Monday, August 24, 2009

Big Knob Fair

The Big Knob Grange Fair is coming up, September 1st through 5th. It's only a hop skip and a jump from my house, so you can visit me too if you plan to attend. The fair is really quite a delight. One of the things I enjoy so much is the the timing of the fair, for young people it's the last big summer fling. The picture wasn't actually taken at the fair, it's at a cousin's farm, but the old farm equipment displayed at the fair is alway one of my favorite attractions. The fair really is a way to connect with local agriculture. And it's a chance to meet some of the fine people who make their living plying the land.

Using a blog to think out loud is a sure way to make a blog unreadable. If any followed along even a little bit in my last post, you'll know I've been trying to think of a way to organize a we20 event. There's something pathetic about my inability to get anything together.

I had it in mind to pitch the event at a gathering of friends. I didn't. It was nice that a friend stopped by prior to it and we had a good long talk. The trouble was that my pitch sounded to him very much that I wanted my friends to make a plan for what I should be doing. That follows pretty logically from the fact that I can't seem to do anything I'm supposed to. But that's really not what I had in mind. Another issue is when I think of a small group, or think of my "community" I tend of think of people who might miss me a little when I die. Days after our talk my friend sent me a short list of people I should look for collaboration with. I'm not sure any of them really would care much if I died, but my friend is probably right that what I have in mind for a we20 meeting would make better hay with them instead of my more economically secure friends.

Recently I read one of those The Guardian debates. This one was between George Montbiot and Paul Kingsnorth. The debate, Is there any point in fighting to stave off industrial apocalypse? provoked a headache probably because it resonated with a rather persistent debate in my own head. Debates in my head tend to just go around in circles, so a good thing about debates in print is they suggest further development of the ideas. And in the last few days I've read or watched videos which have gotten me out of the rut so to speak.

What I can't figure out is whether or not any of my friends ever think about an industrial apocalypse? A couple of years ago I read or heard something regarding Peter D. Ward's book Under a Green Sky: Global Warming, the Mass Extinctions of the Past, and What They Can Tell Us About Our Future (now remaindered). The point was made that our present trajectory of atmospheric Carbon could result in the extinction of all flowering plants. Needless to say, all people would become extinct prior to flowering plants. But the thought s of flowering plants going extinct filled me with such grief that for at least a few days after hearing it my actions were as if I was in a vat of molasses. I write off my reaction as a sign of my mental fragility, even still I wonder if sometimes my friends don't suffer when they encounter in one way or another evidence of the limits of planetary ecology and life on Earth?

I think they must at times. So when I think of economic conditions and getting together with a small group for discussion and for making a plan--no matter how small--the premise: What do we do now that we know there are limits? is central to what we'd talk and plan about. That premise makes me sound like a Cassandra. I don't think I'm trying to persuade, rather I'm curious about how others are feeling. What I gather from feedback is they aren't feeling up against any limits.

From Sharon Astyk's blog a really good post The Pedagogy of Collapse introduced me to a distinction made by John Michael Greer between a predicament as opposed to a problem to be solved. Astyk writes:
The obvious model predicament is death - something that can be addressed and handled in a whole host of ways, some productive, some not, but that can never be solved - we all die. How we approach our deaths, how we view them, the contexts in which they occur - these details matter enormously, but none of them approach the status of solution, eliminating the basic problem.
The debate between Monbiot and Kingsnorth seems to me to have generated more heat than light. Perhaps one of the reasons I tend to get blank stares from my friends when I bring up the topic of limits is they presume I'll launch into some millienialist rant about a coming apocalypse; or at minimum boor them by telling them how sad I feel about the state of life on Earth. I'm optimistic, however, about the possibilities for viable and humane responses whether we face problems to be solved or predicaments. It's our responses that seem most worth talking about. But how to begin the conversations?

When we got together my friend made some very good suggestions about what I could do about my economic situation. The implicit message is that what I do will have a lot more effect than what I say. As I already mentioned he also gave me a list of people I know that will probably be more receptive to my dour outlook. So that's good advice, and probably qualifies as a mini we20 gathering. My next plan is to tell as many of my friends as possible about the Big Knob Fair and hope to see at least some of them on their way to the fair.

One last link to offer is a 40 minute video of Slavoj Zizek at YouTube. It a debate with Alex Callinicos on the topic "What does it mean to be a revolutionary today?" at Marxism 2009 from early July of this year. I also watched the Callinicos video. Oddly each of their responses to each other are on their respective videos without them offering the questions. It's more compact that way, but also a bit hard to follow. I'm hardly a revolutionary! Nevertheless found their remarks, especially Zizek's commentary quite interesting.

If you plan a trip to the fair, please stop by, I'd love to see you.

Wednesday, August 12, 2009

Rambling about we20

On Saturday night I was out to visit friends. I was amused by a comment about my online profile picture, to the effect that I'm not really so ugly in person. Some of the conversation that evening was about the Internet and how tricky the balancing act of online and offline life is. It's not just about time, but more importantly who we are and how we imagine ourselves to be.

I love Sharon Astyk's blog Casabon's Book. I was looking at her site today and marveled at the clarity of her statement of what the site is about:
Depletion and Abundance are just two sides of the same coin. We're no longer speaking of the future when we talk about climate change and peak oil. So now the project is to accept depletion, and still find a good and abundant way of life, not just for ourselves, but for those who will come after us. We can do this - it is one heck of a challenge, but we have to find a way, so we will. That's what this site is for - finding a way forward.
Last time I wrote here, I said I'm no good at making plans. It's true, I'm not, but I'm still eager to get something together around the we20 initiative. This coming Saturday I'll have a chance to see some of my friends again, and I'm trying to develop a pitch for a we20 meeting the following weekend at my place.

When I think about economics, I think about it from a global environmental frame. With my friends, I often discover I'm really out of sync with their perspectives. Most of the time feel at a loss as to what to say. I want to get together with friends to talk about as Astyk puts it: "finding a way forward" and don't quite yet know how to make that happen.

When I talk to friends about climate change and peak oil, I never get feedback that neither is real, but the discussions always seems to dead end. My friends are busy people doing what they need to do, which in America requires lots of driving around. I talk too much and don't listen enough. Proceeding from the assumptions of climate change and peak oil isn't going to happen unless everyone in the group actually talks about those issues.

Present tense, when we're speaking about economics,mostly we're concerned with making enough money to provide for ourselves. Unemployment is an issue among some of my friends, and it's a subject that we're loathe to talk about. Sharon Astyk's statement about what her blog is about brings climate change and peak oil into the present tense. So how to have a meeting that starts from this presumption is challenge number one.

I've lived in the greater Pittsburgh area for most of my life. I'm very happy that I have old friends, people who've known me for a long while. Really, we share a great deal in common, even if my politics have always seemed on the fringe. My politics have never been terribly coherent. Back in the 1970's a definably leftist cant in politics was often expressed. Some of the leftists seemed fairly conservative to me then, and grew more so. Actually having to get a job seemed to turn their heads around pretty quickly. One way or another we all had to make lives for ourselves.

Early this month Morgan Meis wrote a remembrance of Leszek Kolakowski. Meis discusses an essay "How to be a Conservative-Liberal-Socialist." I loved Meis's essay so much I wanted to find Koladowski's essay online too. I found it.* Morgan Meis writes:
It's impossible to be a conservative/liberal/socialist. Except that Kolakowski did it.
My hunch is most of my friends politics is actually rather along the lines of Kolakowski's Conlibsoc, even if they've never heard of Kolakowski. But there are no Conlibsoc candidates on the ballot, and our talk is usually more present tense.

The point of going on about politics is that Pittsburgh will host the G20 Summit on the 24th and 25th of September. I do have my eyes cocked for various responses to the meeting. It is an important event. As I say, I'm not particularly political, but whenever the subject of the G20 comes up, it seems there's a presumption of political activism on my part. I think my friends aren't willing to acknowledge just how lazy I actually am. Of course I do value political dissent and would be happy to engage in discussions about Seattle 1999. But geez, that was ten years ago. The interesting challenge that we20 puts forward is to make a plan; to talk about now and in the future.

I was hunting through the archives of Transition Culture for ideas and came upon an exercise for visualizing the future. The idea is four characters talking at a 2030 class reunion, the premise they were young people then and my age in 2030. Cards with statements about the characters are to be distributed in the audience so they can join in asking questions about "what was it like?"

I like the idea, but need to modify the exercise so that it can be done without people preparing as actors. Still, the exercise provides a good framework for discussion to think about the present from a future perspective. Many of my friends have children in their teens and twenties now. We are all intensely concerned about them and their futures. So that's rough idea about how I intend to get the ball rolling.

A regular practice Sharon Astyk follows on her blog is to provide updates. The format of the updates follows:
Waste Not:
Want Not:
Ate the Food:
Build Community Food Systems:
I love the list and that people who read the blog often join in the comments with their own updates. I doubt any plan we come up with will be exactly like hers. Still it really ought to be a plan that can be measured in actions taken during a week. Sharing what we do can motivate us to keep on doing and motivate us to do more.

* The excerpt references that it's from Kolakowski's book Modernity on Endless Trial. From that essay I went to the homepage of Mr. Bauld's English. A note on the bottom of the page reads:
Send comments to Brian Bauld, who has just retired from Amherst Regional High School, Amherst, Nova Scotia, in the summer of 2003.
Mr. Bauld created an incredible online resource! I've saved it for my own study, and also to recommend for someone I know who's dropped out of school and is looking to take her GED and get into college.

Tuesday, August 04, 2009

Make a Plan

The first hints of autumn's approach are here. The Goldenrods are just beginning to bloom and the Joe Pye Weed. Goldenrods are so common here most people think they are all the same, but actually there are at least sixty species in our area, so the blooming period is extended. Singing insects have begun their chorus too. A friend gave me a stack of zinnia seed packets last Christmas, so I'm enjoying an abundance of blooms in vibrant colors. The zinnias are also very attractive to butterflies.

We've had plenty of rain of late so growth is lush, especially the weeds abounding. My garden is a mess. That's more or less the intention, but every year I try to imagine it not being quite such a mess. I do look at the garden with a forward eye to next year, but making plans always seems easier in the Spring. In the spring I can see where some stone is, even if I can't figure out how to move it. In the summer it's all under a thicket of bramble so getting the stone seems impossible. Yet when I look at the garden now I want stone to play with now. I look out and want less grass to grow, but feel daunted by the challenge of growing anything but weeds. Summer is a lazy time. The signs of autumn's approach shake me from my torpor, if only a little.

The truth is I'm no good at making plans.

Last Friday I had a night out. I visited with a friend in the late afternoon then we met her brother and mutual friends at a restaurant. My friend's brother is a psychiatrist who works with war veterans. I'm a bit prejudiced about psychiatrists. Having gotten to know my friend's brother over the last couple of years I've come to see him as a fine physician, a humane human being and someone I like. He and my friend who's a district attorney in Family Court, have the most high-pressure jobs of the group. We sat at an outside table and I'd brought along a bouquet of zinnias for the table. I would have happily spent another hour drinking and talking, instead we went to a movie.

I rarely go to see films and sometimes I love them. We saw The Hangover which I thought awful. The movie was disturbing to me and it was unsettling to dislike a comedy so much. Am I really humorless? Both the folks with high-pressure jobs thought it funny and just the ticket for the evening.

At the dinner conversation: the subject of politics had come up. I do read about American politics. But the context of my reading about politics is framed by concerns summed up in a blurb from James Howard Kunstler's book The long Emergency:
The global oil predicament, climate change, and other shocks to the system, with implications for how we will live in the decades ahead.
In other words I spend a great deal of my time with my hair on fire.

My friend's brother had never met the couple who joined us for dinner. He was apprehensive at first and a little peeved at his sister for not telling him they'd be coming too. Apparently he's got a similar sort of prejudice about attorneys as my prejudice about pyschiatrists. We all got along well, and the political conversation was polite with no disagreements. I didn't want to come off as a raving lunatic. Still throughout the conversation about politics the question pressed in my mind was "How do we cope knowing the gravity of the crises before us?"

Dave Pollard posted a beautiful post on Monday, We Were Here where he very much captures my unease prompted by the political talk:
They (and perhaps all of us) are afflicted with a new kind of endemic dissociative mental illness. The dissonance between what we 'know', in some primeval way (like the wild animals who sense an impending storm or earthquake or 'hear' noises outside conscious perception), and what we 'think' based on the day's news and on the conversations we have about the needs and events of the moment, is utterly inconsolable, irreconcilable. So we try to ignore that dissonance. We pretend it isn't real.
Posting Pollard's quote might seem as if I'm projecting the disassociation onto my friends, so I want to be clear to own up: the dissonance is mine. I suspect my friends feel it too, but it's awfully hard to talk about. I don't know how to initiate the conversation.

Today on my Twitter stream I got a gentle prod from we20 to actually do something in advance of the G20 Meeting in Pittsburgh during September. we20 is politically neutral. The idea behind the site is quite simple. Use the we20 Web site to announce a meeting of a small group of people, say twenty. Then as a group hammer out a plan to do something around finding solutions to the global economic crisis and post that. A splendid and constructive idea. My plans for a July meeting fizzled, so I better get moving for one in August.

Oddly just prior to seeing the we20 tweet I'd been surfing the Pittsburgh G20 Resistance Project group at Facebook which has almost 500 members. The organization's Web site is here. I noticed that Paul Massey of we20 had left a wall post there, so I didn't feel a need to tweet it. Indeed I felt unsure I wanted to join. There's was a twinge of paranoia about it, you know, landing on a no-fly list--not that I plan to fly anywhere. More generally I've never been a good leftist, going way back it being a radical always seem too much work for a lazy guy like me. Quite specifically I have no interest in trying to disrupt the G20 Meeting.

From the looks of the Facebook page most of the participants are younger than I. I'm glad the kids are talking. I'm very interested as to what they have to say too. These days I seem more aware of a generation gap in the way the generations speak. Of course whatever the generation, some ideas seem very wrong, promotion of violence top of my list of wrongness.

In August Congress recesses and it's one of the few times of year representatives hear from their ordinary constituents in person. The issue of the day is structural change to our health care system. Health services are paid for primarily through private insurance schemes. Outside the USA the prominence of the profit motive in medicine here may be hard to fathom. Insurance, Big Pharma, and business groups are investing full force to influence the direction of the changes to the system. Public relations companies have been busy trying to organize for the August recess. On tactic being promoted is the disruption of public meetings with representatives. This irritates me because our elected representatives seem out of touch enough as it is.

I'm tired of argument. It's not that I don't think politics is important, because of course it is. What I long for nonetheless is politics that breaks through the dissonance between what we know and feel. The challenges humanity faces are heartbreaking. There must be a space for conversations enabling enough trust that we can reveal our hearts. we20 seems a great idea to me: Small groups and an intention to make a plan. The idea enforces enough intimacy to be real. I know I can't make a plan alone, perhaps together we can.

In August thoughts of cold winter are not far away, but there's still time. It's a good month, so I'll have to pick a date for a we20 meeting. How does August 22 sound?