available much beyond that. If I were a card-carrying member of the white patriarchy, I’d be pretty desperate about this upcoming election. That is why it’s going to get even more wild and wooly in the coming months, in my opinion. If we can hold on to whatever is passing for a Democratic Republic right now, then we will likely get the chance to improve on it.

There are signs that the current conservative pendulum swing has overshot the mark and will start to head back in a more liberal direction.5 Conservatives have overreached. Women are upset with the overturning of Roe v. Wade. Young people are upset about many things, but the evidence is that they will vote, and they will side with the more multicultural offering. Minorities have a long history of reasons to be upset and will vote, despite the hurdles put in their way. If the more liberal forces hold on and turn back the authoritarian gambit, it will be a long time before there is another opportunity, and by then, white supremacy won’t be the issue.

Will this swing away from white supremacy and towards a multicultural future mean that our societal woes will be over? I imagine we will have a transition period during which power is more equitably distributed among the races. During this period, there may be an opportunity. To me, there is the overarching problem of capitalism and its exploitation of everyone and everything to accumulate wealth and power. This period of equitable power distribution may allow us to find a new way of organizing ourselves and our behavior. At the same time, climate change will be applying enormous pressure on us to find that new way. Without finding our way to an economic system that isn’t about exploitation and power accumulation, we will continue to have issues of power abuse, even as the abused and the abusers change positions.

  1. August 30, 2023 - by Heather Cox Richardson(https://heathercoxrichardson.substack.com/p/august-30-2023↩︎

  2. August 30, 2023 - by Heather Cox Richardson(https://heathercoxrichardson.substack.com/p/august-30-2023↩︎

  3. August 30, 2023 - by Heather Cox Richardson(https://heathercoxrichardson.substack.com/p/august-30-2023↩︎

  4. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Majority_minority_in_the_United_States#:~:text=With%20alternate%20immigration%20scenarios%2C%20the,rates%20over%20the%20preceding%20years)..) ↩︎

  5. See this article by Ted Gioia for his interesting hot/cool culture theory that runs in 80 year cycles. According to his theory, we are reaching the end of a hot cycle and will start to move back in the other direction soon. We may already be. ↩︎

fios By Verizon, A Contemporary Take on The Myth of Sisyphus

Tenacity and acumen are privileged spectators of this inhuman show in which absurdity, hope, and death carry on their dialogue.

—Albert Camus

Verizon fios recently arrived on our street. The trucks descended like a swarm of locusts in July to string the wires. “At last!” we thought, “an alternative to Optimum!” When the get-everybody-signed-up crew arrived at our door, we discovered we could have faster internet for half the price of Optimum. There were perks too! Our price guaranteed for 4 years; A $200 Verizon card; A $200 Home Depot card; 6 Months of Disney+ for free. We jumped ship immediately.

A week later, a technician came to install a wire from the street to the house, set up the equipment, and get us going with the promised blazing fast internet. We were up and running in less than two hours.

There was only one problem, the ugly white signal extender tower sitting on the floor of our living room. It’s ugly we said. “It’s powerful, the technician said. “It will cover the whole house,” he said. “No need for your Eero mesh network,” he said. “Ok, we’ll try your ugly white tower,” we said, “maybe it’s better.” It wasn’t. So we unplugged it and plugged in our Eero mesh network. Strong signal everywhere. “Yay! Let’s return the ugly white tower!”

The next day, we hauled the ugly white tower to the Verizon store. “We can’t take back fios equipment here,” we were told, “You have to go to the store across the river.”

The next day, we went to the store across the river. “Sure, we can take it back!” the sales associate said. He sat me down at the counter, and got busy working magic on the computer. I told him I didn’t need it because my Eero mesh network was better. He said something that made me think he thought I was unhappy with fios. I told him I was happy with fios, just didn’t need this piece of equipment. He nodded, finished the computer intake, and printed out a receipt. We went merrily on our way, free of the ugly white tower.

When we got home, we discovered we had no internet. “Oh no!” I thought. I called the store across the river and asked if they had disconnected our service. “Yes,” they said. “But why?!” I said, “I didn’t ask for that!” “A misunderstanding,” they said. “But we’ll get it back for you.” After 20 minutes of back and forth, being on hold, etc., the sales associate came back on and said, “I have bad news. We can’t just reconnect you. You have to start over again and set up a new account.” “What?!” I said. “You disconnected me in a matter of minutes, but it’s going to take days to reconnect me?! What about my signing bonuses?” I proceeded to call him every filthy word I could think of, and hung up. It was not one of my better moments. I wondered if the river we crossed had been the Styx.

When I became more rational, I decided we needed guidance for our journey through fios purgatory. I asked my wife to post what had happened to the Facebook hive mind. She got much commiseration and some good suggestions, but none of them seemed like “the” suggestion. And then, an old high school classmate of hers sent a private message saying, “yup, you really do have to set up a new account, but here’s what you do. You send a letter to the Chairman/CEO of Verizon explaining what happened. Include all available documentation. Send it overnight and require a signature. In a few days, a very competent person will call to help you deal with the situation.”

And that is exactly what happened!

A man named Wilson was my case manager. I was in yoga class when he called. He left a message with detailed instructions on how to get through to him. He also emailed. I replied to the email saying I would be available from 2 on. He replied, saying a sales associate would call me at 2. As I am communicating with Wilson, I can’t get the image of Wilson, the volley ball from the movie Cast Away, out of my head.

At 2 pm sharp, a woman called to help me with my new account. When we finished an hour or so later, she told me I would see a reconnection date on my order confirmation that was for sometime next week. She said Wilson would call, and he would be able to expedite the reconnection. Later that afternoon, Wilson called to tell me I was all connected and that I should test it out. “Oh,” I thought, “so you can punch a few numbers and letters into a computer and have me reconnected just as quickly as you disconnected me!” I told him it would take me some minutes to do that, so we agreed I would send an email letting him know if it was working. It was, and I did.

Wilson and I have been emailing back and forth, sorting out the last few details. A credit for the month already paid for on my former account. The restoration of the $200 Home Depot card that was no longer available for my new account and way better than what was.

“All’s well that ends well,” I thought. “Think of it as part of your hero’s journey,” I told myself.


The other night, a truck pulled up and something landed on our front porch with a substantial thud. I went out to see what it was. A box from Verizon? I hauled it into the house and opened it. I was speechless, it was a new ugly white tower! I had told the woman I didn’t need it. Wilson had confirmed with me that I didn’t need it. But fios purgatory was having none of it!

I emailed Wilson and asked him if I should call an exorcist, return it, or stick it in the back of a closet until the day comes that I do want to terminate my service.

I haven’t heard back from Wilson yet, but I’m sure I will.

Mind, Body, Earth, Community

Last week, in a conversation about scheduling ourselves at our health club, I told my wife that I would not be using the weight machines anymore. She asked why. I informed her that I wanted to focus on exercise that has a mind, body, earth, and community connective focus as much as possible. I think weight machines, treadmills, cycling machines, etc. are among the least connective ways to exercise in this regard. We have been doing three yoga classes a week, and yoga is the epitome of mind, body, earth, and community connective practice as far as I am concerned. I will focus on yoga.

Also, last week, I began a transformation away from social media. I removed all my social media apps from my phone, except Facebook Messenger. I use FBM to communicate with a woman in town who is struggling and needs my occasional help getting to this or that because she doesn’t have a car. All social media activity from now forward will happen through browser portals, if at all. I am removing the constant urge to check and see if anyone responded to what I posted. This turned out to be a constant source of anxiety and disappointment for me, as it is for many people. Who needs that?

I have decided to focus on getting out of the house and going for walks (mind, body, earth, sometimes community) and winding up at local coffee shops, where I can have direct human-to-human contact (definitely community). Even if that contact is superficial banter with a barista whose name I know and who knows mine, it’s better than the social media app stand-ins we are plagued with. Even if I know no one, and talk to no-one, I am in a space alive with people interacting analog fashion. So that’s it, the coffee shops are my analog version of social media apps. They are way more satisfying.

Another analog social media app is my daily early morning walk and photograph practice. Often, they are strictly mind-body-earth affairs. Occasionally, they are community affairs, too. I meet people I know. I see people I don’t know, but know them as regulars on the street. Every so often, I learn their names.

A few weeks ago, on one of these morning walks, I encountered a young woman arriving for work at a local artisanal chocolatier. I watched a few moments of obvious frustration and bad-dayness unfold. It culminated with her smartphone crashing on the pavement as she juggled her too-many-to-manage things. “You’re not having a good day, are you?” I said to her. She shook her head no, and told me that the brakes on her car had failed, that she was having to spend $1000 on a rental car, and that any number of other little things were not going well. I listened with empathy, who among us hasn’t been there? When it seemed she’d gotten it all out, I told her I hoped her day would be better from this point forward, then continued on my walk.

For the next few weeks, I periodically ran into her and would ask if things had gotten any better. She would say not really, and I would encourage her to hang in there, these runs of frustration and struggle do, eventually, end. I always wished her a better rest of her day as I walked on.

A few days ago, I ran into her again and asked her if things had gotten better. She flashed me a big smile and said, “yes! Much better. I got my car back and I moved!” I gave her a big thumbs up and told her that was great, and I was happy for her. She thanked me for the support I had been giving her for the past few weeks. A great example of my walks being mind, body, earth, and community connective.

You might wonder what has precipitated this new fondness for analog interaction with the world.

I have been reading a lot this year. More than I did last year and most years before that. Two books are having a big impact on me. I began the year with Sylvia Federici’s Caliban and the Witch. I mentioned this book last week in my somewhat disorganized and inconclusive post on Men, Women, and Capitalism.

What I learned from Ms. Federici is that capitalism is an organizing force of enormous consequence. Consequence that is brutal and harmful to the mind, body, earth, and community connections I began this post with. It has rearranged the relationships between men, and women, and the earth, in profoundly destructive ways. It has fragmented the world and its creatures into things that, in their thingness, are maximally exploitable. This includes you and me. Divided, everything and everyone is exploited and utility is the quality everything and everyone must have.

The second book that is having a considerable impact on me is The Matter with Things, by Iain McGilchrist. This book is most directly responsible for the shift I am making towards mind, body, earth, and community, and away from social media apps and exercise machines.

A basic thesis of The Matter with Things is that we have become the victims of left-hemisphere hypertrophy and right-hemisphere atrophy. That is, we depend much more on the left side of our brains than the right side to interact with the world. McGilchrist marshals a ton of evidence that suggests this is a bad trend. The left brain, he argues, is a brain of expediency to which a full understanding of the context (truth) of things is unimportant. What is important to the left brain is what’s in front of it in any given moment, and what needs or can be done with it. Self-preservation, utility, and utilization are the name of the game with the left brain. The ability to apprehend a situation quickly, and react to it, is an indispensable survival trait developed over millions of years. When fight-or-flight or basic survival is the issue, a full understanding of context is eschewed in favor of reaction in-the-moment. It is the right brain, McGilchrist tells us, that is capable of understanding context and developing a meaningful narrative about it. It is the right brain that can situate itself in space and time, and understand the narrative that is the mind and body interacting with the earth and the cosmos. It is the right brain that can grope towards truth and meaning through experience, and in league with a community of individuals.

Why it is bad to be over reliant on the left brain is explained through narratives about patients with right hemisphere damage, who depend, consequently, on the left hemisphere to navigate the world. It is also explained through narratives on patients suffering with schizophrenia, which expresses symptoms in line with patients suffering from right hemisphere damage. Autism, too, shares symptoms with right hemisphere damage. McGilchrist argues that this complex of symptoms is present in modern society, indicating the hypertrophy of left brain thinking. And right hemisphere atrophy means the loss of our connection to, and grounding in, the world, which leads to the loss of our tether to reality, and the ability to recognize truth. As a result, we are unable to find meaning in our existence.

McGilchrist has not, so far, pointed the finger at capitalism directly, but he does point it at what Federici has helped me see as the pernicious effects of a capitalist attitude towards the world.

I have begun making the changes described above in an effort to make sure my right hemisphere remains engaged and in charge. I want to live wholly in the world with other human beings. This, I think, is the antidote to the fragmentation of capitalism.

Men, Women, and Capitalism

My thoughts about men, women, and capitalism, have been brewing for a while. What follows is a loose collection of some of those thoughts with links to the sources that spurred them. This post is intended to serve as a marker. I plan to return to the ideas here in more detail over time.

At the beginning of the year, I read Caliban and the Witch by Sylvia Federici. It helped me understand how capitalism organizes society around production and resource exploitation. The book has a feminist viewpoint and Federici’s interest is in the impact of capitalism on women. Even so, it acknowledges that men have been shoved into roles and ways of living they didn’t uniformly want. Despite having the power position in a patriarchal society, capitalism hasn’t been the best of deals for men either.

The basic thesis of Caliban and the Witch is that capitalism organized men as laborers and women as the producers and caretakers of laborers. Appropriation of land and the severing of the connection of men and women from their intimate relationship with the earth was a consequence of the demands of capitalist organization. Women in particular, as healers and midwives, were removed from their connection to ancestral knowledge as men took over the management of health and birth in professionalized capacities. Through the church, there was a wholesale attack on the traditional mystical practices of communities. This attack on people’s direct relationship with the land and ancestral traditions would be echoed as western civilization tamed the indigenous populations of the new world. It continues to this day, wherever modern capitalist society encounters indigenous populations. Indigenous ways of life fascinate many of us who sense that something is wrong with the capitalist paradigm.

In The Matter With Things, Iain McGilchrist builds a detailed case that humanity, through its use of technology and science, is developing left hemisphere Hypertrophy. That is, the structure of the (capitalist) world emphasizes a superficial grasp for power and resources. The grasp for power and resources proceeds based on a world perceived to be a collection of disconnected and, therefore, exploitable parts. It proceeds without acknowledgement that all the parts are connected and interrelated.

Disorganisation: organisation is the essential nature of an organism, which does not piece together, but grows, its organs. Once there are no coherent enduring entities over time, reality ebbs away. This is a common trope in modernism, and is reflected in scientism and other reductionist philosophies. ‘I walk like a machine’, says one patient;258 ‘I’m a psycho-machine’, says another.1

Disconnection and disorganization are hallmarks of schizophrenia. As is the left brain tendency to compensate for the disconnection by grabbing hold of any explanation and set of rules that offers coherence, regardless of how wrong it may be, and refusing to let go.

And once again one sees parallels in some kinds of contemporary philosophy, and some kinds of belief systems driven by the irrationality of identity politics, which lead subjects to doubt everything except the validity of a bizarre conclusion which they feel driven to accept by formal rules. But never doubting the rules.2


Western modernity has many overlapping features with the phenomenology of schizophrenia, as Louis Sass has convincingly demonstrated in Madness and Modernism; and I submit that this is because modernity simulates not a disease state, but a hemispheric imbalance, as I suggested in The Master and his Emissary.3

And why wouldn’t society become schizophrenic when the system that organizes it has for centuries insisted on disconnection as necessary to growth and accumulation of capital?

In an article on dance as the antidote to capitalism4, Sylvia Federici comments on the mythic and mystic, but also practical, connection that people had to the land and the sea.

Not all these powers were imaginary. Daily contact with nature was the source of a great amount of knowledge reflected in the food revolution that took place especially in the Americas prior to colonization or in the revolution in sailing techniques. We know now, for instance, that the Polynesian populations used to travel the high seas at night with only their body as their compass, as they could tell from the vibrations of the waves the different ways to direct their boats to the shore.5

I won’t argue that traditional ways were always better. Technology and science have given us many improvements, but it’s all been in the service of capitalist growth paradigms, and at the expense of a deep connection to the flow of nature.

A problem with the present capitalist structure that has emerged from my reading in the past couple of weeks is that the capitalist organization of men and women into laborers and producers/caretakers of laborers is breaking down. The importance of superior bodily strength (for men), and the womb (for women) is diminishing. Work that requires physical strength is increasingly mechanized, as is the production of laborers through the automation of work processes by AI, robotics, and related technologies that have no dependence on human procreation.

Among the articles I read this week a couple addressed the crisis in manhood that is leading to a doubling down on gun culture and issues with toxic masculinity.

The current work climate seems to favor women’s long traditions of caretaking (nursing, hospitality, etc.), and juggling many roles and responsibilities in their lives. It appears to be harder for men to secure jobs they can raise a family on. The jobs that traditionally provided men with the ability to support a family are fewer. Women have entered the workforce and compete well in traditionally male jobs because physical strength is no longer a core requirement of most jobs. Even battle has been mechanized to the point where women fight on the front lines. And, in the conversations of women business owners I have been party too, there is a suggestion that women are more willing to do what it takes to care for a family, including generating the necessary income. Men are loosing their role in society. Women are too, but the effects of that are not as evident yet. The situation seems more critical for men.

A recent article on gun culture reported that:

“In places of economic instability, men are shifting from this attitude of man as provider to man as protector,” he said. “You may not be able to, as a man, be the primary breadwinner, but you can — through acquiring guns and the willingness to use guns for violence — reclaim your masculinity as a protector.”

Even in young people, this sentiment was notable and behind many of the things that participants expressed to the researchers during interviews. Dashtgard said this speaks to a larger cultural dynamic at play currently, where many White men are feeling unsure of how to articulate themselves as men in current society. As a result, many young men are turning to guns as an “unimpeachable access to masculinity.”6

And the need to recover the masculine role of past eras seems widespread. There are astonishingly popular influencers in the world of toxic masculinity:

Tate appeals by combining the bland aphorisms of a motivational speaker with the bombastic transgressions of a shock jock radio host; he delivers missives with drill sergeant intensity. His misogyny is less coded, and it is shockingly popular. By the metrics of the internet, Tate is one of the most famous people on the planet. Before he was banned, Tate’s TikTok videos had been viewed more than 13 billion times, making him one of the top posters on the platform. In 2022, he was the eighth-most googled person in the world—ahead of Trump and right behind Russian President Vladimir Putin.7

  1. McGilchrist, The Matter With Things — location: 8527 ^ref-51357 ↩︎

  2. — The Matter With Things: Our Brains, Our Delusions and the Unmaking of the World by Iain McGilchrist. a.co/fpzz8bD ↩︎

  3. — The Matter With Things: Our Brains, Our Delusions and the Unmaking of the World by Iain McGilchrist. a.co/2i4JjB1 ↩︎

  4. As bizarre as this may sound, my own experience in life confirms it. When I was young and new to New York City, I signed up for modern dance lessons at the Alvin Ailey school and also took ballet lessons. This changed the way I perceived space and moved through it. Space became I kind of continuum that I continuously flowed through. Fast forward to me at the age of 68, and yoga. Yoga is a kind of ritualized spiritual flow of motion. I take three classes a week and feel deeply drawn to it. Could it be part of my attempt to cope with capitalist disconnection? Could yoga’s popularity in the culture be the same attempt to cope on a societal scale? ↩︎

  5. In Praise of the Dancing Body — RITONA // A Beautiful Resistance ↩︎

  6. Young people who identify with gun culture are more likely to believe in male supremacy, survey shows ↩︎

  7. Boy Problems – Mother Jones ↩︎

Smaller Is Beautiful

I had an argument with my wife the other day.

Not long ago, I bought a half gallon mason jar with plastic lid, handle and flip top pour spout. I have been using the pitcher to brew iced tea and sometimes to put water on the table during meals. We have two other half gallon pitchers, but I prefer the way this one functions.

Last week my wife decided she wanted to cold brew coffee. In an effort to be economical, she found a lid and filter setup designed for use with a half gallon mason jar and bought it. Only she drinks iced coffee, while we both drink ice tea. Her proposal was to use the jar to brew coffee, then transfer that coffee to two quart-sized mason jars, which used the same size lids as the larger jar. This would leave the mason jar available for tea or water use. No need for an extra jar.

I was doubtful about the efficacy of this plan. It seemed certain to me that my favorite pitcher was going to become her cold brew coffee pitcher. Indeed, she had already brewed some coffee and the pitcher was now residing in the refrigerator, unavailable for water or tea. She told me she couldn’t reach the quart sized jars which were on the top shelf in the kitchen. She had asked me to get the jars down for her a few days before, but I was annoyed that she was commandeering my favored pitcher and didn’t do it. Yah, I cop to it. I am passive -aggressive, a strategy developed in childhood to deal with a dictatorial, my way or the highway, father.

When I suggested we buy another half gallon jar, my wife accused me of always undoing her solutions to problems. I told her I modify them when they are not working for me. I reiterated that we should buy another jar. She wasn’t having any of it. Yup, we were engaged in something more than a conversation about pitcher use.

At this point, perhaps unwisely, I decided to site another example where her solution wasn’t working for me. She swims twice a week in the chlorine laden pool at our health club. Afterwards, she likes to rinse her bathing suit and soak it in the bathroom sink with some sort of bathing suit conditioning product. She leaves it there, usually for a couple of hours, but the day before, practically all day. The problem with her solution is that we have only one bathroom and one bathroom sink. When she’s soaking her bathing suit I can’t use the sink.

“So,” she said, “I have to make myself smaller for you? I’ve been making myself smaller for other people my entire life.” Yup, this is not about the jar or the bathing suit. At this point I felt it best to leave things alone for a while. We come to these impasses from time to time. We generally get through them in 24 hours or so, after we’ve had time to cool down and back away from whatever deep-seated trauma was expressing itself in the moment. And that is how it went.

The idea of making oneself smaller to accommodate another person stuck with me though, because it was true. I was asking her to make herself smaller. It wasn’t unreasonable for me to ask her to be considerate of me in her use of the bathroom sink but yes, I was asking her to make herself smaller for me.

To be in an intimate relationship, we necessarily have to make ourselves smaller in many ways. We have to make room for that other person. It’s not considerate to leave our clothes strewn all over the bedroom or our dishes undone in the sink, or to expect whatever we want whenever we want it. We have to make ourselves smaller to be in that intimate relationship. But, as most of us have experienced, there is great benefit to being in a good relationship. Good relationships are always more than the sum of their parts. So, we make ourselves smaller to become part of something larger. A larger something we benefit from in many ways.

We can easily lose sight of the benefits of compromise, especially when deep seated past traumas become engaged. And this dynamic is not exclusive to intimate relationships. It functions at the local, regional, national and, even global levels.

Presently, there is a crisis among the men and women of the mostly white patriarchy in my country. They are refusing to make room for people of color, immigrants, and LGBTQ+ people. They are insisting on extreme restrictions to the rights of women to manage their fertility. They are unwilling to make themselves smaller to be part of something larger.

There is also a crisis in our global economic system which is incapable of constraining itself to be in a sound relationship with the planet we depend on. A pathological relationship emerges when one part of a whole insists on being bigger at the continuous expense of other parts of the whole.

I have decided to let my wife have the half gallon jar for her cold brewed coffee. She’s right, we don’t need another jar. We have two more half gallon pitchers that are adequate for my purposes. So, I will make myself a little smaller for her because I value enormously the whole that is us. And the bathing suit soaking? Yesterday my wife found a plastic pail to soak her bathing suit in. She made herself a little smaller too.

Something Is Afoot

I have been reading Caliban and the Witch by Silvia Federici. It’s about the shift from Feudalism to Capitalism and the impact that shift had on women. Replacing Feudalism with Capitalism is a process that took two to three hundred years. In reviewing the history and writing about it, historians identify and describe to us the broad trends unfolding. It is difficult, maybe impossible, to see such trends clearly in the history we live. This is the reason to study history. To get a perspective that gives us some ability to assess our times, identify trends and project those trends into the future.

As I read, I understand the trends, I see the echos with my time. For the people living through it, it’s what they were going through. They did not comprehend that something called Feudalism was dying and that something called Capitalism was rising out of its not yet cold ashes. I suppose we should always assume something is afoot at any given time, and that historians hundreds of years down the road will be able to say, oh yah, that’s what was happening. Something seems to be afoot right now that is bigger than usual.

The battle over women’s control of their reproductive cycle…

As I read Caliban and the Witch, the principle echo I am finding is the battle waged to wrestle reproductive cycle control from women and to subjugate them more completely to a Patriarchy. This was, according to Federici, a principal effect of the birth of capitalism. Capitalism is, at its heart, a system of exploitation. Exploitation of workers, exploitation of resources, exploitation of the commons. To exploit it atomizes and enslaves. Women were “othered” from men more drastically than in the past and were enslaved to reproduction and domestication. There is, at present, a new war on women unfolding in the United States, and it is again about their reproductive role.

The present war is not just on women. It is on any community that challenges the white patriarchal structure. It’s a war on race, it’s a war on gender, it’s a war on sexuality. It’s a war on the values of Enlightenment Humanism which are the foundation of democratic government. It’s a war on democracy itself. The question is, what big shift is this a symptom of? One away from capitalism, toward some hyper globalized version of capitalism, or towards something altogether different?

The breakdown of science…

In his Substack article, The Death of Science, L. P. Koch wrote:

Has science just gone off the rails, and all we need to do is find our way back to real science?

Or should we accept that science is inherently limited for deeper reasons, and move away entirely from putting science as we know it on a pedestal? In other words, change our priors, change our presuppositions?

I suppose it’s both.

Koch gets the assessment of the state of science from Lain McGilchrist’s book, The Matter With Things1.

A few of the things noted from McGilchrist’s book by Koch:

Due to specialization, every scientist takes almost every scientific “result” except the tiniest area of his expertise purely on authority, without having looked into it in any way. This includes results from his own field, and even his own subfield.

… according to a survey published in Nature, a whopping 70% of researchers have tried and failed to reproduce someone else’s experiment. And yet, less than 20% said they had ever been contacted by another researcher who failed to reproduce their results.

In his famous paper, “Why most published research findings are false,” John Ioannidis observes that the hotter a scientific field (the more scientific teams are involved), the less likely the research findings are to be true.

In the church of secular capitalist society, science is the god. And indeed, there is a lot of pure faith involved in the belief in science. So, if the god of modern capitalist society is in trouble, it suggests that something is afoot.

The breakdown of democracy…

If democracy isn’t breaking down, it is being strenuously challenged. Russia, China, Viktor Orban’s “Illiberal Democracy,” are all signs of this. As is Donald Trump and the far right in the United States. The fate of American Democracy and Democracy around the world is very much in question. Something is afoot.

The breakdown of Enlightenment Humanist Values…

It is clear that in the United States, the right is challenging Enlightenment Humanist principles of tolerance, inclusiveness, and scholarship. Just this morning I read:

Eager to stay at the head of the “movement,” Trump recently claimed that universities are “dominated by marxist maniacs & lunatics” and vowed to bring them under control of the radical right. “He will impose real standards on American colleges and universities,” his website says, “to include defending the American tradition and Western civilization.”2

American colleges and universities are the torch bearers of Enlightenment Humanist values.

In his Substack Post, The Enlightenment is Dead, Long Live the Enlightenment, L. P. Koch writes about the “myth” of the Enlightenment. Which isn’t to say that there was no Enlightenment, but to point to the fact that it wasn’t a graceful blossoming of new ideas, but a tumultuous time of finding and sorting out new ideas and challenging orthodoxy. He sites R.G. Collingwood’s theory of the development of consciousness and summarizes it this way:

New ideas come to the scene, which combine with historical developments to blow up the conventional belief system that holds society together at a given time—a set of beliefs that now seems fossilized, inadequate, and full of contradictions.

A phase of turmoil follows, intellectual and otherwise, that generates a whole generation (or more) of renegade thinkers, new takes, new experiments. The old chains of a stifling orthodoxy are broken; conformists are suffering and confused.

Eventually, out of this heterodox melee emerges a new set of fundamental beliefs, coupled with unshakable and often unconscious metaphysical assumptions. Over time, this new orthodoxy is codified and enforced, dissenters shunned, and a founding myth is established and projected back into the past. This new belief system then becomes ever-more stifling, its contradictions apparent, until the cycle repeats.

He speculates that we are in the midst of a phase of new ideas overtaking orthodoxy and creating much churning, that something is afoot.

The breakdown of trust and the unmooring of ourselves from empirical facts

Kelly Ann Conway famously said:

Facts don’t matter, what people believe matters.

This is a breathtaking statement and possibly the most profound statement of where we are. As suggested by Koch, the society we have known, deeply embedded in Enlightenment orthodoxy is coming undone. Trust in our public institutions is at an alltime low. The Supreme Court, Congress, government across the board at every level except perhaps the most local where people are more directly in touch with their government, trust is breaking down.

Ted Gioia writes in his piece on trust The Scarcest Thing in the World:

Tell me what source you trust, and I’ll tell you why you’re a fool. As B.B. King once said: “Nobody loves me but my mother—and she could be jivin' too.”

Something is afoot.

The emergence of AI…

There is a lot of news about AI. The new large language models began to become available for broader public consumption at the beginning of the year. I have written some about this here, here, and here.

This week, news broke that the “godfather of AI,” Geoffrey Hinton, quit Google so that he could talk freely about the dangers of AI. One of his concerns is that we are rapidly approaching the point where AI will become smarter than humans, known in some circles as the Omega point, or Singularity. He sites a number of other things to worry about too.

I will have more to say about AI in the coming weeks as I revisit a talk I gave in 2009 about it. I will be updating that talk and publishing it in a series 3 to 4 posts long. Until then, keep an eye out…**something is afoot**.

  1. I have purchased The Matter With Things and have started reading it. Very interesting book. ↩︎

  2. https://heathercoxrichardson.substack.com/p/may-8-2023-monday ↩︎

Review of Reclaiming the Sacred, by Jeff Golden

Read: Reclaiming the Sacred by Jeff Golden 📚

I forget how I came across this book, I think it was through a review in a local publication. The author, Jeff Golden, lives in Beacon, NY, where I live. I have never run across him in all the years I’ve lived here, but hey, there are 20K people in this small city so there are a lot of people I have never run across. This and the word sacred in the title along with a review that made it seem compelling (I assume, as I don’t remember what it had to say) led me to purchase the book.

The book is/was very compelling to me. It did two important things. Develop a well supported argument that money and happiness are not closely correlated beyond having enough for basic needs and then a little more to make life comfortable. What was astonishing is that the amounts needed are pretty minimal relative to most peoples income expectations and aspirations in the United States. It also developed the argument that capitalism is violence on almost any level you care to look at it. Reading through the support for this argument is a depressing litany of violence against humanity, our fellow animal travelers and the planet.

The book has a third leg, or perhaps one might say a trunk that the author believes could support a better way of engaging the planet and one another, and that is a concept of the sacred. His belief appears to be that the universe and everything in it is sacred and that we have been misdirected away from that truth by our engagement in a materialist, capitalist way of organizing society. The author tells us we urgently need to reacquaint ourselves with the sacred and reclaim it. It seems a full third of the book is devoted to enticing the reader back to the sacred trunk of all life.

I agree with the author that we need a renewed appreciation of the value of the sacred, but my point of view is that it is not a fundamental quality of the universe except as manifested through intelligent beings, in our case, humanity. Mine is a humanist view of the sacred achieved by and through human beings. The sacred is something that must be cultivated. The problem with my view is that what is sacred for one culture is not sacred for another. The sacred exists in capitalism, but it is money, it is material things, it is growth and production. It is easy to turn down a wrong branch and arrive at the world we have in front of us today. On the other hand, the idea that the sacred is a fundamental quality of the universe is belied by the facts on the ground. Think capitalism. Think the war in Ukraine. Think the destruction of the planet which would strike me as impossible if the sacred were a fundamental quality, like the fundamental particles in physics, which is the the concept I get from the author. A quality that we have only to wake up to if we want to save ourselves.

In the end, the author’s exhortations to rediscover the sacred in myself, the planet and the universe becomes a little too new age, a little to utopian for me. However, I am not sure it matters how we return to a relationship with the world that is centered on the quality of the sacred, we just need to get there.

I highly recommend the book for the clarity and thoroughness of its important arguments and revelations about happiness, capitalism and materialism and for its belief in the sacred as a way forward.

And then I read.

Two more mass shootings in less than two weeks. Both carried out with assault style rifles. In Tennessee a protest against gun violence and for responsible gun ownership legislation leads to the expulsion of two black lawmakers for disruptive behavior likened by their white colleagues to an insurrection. Most people want gun control legislation. Most are in favor of a ban on assault weapons. The gun lobby has a strangle hold on the political system through conservative lawmakers.

I’ve been reading a lot about Capitalism lately. It would be more accurate to say, a lot about the problems with Capitalism. It’s a monstrous system. It’s a violent system. In the United States, we pursue capitalism on steroids. Which means, we pursue an economic system that is violent in a way that amps up that violence to its maximum. Connecting gun violence in America with the violence of capitalism I wind up asking myself, of what use will gun control legislation of any kind be in a society so dedicated to violence? Can it be anything more than bandaids? It occurred to me that if we are to bring this country to a place where gun violence is rare we will need to bring ourselves to a place where violence in general is rare. How do we do that when the metaphorical air we breathe through our economic system is so steeped in violence?

I have been making my way through Reclaiming the Sacred by Jeff Golden.

I read…

… there are more slaves in the world today than ever before, many of them making products for the American market.1

I read…

Mother Teresa once noted what she called “the deep poverty of the soul” that afflicts the wealthy, and said that the poverty of the soul in America was deeper than any poverty she had seen anywhere on earth.2

I read…

There is something profoundly sad, cruel, and dystopian about a society that so often denies us meaning and connection and dignity, that denies us the inherent wonder and worthiness of ourselves and the world, but then sells back to us the possibility of some degree of relief—just enough to keep us going—in the form of trillions of dollars worth of products and shows, food and pills and alcohol, while keeping everything else the same, while urging us to continue to channel our lives into simply producing and consuming ever more, to accept that this is just the way life is.3

I read…

In fourteen short years, between 1870 and 1883, the bison were hunted to such an extreme that only 320 remained. Yes, 320. From 30 million just seventy years earlier. Many were killed in the earlier 1800s, but more than a million a year were slaughtered during those peak years.4

I read…

Yet, for all these complexities, we have the stark fact that the new Americans did to the bison in the span of fourteen years something absolutely inconceivable to the Native Americans prior, and for all the factors that were involved, a primary one is that the new Americans were vastly more materialistic than the Native Americans.5

I read…

We Americans have proven that we want a lot of things. The average American’s “ecological footprint”—that is, how much land we need to provide the resources we use and to absorb our waste—is 70 percent more than the average European, and 700 percent more than the average African. We would need four earths if everyone consumed as much as us.6

I read…

We subjected ten million people to slavery, their lives and humanity stolen for the purposes of profit. We’ve created 150 million pounds of nuclear waste, which will be lethal to humans and other creatures for 250,000 years. We’ve overthrown at least fifteen governments worldwide, in part or entirely because they threatened American financial interests. We force ten billion animals a year to live out their lives in the pain and confinement of factory farms. We’ve cut some 98 percent of American old-growth forests. We’ve contaminated more than half of US waterways to the point where they aren’t healthy for drinking, fishing, or recreation. We’ve brought as many as 35,000 plants and animals to the brink of extinction in the US alone.7

I read…

“Materialism is a spiritual catastrophe, promoted by a corporate media multiplex and a culture industry that have hardened the hearts of hard-core consumers and coarsened the consciences of would-be citizens. Clever gimmicks of mass distraction yield a cheap soulcraft of addicted and self-medicated narcissists.” —Cornel West8

I read…

The world is burning. We are laying waste to the very life support systems that gave rise to and sustain human life. We are degrading and extinguishing lives, both human and a vast breadth of others at a horrifying pace, with horrifying disregard. This economic system, this culture of materialism and consumption, is brutal and hollow. It serves neither those of us who are doing the consuming or those of us who are being consumed. Whatever successes it may have to its credit, its failures are of another order entirely, and are only growing more urgent with every day. This system is bankrupt and it is doomed. One way or another it is going down.9

I read…

As Derrick Jensen writes, “So long as we find it not only acceptable but right and just to convert the lives of others and the life-support system of the entire planet itself into fodder for us, there is little hope for life on the planet.”10

I read…

So long as production and consumption remain the primary measures of our worth and purpose; So long as we feel utterly dependent on them for our well-being and happiness, for approval, and for keeping our sense of isolation, inadequacy, and fear at bay; So long as our default orientation is toward bigger, better, newer, instead of abundance and gratitude; And so long as we continue to be so epically detached from our hearts, and from the wonder of the world, and from the miracle of ourselves; Then we will continue to feed this violent and destructive machine. Regardless of any changes that are made, we will constantly rearrange ourselves and the pieces of the machine to keep grinding forward to meet what we falsely perceive as essential needs.11

This is not the only book I have read recently that points such a finger or suggests this way of organizing ourselves is not good on any level. There is Brading Sweetgrass, by Robin Wall Kimmerer, Sacred Economics by Charles Eisenstein and The Gift, by Lewis Hyde.

All of them point towards a way of thinking prevalent for most of human history and presented in many forms as Indigenous Wisdom. A wisdom handed down through the ages from generation to generation. I know, it’s naive to think we could go back to the time of indigenous wisdoms. I know violence was not unknown in those days. In fact, those days could be brutal in their own way. What can’t be challenged, it seems to me, is the fundamental wiseness of native wisdom. If we just look at it as a system of ethics and spiritual attitude, don’t we have something pretty wonderful?

I read…

The Honorable Harvest

Know the ways of the ones who take care of you, so that you may take care of them.

Introduce yourself. Be accountable as the one who comes asking for life.

Ask permission before taking. Abide by the answer.   Never take the first. Never take the last.

Take only what you need.

Take only that which is given.

Never take more than half. Leave some for others.   Harvest in a way that minimizes harm.

Use it respectfully. Never waste what you’ve taken.


Give thanks for what you have been given.

Give a gift, in reciprocity for what you have taken.

Sustain the ones who sustain you and the earth will last forever. —Robin Wall Kimmerer12

This morning I read about the massive fentanyl problem we are having in the United States. I read about the production and delivery system of the Mexican cartels, as complex and sophisticated as any “legitimate” corporate business. I read that drugs funneled to the United States by the Cartels are killing as many as 200 people a day. A loss of tens of thousands of American citizens every year. I wondered why so many people want those drugs and why they are killing themselves with them.

And then… I read.


  1. Golden, Jeff, Reclaiming the Sacred, location: 130, Kindle link ↩︎

  2. Ibid, location: 2599 ↩︎

  3. Ibid, location: 2863 ↩︎

  4. Ibid, location: 3081 ↩︎

  5. Ibid, location: 3081 ↩︎

  6. Ibid, location: 3088 ↩︎

  7. Ibid, location: 2123 ↩︎

  8. Ibid, location: 3158 ↩︎

  9. Ibid, location: 3630 ↩︎

  10. Ibid, location: 4427 ↩︎

  11. Ibid, location: 4430 ↩︎

  12. Ibid, location: 5028 ↩︎

How Much Does Happiness Cost?

Sign saying “you can’t buy happiness but you can buy pizza and that’s kind of the same thing”

Research… shows that materialism is “toxic” for happiness, that the more importance we place on money and possessions, the more strained our relationships tend to be, the lower our sense of self-worth, and the more fleeting our happiness.1

I have been reading Reclaiming the Sacred, by Jeff Golden, which makes a case for the things that money can’t buy. At least, that is what it hinted it would do in it’s opening pages. I’ve only just reached that part after having traveled through several chapters where the author supplies academic study statistics on happiness, particularly, how much money a person needs to maximize their happiness.

It will surprise none that money is not identified as the key to happiness in this book. What is surprising is how little effect it has on happiness. For the truly impoverished, whom the book suggests have less than $10K/person/yr income, on average, in the United States, any increment in income brings a substantial increment in happiness. Once the $10K/person/yr threshold is crossed, further increase in income brings a marginal increase in happiness. When the threshold of $30k/person/yr is reached, additional income brings no increase in happiness.

To recap:

  • $0K-$10k/person/yr = big increase in happiness with any increment in income.
  • $10k-$30k/person/yr = small increase in happiness with any increment in income.
  • More than $30K/person/yr = no increase in happiness with any further increment in income.

The happiness amount varies from individual to individual and from region to region. I live in the NYC metropolitan area, so my thresholds probably skew up a bit over other areas of the country. On the other hand, I am also the kind of person who doesn’t need that much materially, so it is less for me than for some.

Still, these are, to me, astonishing figures. I would guess that a lot of us believe we would be quite a bit happier with any increment beyond $30K/person/yr but the studies say nope, not the case.

Another interesting study finding is that having children does not make people much happier than they are without children, Sometimes not at all. So much for the bundle of joy concept. And yet most of us feel compelled to have children, are mostly not sorry that we did, and are sorry on some level if we didn’t.2

In Buddhist Economics, E. F. Schumacher juxtaposes the capitalist approach to labor with the Buddhist approach to labor.

The capitalist approach to labor:

… consider(s) “labour” or work as little more than a necessary evil. From the point of view of the employer, it is in any case simply an item of cost, to be reduced to a minimum if it can not be eliminated altogether, say, by automation. From the point of view of the workman, it is a “disutility”; to work is to make a sacrifice of one’s leisure and comfort, and wages are a kind of compensation for the sacrifice. Hence the ideal from the point of view of the employer is to have output without employees, and the ideal from the point of view of the employee is to have income without employment.

The consequences of these attitudes both in theory and in practice are, of course, extremely far-reaching. If the ideal with regard to work is to get rid of it, every method that “reduces the work load” is a good thing. The most potent method, short of automation, is the so-called “division of labour” and the classical example is the pin factory eulogised in Adam Smith’s Wealth of Nations. Here it is not a matter of ordinary specialisation, which mankind has practiced from time immemorial, but of dividing up every complete process of production into minute parts, so that the final product can be produced at great speed without anyone having had to contribute more than a totally insignificant and, in most cases, unskilled movement of his limbs.3

The Buddhist approach to labor:

The Buddhist point of view takes the function of work to be at least threefold: to give man a chance to utilise and develop his faculties; to enable him to overcome his ego-centredness by joining with other people in a common task; and to bring forth the goods and services needed for a becoming existence… the consequences that flow from this view are endless. To organise work in such a manner that it becomes meaningless, boring, stultifying, or nerve-racking for the worker would be little short of criminal; it would indicate a greater concern with goods than with people, an evil lack of compassion and a soul-destroying degree of attachment to the most primitive side of this worldly existence. Equally, to strive for leisure as an alternative to work would be considered a complete misunderstanding of one of the basic truths of human existence, namely that work and leisure are complementary parts of the same living process and cannot be separated without destroying the joy of work and the bliss of leisure.4

As I review my own situation, I am grateful. It appears to me that my wife and I have landed in the sweet spot economically for maximizing happiness, at least as suggested by the happiness/income ratios above. We have a modest but comfortable house. A yard with room to grow things and let the dogs run. A little bit more than enough income, thanks to my wife’s traditional pension, social security and some savings. There certainly are some things that more money could do and my wife might be a little bit happier if we could do some of them, but she is generally happy now. We spend lots of time together, read, write, go for daily walks, sit in local cafes, cook, pursue our interests, have dinner with friends, attend yoga classes, tune ourselves into the beauty around us.

We are fortunate. We have achieved a good retirement. One wonders though, what life might be like if this kind of arrangement could be had all the way through? If we pursued Buddhist economics rather than capitalist economics. I suspect we’d be way less stressed, have fewer children, consume much less, have much less impact on the planet, fight fewer wars, be less interested in guns, laugh and smile a lot.

Yes please.


  1. Golden, Jeff, Reclaiming the Sacred. location: 115, ref-5377 ↩︎

  2. Does this mean that happiness is not really the point, just a bonus if it happens? Is it really about getting your genes into the next generation, happiness be damned? That might explain the desire for influence and power. ↩︎

  3. Schumacher, E. F., Buddhist Economics↩︎

  4. Ibid. ↩︎

Finding the Mother Community

Fox News Corp (FNC) has been on my mind. The release to the public of the 1.6 billion lawsuit legal filing by Dominion Voting Systems has painted a picture of a company and its executives that is about as venal as it gets. The brief makes it clear that Fox News Corp was aware that they were spreading lies to their audience without regard for consequences. Ratings and profit were of paramount importance. Fear of loosing ratings and profits to other outlets that would pander to their audience drove them to feed the wild claims of the big lie to their viewership. The result was January 6, 2020. This is not a one off thing.

For financial profit, Fox has for years radicalized its viewers and reaffirmed their most profound apprehensions and most malevolent biases. In the aftermath of the 2020 election, Fox had to pander to what they had created or risk losing audience share. It chose the former, opting for demagoguery over democracy to make a buck.1


Murdoch’s company is being exposed for what it is: a disinformation-for-profit noise machine controlled by a vile billionaire and operated by a pack of jackals who distort and pervert the national discourse.2

Among the thoughts I am having is that the effects of this venality have been accumulating for a long time and they reach deeper and farther than the radicalization of a very vocal minority. I don’t think there are too many of us that haven’t had a relationship with a family member, relative or friend made more complicated because of it.

My dad and I had a very difficult relationship. I can’t blame that entirely on Fox News Corp, his main source of information, but vehement and bullying disagreements over politics was a threat that loomed over every family gathering.

My informal survey of friends and acquaintances indicates that my experience hasn’t been unique. All of us have at least one relative or friend that has been made angry by what they see and hear on Fox News and other outlets that feed distorted ways of looking at the world and one another. Estrangement is the other epidemic. Even the pandemic estranged us as we rallied to one political view of the crisis or another, making coordinated communal action difficult. How many lives were lost because of that?

I recently read Finding the Mother Tree by Suzanne Simard and came across this quote:

Ecosystems are so similar to human societies—they’re built on relationships. The stronger those are, the more resilient the system. And since our world’s systems are composed of individual organisms, they have the capacity to change.3

Two concepts are important here. Societies and Ecosystems depend on relationships. Systems are composed of individuals. Systems composed of diverse individuals in strong relationship have a capacity to adjust to new circumstances and meet big challenges.

Suzanne Simard spent her life investigating the ecology of forests. In particular, the outcomes of forestry practice that clearcut old growth, diverse forests and replaced them with monocultures of commercially valuable trees. She noted early on that the saplings planted to replace the forest didn’t fare well. A large number of them languished and died. She wanted to know why. The question “why” leads her to the discovery that trees in a forest are dependent on one another, connected by a mycorrhizal fungal network connecting their roots to all the other trees in their vicinity, both of the same species and different species. The network enables communication and the rendering of assistance to their offspring, other trees of their own species, and trees of different species. A “mother” tree can distinguish its own progeny from the progeny of other trees of the same species. Trees can warn each other of incoming pestilence allowing trees not yet affected to mount a defense. She makes clear that forests have intelligence.

Clear cutting, a practice of industrial production, destroys the network of connection and monoculture lacks the partnerships trees form with other species to share resources back and forth as needed throughout the year and their lifecycle. Discussing the practices of the timber industry and industrial farming:

We emphasize domination and competition in the management of trees in forests. And crops in agricultural fields. And stock animals on farms. We emphasize factions instead of coalitions. In forestry, the theory of dominance is put into practice through weeding, spacing, thinning, and other methods that promote growth of the prized individuals. In agriculture, it provides the rationale for multimillion-dollar pesticide, fertilizer, and genetic programs to promote single high-yield crops instead of diverse fields.4

I think one could adjust this description quite easily to capitalism and authoritarianism. In capitalism, the system I know intimately, it is profitable to promote competition and domination through monocultures of factionalism fueled by anger and grievance. That is, to make a buck, some of us are quite happy to destroy the networks that make us strong and resilient.

What is it about the human animal that lets us go so astray of what is good for us or become enmeshed in an economic or political system that exaggerates our most selfish tendencies. Why is it so easy for us to be provoked into anger and why is anger so much more powerful than love? Why do we crave power and wealth? Crave it so much we ignore the irreparable harm we do to each other and the planet. I suppose one has to allow for the possibility that this too is a way of nature, but if that is so, nature is far more grim a proposition than one might suppose from a study of forests. But then forests have had a longer time to evolve into cooperative communities. My best answer so far is that we remain primal beings in spite of our “advances,” driven by a basic set of instincts that are easy to manipulate. I don’t know that anyone has ever found the equivalent of FNC in a mature forest.

One of the articles that caught my attention this past week was about a spontaneous Christian revival that occurred at Asbury college in Wilmore Kentucky. After a worship service with an apparently compelling sermon, a group of students stayed behind to pray and talk. Those who were there describe a feeling that filled the sanctuary:

People I have spoken with who entered these spaces describe encountering a “sweet presence,” “deep peace,” or “the quiet, heavy presence of God.” A sense of awe prevails. It is, one participant told me, as if “heaven opened up.”5

Word got out and…

… a stream of pilgrims has made its way to Wilmore. All of the auditorium’s almost 1,500 wooden flip seats are occupied; the walls and archways leading into the gathering space are crammed with people hungering to join in. Crowds have congregated in auditoriums and chapels elsewhere in town, singing and praying and reading the Bible.6

I am deeply suspicious of organized religion, Evangelical Christianity especially. But there was something about this “revival” that spoke to me of a deep longing for spiritual connection in community. It struck me as honest and real. Not of organized religion, but of a need for connection, community.

Apparently Tucker Carlson of Fox News Corp wanted to do a segment on his show but…

… was asked not to come to cover the revival, because it has nothing to do with politics or business. No one wants to pervert or disrupt what God is seemingly doing in this community.

We live in discontinuous times. Everywhere, it seems, we are being atomized, disconnected from one another. There is madness afoot driven by capitalist greed and authoritarian lust.

In Modern Spirituality Is a Consumers Choice Now Conor Friedersdorf discusses the atomization of belief which is partially but not solely attributable to a rise in the embracing of a scientific world view writes:

But this kind of (scientific) intellectual disenchantment remains a minority phenomenon. Most people who have fallen away from organized religious life remain exuberantly credulous: as G. K. Chesterton put it, “When men choose not to believe in God, they do not thereafter believe in nothing, they then become capable of believing in anything.” More than four in ten Americans believe that ghosts and demons exist and that psychics are real; a third believe in reincarnation; nearly 30 percent believe in astrology. In Europe, the churches may be empty, but comfortable majorities continue to profess faith in God or some higher power.

I have generally had respect for what I call “religion on the ground,” which is religion at the local community level. It, along with shared history and rituals had the power to knit people together into resilient communities.

There is a lot of conversation about Indigenous wisdom. Four books I have read recently, Sacred Economics, The Gift, Braiding Sweetgrass and Finding the Mother Tree talk about it. We have to be careful not to romanticize native wisdom, but the message, over and over again, is that we have to recognize our connections to one another and to all life. We have to treat all life as a gift. This attitude is profoundly absent from capitalism and authoritarianism, which treat everything as a means to power, wealth and dominance, rather than as tendrils of connection and community and cooperation where we all not only survive, but thrive.

I am hopeful that we can find and learn to nourish our equivalent to mycorrhizal networks. I think this is a process that will happen at a local community level. That we can find and nurture “mother” communities all around the planet and nourish them. And then, in collaboration, we will work at riding ourselves of the pestilence of profit and power for profit and power’s sake.

  1. https://www.motherjones.com/politics/2023/02/the-corruption-at-fox-news-is-worse-than-you-assumed/ ↩︎

  2. Ibid ↩︎

  3. Simard, Suzanne, Finding the Mother Tree: Discovering the Wisdom of the Forest. Kindle edition, location 3103. ↩︎

  4. Ibid, location 2285 ↩︎

  5. https://www.theatlantic.com/ideas/archive/2023/02/asbury-kentucky-university-christian-revival/673176/?utm_source=feed ↩︎

  6. https://www.theatlantic.com/ideas/archive/2023/02/asbury-kentucky-university-christian-revival/673176/?utm_source=feed ↩︎


I have finished reading The Gift by Lewis Hyde. It was a very satisfying read. It didn’t tell me anything I didn’t already know or suspect on some level, but it deepened my understanding of the spirit of human creativity and how one needs to treat the gift of inspiration. It also firmed up in my mind the idea that there is human endeavor and expression and need fulfillment which does not fit easily into a market economy and is consequently undervalued or not valued at all in our society. The market has us so trained to the idea that only commodity has value, we have a hard time valuing and treating as important anything we can’t put a price tag on. It leaves an awful lot of what it means to be human desiccating in the deserts of capitalism.

Women have known for a long time what it is to have your production undervalued or not valued at all. More men are learning this too. Relational partnerships are coming in all sorts of configurations these days and increasingly men are having to deal with the power dynamics of not being the main bread winner.

According to Hyde, indigenous peoples have known for centuries how to value that which has no value in a civilized market. And this excerpt from The Log from the Sea of Cortez by John Steinbeck, is a remarkable description of the clash between an indigenous way of looking at things and a market-civilized way of looking at things:

And in our contacts with Mexican people we had been faced with a change in expediencies. Perhaps—even surely—these people are expedient, but on some other plane than our ordinary one. What they did for us was without hope or plan for profit. We suppose there must have been some kind of profit involved, but not the kind we are used to, not of material things changing hands. And yet some trade took place at every contact—something was exchanged, some unnamable of great value. Perhaps these people are expedient in the unnameables. Maybe they bargain in feelings, in pleasures, even simple contacts. When the Indians came to the Western Flyer and sat timelessly on the rail, perhaps they were taking something. We gave them presents, but it was sure they had not come for presents. When they helped us, it was with no idea of material payment. There were material prices for material things, but one couldn’t buy kindness with money, as one can in our country. It was so in every contact, and they were so used to the spiritual transaction that they had difficulty translating material things into money.

For the bulk of my life I have struggled to find a place in this market oriented world where money is power and any thing or any effort that can’t be commoditized is useless. I have always been more interested in the “useless” bits, the spiritual bits.

This past Christmas, inspired by The Gift, I decided I wanted to gift something I made with my own hands to family and friends instead of buying something and sending it. I am a photographic artist and my art is pretty good. I created what I call a photographic chapbook which is a short publication. I used high quality archival paper to print them and sowed them together myself. There were eight photographs in the chapbook, and a micro poem to accompany them. When I had shared the images with my photography salon the feed back was very positive. When I shared the chapbook with my Salon one attendee bargained me ur from $25 to $50 for it on the spot. I had reason to believe that most people would like my chapbook. I chose the book format because I didn’t want to impose my aesthetics on anybody’s walls. They could always ask me for a larger print if they wanted to have one on their walls. I gave a number of these chapbooks to a variety of people in my life. The only ones that were acknowledged in any way were the ones for which I was in the room when they were opened.

Spirit-of-gift means that when you send your product out into the world as gift, you are setting it free and shouldn’t expect a return, or that the return will come immediately or even be obvious. That’s the hard part of flowing with the spirit-of-gift. We are so deeply enmeshed in a society that expects an immediate return in every exchange it is hard to sit still when it doesn’t happen. I wonder though, if instead of gifting my chapbooks I had spent $50 on a market commodity and gifted it, what the response might have been?

Perhaps I am like the indigenous Mexicans, speaking a language hard to comprehend in my society.

I won’t give up on making and gifting. My new mantra is: “Make and gift, something will come of it.”

Nick Cave Vs. ChatGPT

This past week a musician friend of mine posted a link to a Guardian article in which Nick Cave takes on song lyrics written “in the style of Nick Cave” by ChatGPT. She quoted at length from it, as will I:

Songs arise out of suffering, by which I mean they are predicated upon the complex, internal human struggle of creation and, well, as far as I know, algorithms don’t feel. Data doesn’t suffer. ChatGPT has no inner being, it has been nowhere, it has endured nothing, it has not had the audacity to reach beyond its limitations, and hence it doesn’t have the capacity for a shared transcendent experience, as it has no limitations from which to transcend. ChatGPT’s melancholy role is that it is destined to imitate and can never have an authentic human experience, no matter how devalued and inconsequential the human experience may in time become.

What makes a great song great is not its close resemblance to a recognizable work. Writing a good song is not mimicry, or replication, or pastiche, it is the opposite. It is an act of self-murder that destroys all one has strived to produce in the past. It is those dangerous, heart-stopping departures that catapult the artist beyond the limits of what he or she recognizes as their known self. This is part of the authentic creative struggle that precedes the invention of a unique lyric of actual value; it is the breathless confrontation with one’s vulnerability, one’s perilousness, one’s smallness, pitted against a sense of sudden shocking discovery; it is the redemptive artistic act that stirs the heart of the listener, where the listener recognizes in the inner workings of the song their own blood, their own struggle, their own suffering. This is what we humble humans can offer, that AI can only mimic, the transcendent journey of the artist that forever grapples with his or her own shortcomings. This is where human genius resides, deeply embedded within, yet reaching beyond, those limitations.

Much as I admire Nick Cave and my musician friend for being the valiant and vibrant creators that they are, I think the argument that ChatGPT doesn’t feel and hasn’t experienced is beside the point. It doesn’t need to feel, it only needs to make human beings feel in this particular game. It only needs to predict what will bring tears to our eyes and laughter to our faces, what will draw us deeply in and help us transcend ourselves. I suspect that ChatGPT and other AI like it can and will get very good at that.

If you reject the idea that algorithms can learn to make us feel, then consider what has been said about Facebook (and other social media) algorithms that can suss out what is most likely to draw our attention and hold it. Consider how that played out in recent elections and how it plays out fueling white supremacy and hatred of the other. It turns out anger is a powerful motivation for people to coalesce around and AI has gotten pretty good at feeding us on a banquet of hatred of the other.

AI generated everything is inevitable and it will get better and better. The thing is, AI is a product of mass organization economic systems, capitalism in particular. It is doubtful it could have happened without capitalism or other equally disconnecting ways of operating an economy and, by extension, society. The key point to remember is that we don’t have to participate in that economy, at least, not all the time. I don’t know if we can completely eliminate capitalism or other mass organizational systems. I don’t know if we would even want to. There are some breathtaking benefits. But it does seem possible to organize parallel economies that are more local in scale, which is the scale at which the alternatives can thrive and be satisfying; the scale at which it matters that the song channeling our personal human experience and making us feel was created by another human being; the scale at which it matters that we go to hear that song performed by the creator and participate in the communal activity that live performance creates.

I have been reading about alternative economics. Two books are very influential to my thinking. Sacred Economics by Charles Eisenstein and The Gift, by Lewis Hyde. I have finished the first and am halfway through the second.

Sacred Economics helped me understand why growth is essential to capitalism—there is always more debt than value being created through production—and how capitalism fills the void between debt and product by converting the commons—that which should belong to everyone—to privately held resources to be exploited for profit. ChatGPT is another attempt to lay claim to the commons, in this case, the creative commons that all art product aspires to be part of. In Sacred Economics, Eisenstein argues that eliminating usury (the ability to make money on money), creating currency that devalues with time (not through inflation, but through planned devaluation over a specific time frame), and practicing a gift economy as tribal and other types of small communities have often done.

In Part I of The Gift, Lewis Hyde explains the history and functioning of the gift economy in great detail, as well as the history of usury and modern economies which have supplanted the gift economy. In Part II, which I have just now started to make my way through, he explains the relevance of a gift economy to the arts.

AI is a product of mass economic systems, capitalism in particular. AI couldn’t happen without these systems and will function best within these contexts. Human rendered art can and sometimes does function well within that mass economic context, but, when you get beyond the few giants and near giants in any creative industry human creative output struggles to function in that context and starts to require an economy built on community. This is the gift economy that Hyde and Eisenstein, drawing heavily from Hyde, describe.

My guess is that we need to relearn the gift economy if we are to have a satisfying way of being human creatives and connecting our creations with other human beings. I don’t presently believe that one excludes the other but we must actively and intentionally reclaim the gift economy if we are to benefit from it. There is much work to do in this direction.

This is all I can say about economic alternatives at present because I am still reading and thinking. The important point I am making is that it’s not AI vs human artists but an economic system that by its design breaks down community as against one that builds it. The choice is ours as to which one we want to labor and participate in.

”Make the work, something will come of it.”

Adventures in a gift economy…

I, like many of you, have come to the conclusion that Capitalism is killing the planet. Killing the planet means killing ourselves. We are engaged in species suicide. We don’t seem to be able to help ourselves.

For the longest time I have thought we needed a new system of managing ourselves and our resources, but I have had no idea what it should be. There have been inklings here and there. Buddhist Economics, an essay by E. F. Schumacher that wondered what an economic system based on Buddhist principals would look like. It offered a whole new way of thinking of things. It speculated that the well being of people should be centered. No matter how much capitalist economists try to tell us that capitalism centers the well being of people, that people’s living standards rise wherever its principals are adhered to, it just isn’t true. It creates the conditions it then claims to fix. It exploits people for the accumulation of wealth in the hands of a few and leaves too many impoverished.

There were more inklings in Braiding Sweetgrass by Robin Wall Kimmerer, a woman with Native American ancestry and a American Distinguished Teaching Professor of Environmental and Forest Biology. The book is steeped in Native American ways of thinking about nature. That nature is a commons we all have the right to enjoy and harvest as long as we do so respectfully, don’t claim any part of it exclusively for ourselves, and don’t take more than we need. The bounty of the commons is a gift we receive and share. She places this gift economy alongside the system of capitalist exploitation where the commons has been transferred to private ownership that we buy and exploit for our personal benefit.

Robin Wall Kimmerer knows in her heart that the system her ancestors had was better, but acknowledges that it would be difficult to organize people and resources beyond a tribal or local community level based on it. She delivered a message of hope to me, but not a clear pointer to where we should be going or how we might get there.

Then, a few months ago I read an essay she wrote about serviceberry economics, essentially making the case for a gift economy along the lines her ancestors practiced. In that essay she referenced Sacred Economics by Charles Eisenstein. I bought it. I read it.

Charles Eisenstein explained to me why Capitalism requires a forever-expanding production and consumption, aka, growth. We always owe more than we produce. The way money is created and distributed is based on debt. Debt that is collateralized by the ability of the economy to grow endlessly. He also showed me a viable way to create an economy that is not based on debt and the accumulation of capital. We create money that has an expiration date. It looses value over time. The incentive to accumulate is removed and the result is that money circulates more freely, which puts more goods and services in more people’s hands. It isn’t practical to horde what looses value. We also eliminate usury, the practice of loaning with interest. The practice of making money from money. We practice a gift economy, where it is more significant to give than receive.

Charles Eisenstein believes that capitalism is set to collapse under its own weight because we are running out of commons (that which belongs to everybody) to convert into private ownership. I am not so sure that is the case. We are exploring outer space and traveling to the Moon and Mars with an eye towards growth through privatizing that commons. Space is comparatively limitless and, assuming we find resources that can be valued, the potential for growth is also limitless.

Even so, Sacred Economics gave me the outline of a system that seems feasible. And Capitalism doesn’t have to fail or be replaced wholesale to achieve it. A sacred or gift economy, which values the commons and people, can grow up alongside the capitalist economy and channel human creative effort in ways capitalism can’t. It may in fact be a necessary adjunct to capitalism, its strength being the building of community on the local level which Capitalism is not at all good at doing. In fact, capitalism is anti local community.

Sacred Economics led me to The Gift by Lewis Hyde. I am five chapters into it and pretty sure it is a transformative text for me. It is an in depth look at the “Gift Economy” as it applies to the artist and creative labor.

Because of the above referenced books and essays, especially Sacred Economics and The Gift, I have decided to run an experiment this year with my art production and distribution. I am planning to make what I call photo chapbooks. Chapbooks are small books or pamphlets that, traditionally, contain poems, stories, ballads or religious tracts. My photo chapbooks will contain a small set of images and sometimes a poem or some relevant prose writing.

I am planning to do a series of these books that propagate and distribute only through a gift economy. That is, I will give them away to family, friends and acquaintances. They will have instructions explaining that the chapbook is a gift from the artist to the wider world. They will specify that the chapbook should never change hands for money, that it is the artist’s wish that they only be passed from person to person as a gift and any receiver of the gift is encouraged to gift it to another person if it doesn’t find a permanent home in their library. If it does find a permanent home, then the receiver is asked to gift something in their possession to someone they know in a similar way. In that way, the gift stays in motion as gifts are intended to do.

One of my favorite quotes is from, I think, John Cage, who told someone somewhere struggling with their creative product and how to live from it, “make the work, something will come of it.” I am interested to see what comes of this work.