Individual Climate Ethics and Global Change

Can we do it ourselves? If we recycle everything and take shorter showers, install some solar panels, buy low-emissions products, etc., etc., can we avoid climate catastrophe? Sorry. Absolutely not.

The problem runs much deeper than that – it involves the entire Earth System. The climate crisis is endemic to industrial civilization itself. That means, in some sense, everything must change. But how can change adequate to this global crisis be accomplished? That is the big unacknowledged question. I have heard many emissions reduction targets (you know, 20% reduction by 2030, etc. – they mean nothing).

Words and Inaction

Such proclamations are abstract; they say nothing about how such minimal gestures toward necessity would be accomplished. Yet we are awash in data on every kind of emission from every kind of economic activity and every form of ecological and climate disturbance. Emissions reductions proclamations and agreements are nothing more than fantasy.

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Species extinctions are accelerating with increasing more intense Droughts and other forms of  Climate Chaos

Hundreds of species go extinct every day now. The sixth great mass extinction is well underway. New car sales are booming, yet in the past five years, the share of electric vehicles has never exceeded 1%. So many ecological fronts on which destabilization is accelerating make it nearly impossible to keep up, no less mount the planetary-scale changes required of us to make an actual difference.

Euphemisms avoid confronting difficult decisions. The good news is that new capacity in renewable energy production is growing faster than new fossil-fuel capacity, despite Trumpist coal hawking. But to have a chance at slowing weather weirding and global climate chaos, we need to stop all new fossil-fueled energy production — a mind-boggling prospect. Yet, we actually need to use less energy by taking serious, even drastic conservation measures.

Individual Action

One of the most important factors for those of us who already take climate-disruption danger seriously is that we not fall into the complacency of doing something personal and feeling that we have done our part and that is that. Individual action by those who are aware and care will never be enough. Your withdrawal from profligate consumerism, or even going off the grid, while admirable and necessary, remains a typically American form of ethical individualism It may oppose the collective anti-moralism of collective consumerism. However, it will not solve our collective problem of the headlong rush of the industrial leviathan, the technosphere that continues its spread of carbon into the atmosphere. Only mass mobilization for major energy-use reduction has a chance of being enough.

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Consumer Identity

The current momentum of the economic growth machine alone – even if we assume some moderate level of individual withdrawal from the consumerist culture – will be enough to take the climate well past the tipping point of no return to climate stability. The change we need is deeply systemic, and that will not happen until a social movement much broader than the Bernie Sanders’ “Our Revolution” can mobilize people on a vast scale.

Collective Action

Only mass mobilization can overcome the force the economic as well as political momentum, and allow us to transform the extractive industrial economy into an ecological society. This is where transforming the consumer culture becomes paramount. The more we can demonstrate low-carbon consumer minimalism and vastly reduce energy consumption while restoring local ecosystems, the faster social change can help re-stabilize climate and avert total disaster.

We need to replace all carbon-based consumer products and services with consumer minimalism, now. That will involve some constraints we are not used to, but there is no time to waste. I discussed this in more detail at TheHopefulRealist.com, especially in my Feb 24, 2016 post. We must all do what we can do and join any effort we can in our local communities to make the changes that will help turn the larger system away from its path to extinction.

On the Urgency of Abandoning Lifestyle

I never liked the term, “lifestyle.” It reflects an extreme version of the American obsession with personal individualistic consumerism, which ultimately is at odds with the hard facts of life on planet Earth. The unattainable “lifestyles of the rich and famous” promoted and enthusiastically accepted in the industrial era are built on illusion and propel humanity toward the abyss of climate collapse and social chaos.

The denizens of industrial-consumer societies sustain their illusions of achieving high-status “lifestyles” at the cost of terminating social and ecological stability, contrary to the public good. But words often have a life of their own and will even transform their own meaning with continued use. The choices we make in life are not so much a matter of “style,” even when driven by stylistic considerations. Instead, above all they reflect a species’ survival strategy or its failure even to have no less execute a survival strategy.

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Shopping mall ~ Mallorca

So, on the one hand, “lifestyle” implies no strategy at all, just some form of “personal expression” of consumer values oblivious to the requirements of survival on planet Earth. In its denial of nature, the consumer lifestyle sustains a cultural bubble that excludes consciousness of the place of humanity in nature. That cannot end well.

On the other hand, “lifestyle” is completely inadequate to express the essence of a life of conscious choice to align personal living decisions, political action, and economic behavior, with an effort to save humanity from extinction. The trajectory of industrial-consumer society, with its illusions of perpetual technological control over nature and endless economic growth on a finite planet, drives us all in exactly that direction.

I do hesitate to bring up the idea of extinction – it seems so extreme that its possibility appears implausible. As the politicians always say in a crisis, “We don’t want to alarm the public.” Yet, today public alarm is exactly what is needed. If we look at the history of biological systems on this planet, extinction has been an integral part of their evolution. At the same time, the history of industrialized humanity has generated a certain false sense of security and permanence. Chris Hedges pops that bubble in his recent Truthdig article.

The myth of perpetual economic growth and material abundance on a finite planet persists in the face of imminent climate catastrophe as well as resource depletion. A “big picture” perspective, such as that of astrophysicist Adam Frank easily exposes the naïve hubris of the human illusion of perpetual progress.

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Arundhati Roy contemplates the worst flooding ever in Kerala, India. Photo: Onmanorama

Well, that was a mouthful…but the science is clear. Climate destabilization is accelerating. Every IPCC report since the ill-fated Kyoto accords has underestimated the rates of change. The climate models still have not fully taken into account emerging feedback loops that are accelerating the greenhouse effects. Urgency is the right word; complacency is the political norm. The Defiant Earth will not be broken by self-indulgent ecomodernists.

Living a life of planetary consciousness is not the complete answer; it cannot stop climate chaos alone. But it can help directly by contributing to a broad “climate of opinion” that must exist in order to force the political and economic elites to act in the human interest rather than in the unsustainable and deadly interest in “business as usual.” A rough road lies ahead.

The New Normal and the Boisterously Silent Coup

Is the rise of Trumplandia the reflection of a “new normal” in American politics? Or, does it rise, as Rebecca Solnit suggests in a remarkable new piece on the Literary Hub website, to the level of a de facto coup that has already occurred? Has the Trump gang already, if not so skillfully, moved to clandestinely transform our constitutionally framed effort at representative democracy into a de facto authoritarian regime? After all, this sitting president is now directly interfering with the independent investigations of the nation’s highest law enforcement institutions that may well lead to his own downfall.

The Coup

Solnit asserts that, “Sabotage of national institutions, laws, standards, and the greater good has been accepted as part of the new normal, which is staggeringly far from normal.” She summarizes the vast array of diverse forms and sources of evidence that have surfaced since Trump began his initial Fake-Run [i] for the presidency. In addition to the myriad personal scandals, an international complex of illicit deal making adds up to a partnership of plunder between the Putin bossed Russian mob of oligarchs, the American pretender to Mob-Boss status and his gang of thugs and fixers of questionable competence and unbounded hutzpah, and just about any unscrupulous politician, here or abroad, who will pay to play.

As Solnit puts it:

Acts that would have been shocking if committed by previous administrations are overshadowed and crowded by equally transgressive acts that pile up into something that would like us to forget that this is not normal.

Solnit argues persuasively that the coup has already happened and that the only question now is what we are going to do about it. Given the damage already done to institutions, climate action, public health and safety, international relations, and above all the already precarious U.S. political culture, it seems that little time and a narrowing range of options remain.

Decades in the Making

One commenter argued that the coup began decades ago, listing a series of political actions by every administration and congress since, supporting the position that the coup was a long slow process of destroying democracy while elevating an increasingly open kleptocratic authoritarian corporate state. He argued that with Johnson’s resounding defeat of Barry Goldwater in 1964 the authoritarian right realized that electoral politics must be undermined to achieve their autocratic goals. Another asserted that the coup began with the assassination of John F. Kennedy. In any case, several scholars have documented the efforts of powerful business interests to suppress democratic control of government and the economy since the imposition of controls on the financial elite under the New Deal.

Unfortunately, as is so common in such venues, much of the commentary devolved into typical political bickering over which politician held more guilt, bad faith and evil. The usual dose of ad hominem admonitions and rigid either/or ill-logic circulated around the claimed offenses of Bernie versus Hillary, entirely missing the point of the article in service to internal partisan anger among Democrats.

The Republican Party has devolved into a state where its only principle is to win elections by pandering the alt-right base so effectively exploited by Trumpery. Genuine conservatives have nowhere to turn. The Democratic Party national apparatus, the DNC, remains unwilling to free itself from the corporate and financial elites it serves while hypocritically mouthing old liberal rhetoric. Its disingenuous cultural liberalism and avoidance of the deep issues of rising global and national crises have turned main street Democrats and independents away from the party. Electoral politics seems a long shot, in both substance and time. The convergence of catastrophic crises of ecosystem destruction and climate chaos, as well as global economic and political instability, is well underway. The crisis of American democracy is now. What is a citizen to do?

Precarious Prospects

Solnit finds herself distraught with the prospects, as well anyone who looks at the facts should. However, her recommendations offer little hope:

We still have an enormous capacity to resist the administration, not least by mass civil disobedience and other forms of noncooperation. Sweeping the November elections wouldn’t hurt either, if that results in candidates we hold accountable afterward. Or both.

Solnit seems to believe that we can rescue American democracy and respond effectively to the converging crises of climate chaos, ecological destruction, impending global financial failure, and imminent societal collapse by protests in the streets or by the so-called “centrist” democrats capturing the mid-term elections. Making such assumptions shows little sense of timing or even a deep understanding of the nature of the coup that has suppressed democratic institutions for decades.

The answer is nearly as difficult, but at least possible. Mass mobilization at the local level for resistance in place by turning away from the “inverted totalitarian” regime and its new “strong man” is extremely difficult to achieve. It would require forming new democratic institutions where we live that would become diffused forms of resistance by their very existence. Widespread resistance by withdrawal and replacement could not be stopped by troops in the streets or by bluster from the man who is “the empty clown suit.”

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[i] Mark Danner, “The Magic of Donald Trump,” New York Review of Books 63:4(May 26, 2016) quotes Stephanie Cegielski, Trump’s “Top Strategist-Turned-Defector,” to the effect that initially there had been “no thought of actually winning.” Rather, the goal was to bolster Trump’s celebrity prominence. That, of course, is consistent with Trump’s history of seeking celebrity attention and adulation above all else, aside from money of course. Winning the actual election bolstered his celebrity and profits beyond even the narcissist’s unbounded imagination.

What about how? What the sci-fi novels all miss

I have not read much science fiction. But the sci-fi books I have read usually fall into the “post-apocalypse” variety, such as The Road, Earth Abides, Parable of the Sower, World Made by Hand, and most recently, The Handmaid’s Tale. I read these stories out of my interest in what is likely to happen in the next few decades.

We are entering a New Great Transformation of the relationship of humanity to the complex of living adaptive systems (ecosystems) that some call Gaia – a sort of organism of organisms. The exponential growth of the global technosphere has forced that transformation and we must face its consequences.

Varieties of Dystopia

Some of the post-apocalypse stories are quite fascinating and imaginative. They all explore in one way or another what happens when individuals or small groups encounter an entirely new situation in which widespread devastation has become the “new normal.” They raise all sorts of human dilemmas, from simple survival and threats from others to the forging of new social relationships when the old institutions and infrastructure of the society they had known are gone.

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Dystopia Maybe?

In every case, at least in the books I have read, the apocalyptic event(s) that caused the post-apocalyptic condition remains shrouded in mystery. Alluded to in various ways and extent, what actually happened is not very clear.

In The Road, for example, a father and son travel away from the center of devastation in search of some safe new place, scavenging as they go. We get the impression that some major act of destruction such as an intercontinental nuclear exchange wiped out most of civilization on the East Coast of the U.S.A. But we are given no specific information about the event.

In Parable of the Sower, we follow a young woman leading a small group north out of Los Angeles and the chaos of marauding gangs of bandits, violent neighborhoods, and unsafe gated communities, all of which are under siege in one way or another. Yet we never learn what caused that urban dystopia. It might have been a single catastrophic event or a gradual collapse of society; we are not told.

Earth Abides, highly acclaimed when first published in 1949, is a bit different. A young man comes back to the San Francisco Bay area from a personal retreat in a mountain cabin to find that nobody remains alive; a pandemic has hit the world and apparently killed everyone except him. He had accidentally become immunized to the disease by a snake bite from which he almost died. Eventually he finds a few other survivors and they confront a world as it was but without people. The story is a classic well-told adventure of coping. In this case, the cause was quite simple, if not fully explained.

In World Made by Hand, a New England village struggles in a dystopian condition in which many factors of human conflicts and political disorganization play a role. As competing groups vie for power where most modern technology was somehow lost or destroyed, we never find out what caused that condition or what could have prevented it as the characters struggle to shape a new local-regional political order. The conflicts in World Made by Hand has some of the flavor of an old western movie.

The most interesting question (for me at least) is, how would a transition to a post-apocalyptic world happen? The New Great Transformation of the world as we know it, which we have begun to experience today, involves the destabilization of ecosystems and climate our industrial economy has caused. The environmental chaos, now well on its way, has already begun to trigger economic, political, military, and social breakdowns of increasing intensity, all likely to interact and even reinforce each other.

The New Great Transformation and the Peril Ahead

The popular classics of the genre of dystopian novels all contain a combination of some of the following: a totalitarian or theocratic state, censorship, surveillance, erasure of history, anti-intellectualism, consumption and entertainment as escapism, extreme inequality, and destruction of individuality and aesthetics. Read 1984, Fahrenheit 451, Brave New World, even Hunger Games or Lord of the Flies, and you will see. Wait a minute, that list of dystopian characteristics sounds a bit too familiar…

Each post-apocalyptic novel I have read describes a different world than the others, but with often overlapping issues of human survival under extreme collapse of civilization and ensuing chaos or the rise of a totalitarian state. Some say science fiction is really about the present, but with imaginary advances in technology and totalitarianism.

Each post-apocalyptic novel I have read describes a different world than the others, but with often overlapping issues of human survival under extreme collapse of civilization and ensuing chaos. However, it seems to me that the most important and interesting question of the human condition today has to do with two things: 1) whether and to what extent people will finally realize that the world we have created is becoming un-survivable, and 2) what we will do about it.

Can we abandon our illusions of progress through corporate economic growth immediately in favor of a new creatively realistic response to the converging crises we face? Governments and corporations are the problem; they do not have the solutions. So is the industrial-consumer culture we have embraced. It is now up to people to counter the apocalyptic trend where we live. Our problem is not how to cope with an existing dystopia, but how to prevent the New Great Transformation from becoming one. That will require a great deal of hopeful realism.

Escape from L.A.


I’m returning this week from a 4 month sojourn in Mexico to the oldest city in the United States, Santa Fe, the capital of the  North American part of the Spanish empire over 400 years ago. Shortly thereafter, I will make another quick visit to the Ultimate City – LA. I go there a couple of times a year for my oncology checkup. This trip I’ll combine with some pro bono consulting for Children of the Night, which rescues children from pimps and drug pushers on the streets of cities across the nation.

I’ve supported Children of the Night’s work since Lois Lee started it nearly 40 years ago when she was my student. My how time flies ever faster the older you get. So, I’ll be reviewing with Lois the big changes she is making with the program as facts on the street change ( a complex story involving smart phones, gang violence, and some misguided policies of the FBI). We will also do an analysis of all the data on kids and the program since it began. We will review progress on the project for reports and proposals to the private foundations that help fund the programs. Children of the Night is in some important ways a child of the Ultimate City.

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Downtown Los Angeles

I’ve always had a love-hate relationship with L.A. – I’m referring to the entire metropolis, not just the much smaller central City of Los Angeles – founded in 1781 as “El Pueblo de Nuestra Señora la Reina de los Ángeles del Río de Porciúncula.” In 1821 it became part of México when “New Spain” gained independence from the Spanish Empire, until the Americans took control from the “Californios” in 1847. There is nothing like a discovery of gold to motivate conquest. So, who are the “illegal immigrants,” anyway? Certainly not the native Chumash, who mostly died off under colonial rule and the oppression of empire. History is ever rewritten. But I digress.

I grew up in the L.A. metro area and later worked there for decades. So I know well many of the short cuts a modern native uses to drive from one sprawling suburban cluster to another without spending hours parked on the San Diego Freeway – the I-405. The drive in a shuttle returning to LAX from the San Fernando Valley gave me pause to reflect on “urban development” – remember “China Town” with Jack Nicholson and Faye Dunaway? A classic of intrigue in regional empire building – I sat back and checked my email, occasionally glancing out at an old familiar setting. It was an uneventful 45 minutes in the early afternoon. You don’t get the same feeling of massive urban sprawl in a car as you do when flying over it all.

Contrary to news reports following the recent severe draught, there are still some green lawns in the suburbs – more behind the gates of the “McMansions” of Encino than in the flatlands of Inglewood or Van Nuys. However, it is hard to not call it all the City of Denial, as everyone seems to go about their business as if they had not experienced the greatest drought of California’s history. So many still treat each piece of evidence of the catastrophic changes wrought by global warming as an incident, never a trend. Under it all, the Los Angeles basin remains the coastal desert it always was. But I’m not sure most “Angelinos” realize that.

After my last visit to Children of the Night, I had to catch an early flight out of LAX. The driver took a circuitous route through the residential streets of the Encino hills to transition over the I-405 on Mulholland Drive, then back over to an onramp to beat most of the traffic heading south over the hill to Westwood and Century City, LAX, and the South Bay beyond. We were in a long line of commuters taking the same short cut. I was surprised at how early we arrived at LAX. But I wondered: why are all the car-service drivers in the Valley Russian immigrants?

Urban Agriculture and the New Great Transformation

One of the most informative websites out there, if you are interested in the fate of humanity on the planet, is http://www.resilience.org. The site offers a wide range of original and republished articles on the full range of matters related to getting to a place where climate and the other converging crises of our time can be mitigated and human groups can become more resilient and prosper in a post-carbon world. I just read an article by Jody Tishmack there, which I consider well worth anyone reading. It is titled, “Urban and Small Farm Agriculture.”

Jody Tishmack reports on research showing that expanding agriculture into cities could improve food security, ecosystem health, and have other benefits as well. I would suggest that such efforts will become increasingly necessary as the global industrial agriculture system begins to collapse of its own fossil-fueled weight.

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Riverpark Farm, New York City

The developments Tishmack describes are certainly heartening, not only for the community spirit and potential for continued development of major local/regional movements in urban agriculture. They also represent something even deeper and more important than she acknowledges in this article. This kind of work not only IS doing something about climate change, it will be an ever more important component of the New Great Transformation of human social organization that at this point appears to be the only viable collective response to the converging global crises of climate chaos, ecosystem destruction, economic disintegration, and political corruption.

After over a decade of research on the emergence and acceleration of these crises, I have concluded that the greatest chance to act to counter them is to act locally and cooperate regionally. The exponential growth of the global economic system, including industrial agriculture, is definitively unsustainable, as is mathematically demonstrated in renowned physicist Geoffrey West’s important 2017 book, Scale: The Universal Laws of Growth, Innovation, Sustainability, and the Pace of life in Organisms, Cities, economies, and Companies.

The governments of the world are so far behind the exponential growth of the converging crises of our era that we cannot count on getting them to do anything serious to address them. They remain pawns of the petro-chemically driven corporate system of growth that refuses to face scientific facts. National protests over political catastrophes and corruption are important symbolic expressions of objection to such failures, then everyone gets in their SUVs and hybrids and goes home.

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“Druid’s Garden” permaculture organic farm

We have already entered a New Great Transformation of the global economic, climate, and ecological systems, which barring massive intervention is leading to widespread collapse of living Earth systems, from local ecosystems to global climate. The primary question is whether we can act comprehensively and quickly enough to avoid widespread societal collapse. We will not be able to thwart the imminent collapse of industrial agriculture by convincing agribusiness to “go organic” or stop using neonic’s or GMOs. The most viable way to RESIST failing institutions is to turn away and create new social formations to REPLACE THEM.

The most viable response to the converging catastrophic crises we face is to re-organize human groups into local eco-communities, both urban and rural, that in that process REPLACE the global industrial-consumer economy with local eco-communities, in part by RESTORING the ecosystems where we live. I have rambled on in various posts on this blog, TheHopefulRealist.com and at www.resilience.org awhile back as well, which has led to the book I have prepared for publication in the coming months. An early effort in that regard is found at http://www.resilience.org/stories/2014-12-24/becoming-indigenous-settling-a-population-adrift-in-an-unstable-world/ You can find many other useful discussions of such matters at resilience.org.

Now we just need for the work Jody describes to grow exponentially…

Writing Your Mind while Living in the World

One of the things I’ve done more of since ‘retiring’ is to write. Of course, I’ve been writing for as long as I can remember. But I guess I never really wrote “for myself” before, not much anyway.  Most of my writing as a professor involved community research reports, course syllabi, and caustic memoranda to recalcitrant and imperious administrators – deans, provosts, et al. – along with some papers presented at professional meetings, and the occasional book review.

I didn’t much play the “publish or perish” game beyond what was necessary to get tenure. I figured the purpose of tenure was to be able to talk back to megalomaniacal executives and still keep your job. Eventually, I became (in)famous on campus for my caustic memos. It was fun and sometimes quite effective.

Writing for What?

For thirty-five years, I taught mostly adult undergraduate and graduate students many of whom also worked full time, on the most ethnically diverse campus in the nation. All the while, I was writing books in my head, not necessarily on the topics I was teaching. It is not that the so-called “teaching load” kept me from writing those books outside my head. But the teaching component of my professorship had an open-ended supply of matters to deal with.

If I were indifferent to the plight of poorly prepared students struggling to succeed in college, it would have been easy to take the time to write more. However, if you take teaching seriously, there is no limit to the time you can put into it. To teach working adult university students who come from some of the “most dangerous neighborhoods in the nation” – Compton, Watts, and South Central L.A – was a challenge in itself. The Los Angeles Unified School District did not exactly prepare well the people who became our students, for university level performance.

At the same time, many students’ main goal was to “get that piece of paper” so they could get a promotion or a better job. Critical thinking, computer literacy, writing well, and sociological theory or research, were not at the forefront of their minds. Nevertheless, many had high ambitions and were quite smart. The tragedy was that they had been dealt a bad hand by their primary and secondary “education” institutions. The skills of many fell way below their intellectual talents. I found that quite upsetting and worked long hours with those who understood the depth of their own “remedial” needs. Some, of course, had both the intellect, skills and motivation, like Derrick, Darby, and a few others who have now gone on to complete their PhDs at major universities.

Writing My Mind

I’ve almost completed one of those long-deferred books now. “At the Edge of Illusion,” I call it. The subtitle is “Preparing for the New Great Transformation,” since it addresses the multiple converging crises of economic instability, ecological degradation, and climate chaos humanity now faces and so many deny. These converging crises are forcing the living Earth systems we live in to destabilize. The world has begun to go through a great new transformation as a result, yet humans have hardly noticed. We are wildly unprepared. To deal with it we are going to have to transform our relations with the planet and each other in ways not previously imagined.

Actually, I began working on preliminary essays leading to the book by writing some free flowing essays on related topics in this blog, TheHopefulRealist.com as they came to mind over the past few years. I also enjoyed writing some of the “Learn More” articles and a blog called “Diary of a Mad Jubilado,” for A Parallel World, and exiting new site that provided information to environmentally conscious consumers on local sources for low carbon-impact products. Unfortunately, that site was taken down by unknown bots and trolls; after all, it threatened the progress of the fossil-fueled industrial—consumer leviathan.

A book I initially called The Social Illusion has been in my head, in ever-changing form, for a long time. Today, almost ready to submit to publishers, it is quite different though, because the world is so very different. After ten years of research for the book, my view of things has changed a lot too.

At the Edge of Illusion

The trajectory of humanity has reached a crossroads. Humans are now confronted with the absolute necessity to take massive collective action to halt and reverse the damage we have caused “in our own nest.” If we do not take such action to stabilize the complex living Earth systems we have so long ignored except to exploit them, we are likely to become involuntary participants in the “sixth great extinction” now underway.

Unfortunately, a vast complex array of social illusions prevents or delays the most important actions needed to allow the survival of humans on the only planet we have. It becomes increasingly paramount to write one’s mind about the world we live in and the social and ecological illusions we retain at our peril.

In the coming months I will post some excerpts from At the Edge of Illusion on this site, and report progress on its publication and related events.