30 November 2008

Who's here?

Who am i really? An imaginary being, like the square root of -1.
O, and u2? No wonder we get along so well together!

We tend to push our way along, with the illusion that while liberally whispering, smoothly saying, and shouting messages back and forth at will, we are effectively communicating, though we are by and large oblivious to our frequent backfires, misfires, and blanks.
— Floyd Merrell (1997, 244)

29 November 2008

Faces of truth

Faces of truth

Yesterday's post was partly about the ‘lamenting’ which was necessary in order for Black Elk to receive guidance from the thunder beings. The next problem is how to make the guidance available to the community for whose sake it was given. Since the Ogalala Sioux were not ‘people of the Book’, the medium of a written text was not an option. The tribal elders decided on a heyoka ceremony. Heyokas are sacred clowns; the next chapter of Black Elk Speaks describes how they carried out their mission on this occasion. Black Elk has this to say about the practice:
Only those who have had visions of the thunder beings of the west can act as heyokas. They have sacred power and they share some of this with all the people, but they do it through funny actions. When a vision comes from the thunder beings of the west, it comes with terror like a thunder storm; but when the storm of vision has passed, the world is greener and happier; for wherever the truth of vision comes upon the world, it is like a rain. The world, you see, is happier after the terror of the storm.

But in the heyoka ceremony, everything is backwards, and it is planned that the people shall be made to feel jolly and happy first, so that it may be easier for the power to come to them. You have noticed that the truth comes into this world with two faces. One is sad with suffering, and the other laughs; but it is the same face, laughing or weeping. When people are already in despair, maybe the laughing face is better for them; and when they feel too good and are too sure of being safe, maybe the weeping face is better for them to see. And so I think that is what the heyoka ceremony is for.

The ‘two faces of the truth’ will ring a bell, as it were, for those familiar with Case 3 of the Buddhist koan collection called the Blue Cliff Record:
Great Master Ma was unwell. The temple superintendent asked him, ‘Teacher, how has your venerable health been in recent days?’ The Great Master said, ‘Sun Face Buddha, Moon Face Buddha.’
— Cleary and Cleary (1977, 18)

Buddhist writings also share another natural image with Black Elk when they refer to ‘the truth of vision’ coming upon the world as ‘the rain of dharma’. Buddhas bestow this rain in whatever form it must take in order to be absorbed — for a sign is not a sign unless somebody reads it. Sometimes it takes tears to open the heart, and sometimes a bit of clowning.

28 November 2008

‘Abdu'l-Bahá and Black Elk

On this day, Bahá'ís around the world commemorate the Ascension of ‘Abdu'l-Bahá, the head of the Bahá'í faith from the passing of his father Bahá'u'lláh in 1892 until his own death in 1921. Throughout his life he was most commonly known as ‘The Master’, but the name he chose for himself means ‘servant of Baha’. ‘Abdu'l-Bahá was an examplar of servant leadership long before Robert Greenleaf coined the term.

‘Abdu'l-Bahá was the author of many prayers, and one of the most typical begins like this:

He is the All-Glorious!
O God, my God! Lowly and tearful, I raise my suppliant hands to Thee and cover my face in the dust of that Threshold of Thine, exalted above the knowledge of the learned, and the praise of all that glorify Thee.

Tears come naturally to a servant leader, especially when he contemplates the state of the world and the condition to which so many of its people are reduced because of human ignorance and error. I see another example in the Ogalala Sioux visionary Black Elk — especially in the ‘Dog Vision’ chapter of Black Elk Speaks. At the age of 18 he was acutely aware that his visionary power had been given to be used in service to his people, but also that he didn't yet know how to render that service.

I had made a good start to fulfill my duty to the Grandfathers, but I had much more to do; and so the winter was like a long night of waiting for the daybreak.

When the grasses began to show their faces again, I was happy, for I could hear the thunder beings coming in the earth and I could hear them saying: ‘It is time to do the work of your Grandfathers.’

After the long winter of waiting, it was my first duty to go out lamenting. So after the first rain storm I began to get ready.

When going out to lament it is necessary to choose a wise old medicine man, who is quiet and generous, to help.

Black Elk chose a medicine man named Few Tails to guide him through the long and arduous preparation for ‘lamenting’.

Few Tails now told me what I was to do so that the spirits would hear me and make clear my next duty. I was to stand in the middle, crying and praying for understanding. Then I was to advance from the center to the quarter of the west and mourn there awhile. Then I was to back up to the center, and from there approach the quarter of the north, wailing and praying there, and so on all around the circle. This I had to do all night long.

Black Elk's prayer was essentially the same as ‘Abdu'l-Bahá's — despite many obvious differences — and motivated by the same spirit of servant leadership. And for me there is a special poignancy in this passage from that same chapter in Black Elk's story:

And now when I look about me upon my people in despair, I feel like crying and I wish and wish my vision could have been given to a man more worthy. I wonder why it came to me, a pitiful old man who can do nothing. Men and women and children I have cured of sickness with the power the vision gave me; but my nation I could not help. If a man or woman or child dies, it does not matter long, for the nation lives on. It was the nation that was dying, and the vision was for the nation; but I have done nothing with it.

A century and a half later, the same forces of greed and ignorance which nearly destroyed the Sioux nation are still at work, only on a much bigger scale — the entire planetary ecosystem is at risk, and the suffering people of far outnumber the entire human population of the earth in Black Elk's time. I certainly feel like crying when i think about it, and even more so when i think of how little i have done to help — for i haven't even healed a single person, as Black Elk did many times. Yet i see that Black Elk's vision lives on through the story told in Black Elk Speaks, and may yet make a difference — perhaps even because this blog post has directed your attention to it!

I am neither a visionary like Black Elk nor a servant leader like ‘Abdu'l-Bahá; neither my work in progress nor this blog can begin to compare with what they accomplished. Yet i confess to a faint flickering hope that my work may serve some purpose, especially in its blending of spiritual and scientific visions. ‘Abdu'l-Bahá said that ‘religion and science are the two wings upon which man's intelligence can soar into the heights, with which the human soul can progress.’ And i'm encouraged that at least one precursor along this double path — C.S. Peirce — did his best work in his mid-60s. That's why i haven't succumbed entirely to despair …

27 November 2008

Symbolic and other inheritance systems

Can we guide our own evolution?

Yes, because changing our own habits changes the context in which natural selection operates.

No, because we don't control the effects of what we do. Some of those effects are always unanticipated, and you don't control what you can't anticipate.

Eva Jablonka has identified four different ‘inheritance systems’ which have roles in evolution: genetic, epigenetic, behavioral, and symbolic. For the full story see Jablonka and Lamb, Evolution in Four Dimensions (2005). Since the discovery of DNA and its structure, the genetic inheritance system has dominated evolutionary theory, but the other three are finally being recognized as sources of variation on which natural selection can operate.

Of course language — the primary symbolic system — has long been recognized as a source of variation on which conscious selection can operate. Biosemiotics, based on the pioneering work of Peirce, is beginning to bridge the gap between natural and conscious selection as factors in evolution — just as Jablonka has done, except that semiotics begins with the symbolic (linguistic) level and works downwards while Jablonka and colleagues are working upwards from the genetic.

My blog post yesterday commented on some similarities between the genetic and symbolic inheritance systems (GIS and SIS) which are not shared by the other two: both are modular and combinatorial. This allows them both to encode information, a vitally important function in the evolutionary process, as Jablonka points out:
Because of the ability to encode information, both the GIS and SIS transmit a lot of unexpressed information. Nonfunctional genes are transmitted, as also are nonimplemented ideas. This provides a huge reservoir of variation, which may become useful in new conditions. I believe that this ever-present potential gives these systems a particularly important role in long-term evolution. However, no inheritance system acts in isolation: inheritance systems interact both directly and indirectly. For example, the social animal, with its behavioral information systems, determines the selective regime in which genes are ultimately selected.
— Jablonka (Oyama, Griffiths and Gray 2001, 112)

This implies that in a time of crisis like the one we are now living through, we can affect the course of our own evolution by consciously changing our actual habits to realize ideas which have already been ‘transmitted’ but not yet implemented. That may sound obvious, but i wonder whether the possibility has really ‘sunk in’ to our awareness. Maybe it can help to place it on a scientific basis, as Jablonka does, and as Peirce did a century ago.

26 November 2008

Natural symbols

From the beginning of his semiotic work — before he called it that — C.S. Peirce recognized three kinds of sign: icon, index and symbol. Symbolic signs are essential to human language, and that makes all the difference between language and other kinds of communication found in nature. Peirce wrote in 1909 that symbols ‘represent their objects, independently alike of any resemblance or any real connection, because dispositions or factitious habits of their interpreters insure their being so understood’ (EP 2:461). A language is a complex set of habits common to all who speak the language. ‘Factitious habits’ are artificial conventions; ‘dispositions’ however need not be artificial. Obviously the primary reference here is to the use of language, which is partly conventional, but not entirely so in the case of ‘natural languages’: the ‘dispositions’ which guide the interpretive process can be as deeply grounded in human nature as the habits of laughing, crying or smiling.

And what about the larger natural context of human nature? Could the dispositions of language-interpreters be grounded in pre-linguistic habits? Is there a kind of interpretation older than language, a kind of symbol older than humanity? What about the genome: it is obviously a sign of the organism, but can we call it a symbol?

The analogy between genetic and linguistic structures has been made many times, because both are modular and combinatorial. That is, the molecular structures within the genome consist of parts which hang together as units and can be rearranged to generate a somewhat different organism, just as a new arrangement of word-symbols can mean something new. (Of course there are constraints on this rearranging — not every structure is viable in either domain, genetic or linguistic.) Both genetic and linguistic ‘statements’ are holarchic, i.e. they are multilevel structures, each level consisting of units which are both parts of larger wholes and wholes made up of their own parts. The main difference seems to be that statements in language are intentionally (consciously, deliberately) meant to be interpreted, while genetic ‘utterances’ are not. But is this an absolute difference, or are there levels of intentionality mediating between those two extremes? If so, then it's more than metaphor or analogy to say that genes are symbols.

There is of course a big difference between the interpretation of a linguistic sign and that of the genome, but not so big a difference that the latter can't be called interpretation.

Language is a social phenomenon, which means that the interpreter of a sign is a different person from its producer. We do talk to ourselves — usually not out loud — but you first learn to talk by interacting with others, and later internalize a virtual other as yourself, i.e. a self you can talk to while you're alone (we call this thinking, or internal dialogue).

The interpreter of your genome, on the other hand, is your biological self (rather than a social or virtual self). Each replica of the genome is read by the cell in which it is embedded, and the reading process is guided from without by indexical signs of the cell's environment. The collective interpretant of all these cellular-semiotic processes is the growth, differentiation, self-organization and behavior of your body — including your verbal behavior!

As with any linguistic utterance, the meaning of the genome is context-dependent. Why not, then, call it a symbol?

25 November 2008

Thought for the winter of our discontent

Even the smallest candle burns brighter in the dark. — anonymous

23 November 2008

Sniffing snow and Morning Earth

Walking is different with snow on the ground because it's so much easier to see who else has been walking there (snowshoe hare, white-tailed deer, red fox, ...). Of course if i kept my nose to the ground like the dog does, and my nose were as finely discriminating as his, i'd be tracking all the time too. But we gave all that up for the privilege of bipedality, so now we rely on the snow to supply us with easily read signs.

When it comes to reading outdoor signs, though, this blog is no match for John Caddy's Morning Earth site. I recommend subscribing to his daily poem if you like what you see there.

19 November 2008

Freesup and uncover (a pack o' lips)

Ah but sure it can't be a real bubble without it finally breaks and Finnegan Wakes.

18 November 2008

Meltdown and cover-up

It's remarkable how the term meltdown has come to dominate all references to the current financial crisis. It's very apt, in a sense, because it's caused by an ‘overheated’ economy — the financial world having apparently forgotten that in our system, money is made of debt, and becomes ‘hot money’ (cf. ‘hot air’) when the debt which constitutes the currency grows to several times the total value of goods and services produced in the real economy. But it's equally apt to call this inflation of the money supply a ‘bubble’, since it is so insubstantial. When the bubble breaks, though, ordinary terms like ‘pop’ feel too light to suit the seriousness of the situation. ‘Correction’ would be technically correct, since the credit bubble was a kind of delusion which is now being revealed for what it is; but using it would be an admission of having been deluded, if you're a financial speculator, and the term is too bland to catch on in the popular media. ‘Crash’ on the other hand evokes vague memories of the Great Depression, which is maybe too serious for folks to contemplate — though the fallout from this crash could actually turn out to be worse than the 1930s version.

Meltdown works because it sounds both serious and substantial, and the word isn't associated with an earlier financial collapse because it only entered the lexicon with the rise of nuclear technology. (Like fallout, which i found myself using in the previous paragraph … ) I wonder how many of today's children will grow up thinking that the word refers ‘literally’ (i.e. primarily) to a financial collapse, or to this one in particular, and only by extension does it mean the kind of major nuclear accident that happened at Chernobyl. Or maybe we'll be lucky and there won't be any more meltdowns of nuclear reactors.

But there, perhaps, is the real reason why the people most responsible for the ‘meltdown’ like the term so much: it makes the whole thing sound like an accident, something that couldn't be foreseen. Calling it a ‘meltdown’ amounts to a cover-up of the fact that it was inevitable (though the exact timetable of events was unpredictable) and could have been foreseen by anyone who understood the post-Bretton Woods financial system. It was allowed to happen because the system, while it lasted, was very profitable for those in charge of it. The bailout packages are designed mainly to squeeze the last bit of financial gain out of the situation, before handing over the insupportable debt to those already impoverished by it — the American taxpayers, and their counterparts around the world.

17 November 2008

On reading translations

The Internet connection is not always working here in the backwoods — hence the hiatus in posting here, if anyone noticed —

Still not healthy enough to do much walking in the woods, i'm reduced to walking through words. Often this means relying on translators to help me engage with a writer i can count on to shake me out of a mental rut, such as Dogen. So it's cause for celebration to discover, as i did last week, a complete English translation of Dogen's masterwork, the Shobogenzo, at the Shasta Abbey website.

The translation is by Rev. Hubert Nearman, who dedicated 14 years to the task and seems well qualified for it. Of course i can't compare his translation with the original, since i don't read medieval Japanese, so there's no point in my passing judgment on the quality of his translation. But this observation opens a deeper question about the wholehearted reading of ‘scriptures’ in translation.

The question can perhaps be put best in semiotic terms, since translation is paradigmatic of semiosis itself: a sign-process produces an interpretant, and translation is prototypical of interpretation. For example, take one fascicle or ‘chapter’ of Dogen's Shobogenzo: the title, ‘Kokyo’, is translated ‘On the Ancient Mirror’ by Nearman; the Nishijima/Cross translation (the only other one i've seen) calls it ‘The Eternal Mirror’. The whole essay is about this ‘mirror’ — in other words, the whole Japanese text is a sign and this Mirror is its object. Like any sign, Dogen's essay ‘determines its interpretant to stand in the same triadic relation to the same object for some interpretant’ (Peirce, CP 1.541). The original text ‘determines’ the text of the translation by constraining it to say the same thing as the original in another language; if it didn't, we wouldn't call the new text a ‘translation’.

This implies at least that both texts are about something which can be spoken of in either language (and perhaps in any language). The object of these signs is therefore independent of, and external to, any language used to direct attention to it. And each sign of that dynamic object, as Peirce called it, generates an interpretant which works in turn as another sign, generating a further interpretant, and so on — each sign in the sequence having the same object.

The catch is that whatever this object called a Mirror is, you must already have some acquaintance with it before you can interpret any signs as describing, defining or informing you about it. The sign itself can't supply this acquaintance; it can only give you some hints about how to renew that acquaintance and carry it forward. In terms of Dogen's essay, this is equally true of the original Japanese text and of any translation of it. Indeed the original text was itself a translation, namely of the eternal buddha-dharma, as reflected in Dogen's own reflections on his experience of the Ancient Mirror. And your reading of any translation is another translation of these signs directing your attention to the ancient mirror itself.

The word mirror is a symbol of the object of this infinite succession of signs. Most of Dogen's essay is about how to read this symbol, as used by various ancient masters in their koans and conversations. And this blog post is about how we read translations of that essay.

In that last sentence, i put ‘translations’ in the plural for a reason. It is obvious, but perhaps worth noticing for that very reason, that a single text can be translated in more than one way. In practice, this implies that if we compare two translations, we begin with the assumption that they are equivalent, even when they are different. This has to be our assumption because we are reading them as interpretant signs which have the same dynamic object as Dogen's original essay. So our working assumption is that where they differ, they have chosen different ways of directing our attention to that object, namely the Ancient or Eternal Mirror. For example, compare these two translations of a single Dogen sentence:

We should by all means have as our investigation through training and practice an exploration that broadly spans the sayings of all the Buddhas and Ancestors.

There must be learning in practice that widely covers the teachings of all the buddhas and all the patriarchs.

We notice right away that latter parts of the two translations, from the word ‘that’ to the end of the sentence, are quite similar. But the part of the sentence before that consists of 15 words in the first translation, but only 6 words in the second. Yet we must assume that both say what Dogen was saying in the source text. We might decide eventually that one says it better than the other, but we certainly can't begin with such an assumption. Besides, the differences may be entirely a matter of style, and quirks of style should be considered innocent of misrepresentation until proven guilty of it. Since ancient Japanese and Chinese tend to be more economical in their use of words than contemporary English, i would guess that the Nishijima/Cross translation is closer to being word-for-word than the Nearman. But that in itself doesn't make it a better or more accurate translation. Nearman's Dogen appears a bit more verbose than the Dogen of other translators (for instance, the famous Genjokoan has a four-word title in many English translations; Nearman entitles it ‘On the Spiritual Question as It Manifests Before Your Very Eyes’). But perhaps Nearman captures more of the nuances of the text this way.

One implication of all this is that a translation can work as well as the original text, or maybe better, for ‘scriptural’ purposes — just as one artist can sometimes perform a song better than the artist who wrote it in the first place. A translation need not be a ‘second-hand’ substitute for the original. It can be the real Word itself, if it successfully ‘determines’ your reading to recognize the universal Truth, or some face of it, which dwells in the deepest layers of experience, which is your own because it is everyone's. Just don't be too sure that your reading is the right one! The trick is to recognize the Truth when it comes to you in another new (dis)guise. Are you ready for that?

14 November 2008

Little mind

Except for a trip to the medical lab today — having some tests done to see why this illness of mine is hanging on so long — i'm still mostly confined indoors. This is a bit like being enclosed within the consciously thinking part of the mind; not much space to roam about in!

That the conscious part of the mind is only a small part of the whole — the tip of the iceberg, as the cliché has it — is now widely acknowledged, but this is a relatively recent development among thinkers. C.S. Peirce was somewhat ahead of the game, as usual, when he wrote this around 1905:
Swarming facts positively leave no doubt that vivid consciousness, subject to attention and control, embraces at any one moment a mere scrap of our psychical activity. Without attempting accuracy of statement demanding long explanations, and irrelevant to present purposes, three propositions may be laid down. (1) The obscure part of the mind is the principal part. (2) It acts with far more unerring accuracy than the rest. (3) It is almost infinitely more delicate in its sensibilities. Man's fully-conscious inferences have no quantitative delicacy, except where they repose on arithmetic and measurement, which are mechanical processes; and they are almost as likely as not to be downright blunders. But unconscious or semi-conscious irreflective judgments of mother-wit, like instinctive inferences of brutes, answer questions of ‘how much’ with curious accuracy; and are seldom totally mistaken.
— (CP 6.569)

13 November 2008

Just saying

I have nothing to say, I am saying it, and that is poetry.
— John Cage

12 November 2008

The birds of winter

In a climate like we have here on Manitoulin Island, the movements of migratory birds are among the pleasures of the changing seasons. But i must confess a special affection for the birds who don't migrate at all, but stay here through the winter — the blue jays, woodpeckers, nuthatches, and above all, the chickadees. Unlike the raucous and greedy jays, they rarely fight at the feeder; they wait their turn, zoom in and grab a seed, and zip off to a nearby perch to eat or stash it. I like the way they fly, too — in aphoristic bursts of wingflapping, allowing themselves to fall a bit between bursts. Bloggers and journal keepers write the way chickadees fly.

The way they move, call and occasionally sing, it's hard not to see them as cheerful, friendly little tykes. And fearless, too. They'll eat out of your hand if you can manage to hold still for a minute or two. If the feeder's empty, they let me know by calling when they see me, or landing on a branch inches away from my head and staring at me pointedly. A few days ago, one of them flew right up to me and hovered fluttering about a foot in front of my face for a second or two. I got the message, and refreshed the supply of sunflower seeds. But i also tried to say a few cheerful words of my own, and i trust that they understand my clumsy language as well as i understand theirs.

11 November 2008

Signs of life-and-death

Thoreau's journals are especially pointed and profound when they take on the prophetic tone of an oracle. The same is true of the fragments of Heraclitus, such as this one:
Ἓν τὸ σοφὸν μοῦνον λέγεσθαι οὐκ ἐθέλει καὶ ἐθέλει Ζηνὸς ὄνομα.
(‘The wise is one alone, unwilling and willing to be spoken of by the name of Zeus.’)
The genetive form Ζηνὸς for ‘of Zeus’ is one of those meaningful puns often deployed by Heraclitus, as it could also mean ‘of life’. This connects the polyversity of names with the per-versity (the pervasive or ‘thorough turning’) of life-and-death, or birth-and-death as Buddhists call it.

Charles Kahn's comment on this fragment sums up the whole practice and purpose of the oracular style:
If Heraclitus must, like the oracle, ‘neither declare (legei) nor conceal but give a sign’, that is because his listeners cannot follow a plain tale. If they had what it takes to comprehend his message, the truth would already be apparent to them. But since words alone cannot make them understand ‘when their souls do not speak the language’, he must resort to enigmas, image, paradox, and even contradiction, to tease or shock the audience into giving thought to the obvious, and thus enable them so see what is staring them in the face. If they succeed, they will understand not this sentence alone but the unified world view that Heraclitus means to communicate. And central to such understanding will be a recognition that the principle of cosmic order is indeed a principle of life, but that it is not willing to be called by this name alone. For it is also a principle of death. Human wisdom culminates in this insight that life and death are two sides of the same coin. And cosmic wisdom is truly spoken of only when identified with both sides of the coin.
— Kahn (1979, 270-1)

10 November 2008

Just walking

Awoke this morning to a white surprise: not only the ground but the trees, now stripped of their leaves, are covered with snow, the first of this coming winter. Since it's barely below the freezing point, the snow sticks to the branches despite the fairly strong breeze. This burst of brightness in the normally dismal November weather must be beautiful even to those who don't like winter.

I've been out this morning only long enough to bring in the day's supply of firewood. Some kind of cold or flu has kept me mostly indoors for over a week now, which is even more of a nuisance than the sluggishness of bodymind it brings. I can't claim as much outdoor time as Thoreau did, but enough to bear witness to the truth of this journal entry (4 Nov. 1852):
Must be out-of-doors enough to get experience of wholesome reality, as a ballast to thought and sentiment. Health requires this relaxation, this aimless life. This life in the present. Let a man have thought what he will of Nature in the house, she will still be novel outdoors. I keep out of doors for the sake of the mineral, vegetable, and animal in me.

It's important to escape from an artificial environment for at least part of each day — something difficult for city dwellers to do, since the surroundings of the buildings are hardly less artificial than the interiors. We are blessed to live here in the backwoods of Manitoulin! But that's not the only factor in Thoreau's practice which kept him grounded in reality: the aimlessness of his walking was equally important. Just walking, or ‘sauntering’ as he called it, corresponds to what Dogen called ‘just sitting’ — not trying to get somewhere, not aiming to become a Buddha. Even an indoor-oriented thinker such as Peirce could see the value of aimless thinking, or the ‘play of musement’ as he called it. It seems to short-circuit our self-deceptive tendencies. Thoreau was as much a reader as a walker, but his reading too was often aimless, ‘just reading’ as i might call it — aimless and yet urgent in its immediacy, its being-time.

My own reading practice is similar. And even that i often interrupt by immersing myself in music, usually the wordless kind. But as Thoreau says, it's not enough to dwell in the world of words and feelings, and you need to get outdoors to shed that cultural cocoon. So i'm looking forward to getting out there again, when my lungs will let me.

09 November 2008


Last week i discovered The Blog of Henry David Thoreau, in which Greg Perry posts every day an entry selected from one of Thoreau's Journal entries for that same date (except the year of course). I'm now ‘following’ this blog — part of a rediscovery of Thoreau for me (see the
entry on Thoreau in my SourceNet page). This was triggered by a piece i read recently in Loren Eiseley's Star Thrower, which includes some superb readings of Thoreau among other treasures.

Thoreau would probably have been a blogger if the technology had existed at the time. For the last ten years of his life he wrote something in his Journal almost every day. This became the core of his discipline as a writer, rather than temporary place to keep the notes and jottings which he would later recast into essays and books such as Walden. I'm thinking now that any blogger might do well to emulate his practice and try to match the level of Thoreau's daily journal entries. I'm still working on my big book (Turning Words), because some things i need to say will only make complete sense in that context, or so it seems to me. But the bigger the project, the more distant and contingent its completion becomes. Why not try every day to write something that will keep the time in more immediate focus and honor its current significance? After all, the opportunity gnox but once …

05 November 2008

Turning point for America?

Well, the two elections of which i wrote in my last post are behind us now. Americans at least have voted for a change. But the task of electing someone other than a white man as president, enormous as it seemed a couple of years ago, pales in comparison to the challenge of reversing the headlong U.S. drive toward self-destruction — which is rapidly taking the rest of planet down with it. The Democrats may be in charge now, but they are taking over a government that is insolvent in the technical sense of the term, just when the resources which could have been used to make the transition to a sustainable society are nearly all used up.

In my last post (about the real economy), i neglected to mention the real effects which the money economy can have on both natural and social ecosystems. That was partly because i don't know much about economics, especially on the national or global scale. Since then i've learned a lot from an online ‘crash course’ which explains the situation in terms accessible even to dummies like me. It's a series of 22 talks by Chris Martenson, illustrated with graphics and totalling a bit over three hours; you can go through it in whatever time-slices suit your schedule. I highly recommend it, unless you already know how the United States came to be scores of trillions of dollars in debt, and how the American people have been systematically hoodwinked into burning their bridges before them.

I don't think any president has ever taken office with the country in such dire straits — we can only hope that Obama and his colleagues have the right balance of hope and realism to make a difference. They might start by telling the American people the truth about the situation they're in (and no, it can't all be blamed on Bush and the Republicans, the roots are much deeper than that). Even that would be an unprecedented revelation.