A companion blog, The Metacognition Project, has been created to focus specifically on metacognition and related consciousness processes. Newest essay on TMP: Goals and Problems, part two

Sunday, August 30, 2009

Behavioral Toxicity

Metaphor: We spend inordinate amounts of time detailing and arguing over the nutritional content, both real and imagined, of the several items on our plate... and none to the arsenic being sprinkled over the whole mess. We must, first as the thinkers and evaluators among us and then as a whole community, begin to recognize and seriously respond to the social and behavioral toxicities with which we presently live. But, like a water well poisoned with cholera, the toxicity is carried in forms vital for our needs and has only a probability of terminally infecting each drinker.

In the case of the cholera infected well, the biological toxicity can be exacerbated by the social ‘toxicity’ of the well being ‘owned,’ especially so if the wellbeing (apology) of the ‘owner’ depends of the water there-in-contained being used by the community. This is the basic form of one large category of social toxicity: a required activity carries a toxic element or addition and some segment of the community is committed to the activity’s perpetuation in its exact present and toxic form.

There are many things that we humans do very well, but backing off – slowing down – is not one of them. In fact, in the whole of human recorded history, and apparently beyond, humans have only slowed down when forced by epidemic disease and climatic or geologic process. We have, in almost every moment, increased in number, in consumption, in distribution and in impact on the world around us; albeit very slowly in the beginning but recently with rates of speed that are clearly toxic – at least clearly to an observer with a modicum of historical and biological perspective. It is classic biological understanding that any material in sufficient excess is a poison, i.e., the life sustaining stability of homeostatic order is defeated with dysfunction or death as a consequence. The immense capacity of humans to adapt becomes toxic when our adaptations snowball into adapting to adapting as a necessary part of social design.

This is a second category of behavioral toxicity. Our original adaptation prowess was applied to the environment so that we could reduce its dangers and increase our consumption of its possibilities. In a terrible distortion of that original and “biologically sensible” design, we today all but ignore the holistic presentation of the environment and apply our capacities to the great writhing mass of our previous creations as though the immediately perceptible were reality. I think of occasions when I would visit a great city dump and the accumulations of the discarded made the very ‘land’ upon which to walk – the random collections of lamps, tires, toasters, chairs, mops and other thousands of identifiable and unidentifiable things formed together to make a composite picture of a highly local ‘reality.’ We live on the surface of our dump and call its random presentation an ordered world. The consequence is the toxification of the adaptation process – a process with no capacity for discrimination, a capacity that can only respond as though what it receives is real.

These two forms of behavior toxicity are poisoning our relationship with each other and with the biophysical reality; that is, the fundamental substrate of all life and consciousness. That both forms of toxicity are major parts of the designs of our behavior make them no less devastatingly poisonous to our present and future wellbeing, and only indicates the degree of dedication and effort required to detoxify our actions and beliefs.

This is not a trivial matter that we can ignore or do a ‘work-around.’ These are true toxicities just as damaging to human life and ecological integration on the earth as pneumonic plague or cyanide are toxic to individuals. The latency is longer – more like lead or the AIDS virus – and so are more difficult to see as dangerous: Remember ‘sugar of lead’, a popular Roman beverage?

The political, economic, social and epidemiological events of our world are all either the direct result of these behavioral toxicities or exacerbated by them. The remarkable recalcitrance of what now passes, in the US, for conservatism and Republicanism – anti-science, anti-intellectualism, even anti-thought – puts power over the multitude in the hands of real societal insanity (see Robert Altemeyer’s work on authoritarianism).

So called liberals and progressives, while they take in a greater dose of The Real – incorporating some science and logical reasoning into their process – still form the core of their actions and beliefs from perceptions and experiences marinated in the toxicities of ungrounded adaptation and self-interest emptied of community-interest: ultimately as insane as conservatives (that is, just as free of any clear association with Reality).

The world’s billions are fixed in their trajectory, as are each nation’s millions, but individuals, especially small carefully formed communities [1], can avoid at least some toxic input. This is modeled well by the fact that a dedicated few can eat carefully grown foods, but the vast multitudes must eat what they can get regardless of potential harm.

The key is grounded adaptation, grounded in some source of The Real outside of social product and process – and present religious form is not it [2]. There is only biophysical Reality to perform this role in our experience: it always has and ultimately always will. Not to make this relationship central in the process of adaptation is insanity.

[1] This is a very tricky matter. ‘Change’ communities are almost always driven by the social system from which they devolve and function on some single-purpose principles. There is no growing relationship with Reality in their structure, and thus, no reduction in toxicity.

[2] Religion as hominid process, as a functional part of consciousness order, has been poisoned by being co-opted by adaptations to social process. Religion, in its original form, gave motivational force and duration to complex environmental adaptations and was part of maintaining the practical and spiritual connection to place.

Sunday, August 23, 2009

Oh My God! Not Another Poet

I don’t often present these little indulgences, but this one so fit my present mood and mode.

(circa 1976)



I seek no special inspiration

from love or pain or mystery;

only.... Still I seek it.

Language harbors language, words harbor words,

action harbors life, and life harbors poetry.

A polemic: sad as standing on one leg before a city.

Experience, great teacher--my fool --

cuts, then heals

as an aggravated and enraged soul climbing

-- a great candle lighted shadow--

up from my dim past

comes to split my body and the world

like rolls of soft bread

readying them for the sweet cow's butter of love.

Do I need it?

The word harbors the word, and the word harbors

the action, and the action harbors life....


My poetry has been lost--shut out--

eaten through my skull and, light as it is,

sprung into the brain of a hummingbird, or

an ostrich;

sent the poor weak brain to dim ancient urgings

for flying, for nesting in trees,

for even having teeth or, as with me,

to be amphibian, fish and worm.

I see it all now: Poor weak worm in the dry of veldt

surrounded by surprised vultures, an unhistoried ostrich

killed to the undeath of original planet dust,

unable to fight off my escaped poetry.


I will not seek poetry in language.

Still it is a pretty thing;

waves moving pebbles on the shore.

But even great seventh or forty ninth waves,

striking with the force of inexorable logic

are spent by the beach--it is its nature.

Not the wave, but time is the master of pebbles.

Slap language around as you would an unfaithful mistress,

if that is what you do, or

cry with her and make love some new way

using puppets and #3 wash tubs.

She is still your mistress and you love her.

You only hurt her if you take your love away,

run wild in the land fucking oak stumps and

piles of used bricks;

trying to fuck life into the dead

while letting the living die.

This is why I will not seek poetry in language.

Language harbors words, words harbor action,

action harbors life, life harbors poetry.


My many fathers and many mothers

reached out through the dark sky to the moon

and in through the dark womb to the soul.

They strung poetry between shells and bear claws,

wore it in their hair,

and roasted it next to the bodies of small birds.

I've tried praying to soup cans,

gluing feathers on a crew cut,

and making necklaces from

bottle caps and condoms:

It hasn't worked yet.

Saturday, August 1, 2009

We Have Lost!

We have lost the struggle for democracy – of, by and for the people -- and equity. We have lost the struggle for social justice. We have even lost not only almost all of the battles, but the war for the future of ecological integrity on our little planet. But that is no reason to quit! It will, however, be much better for us personally to proceed with more reasonable expectations.

We have lost not so much because, in an alignment of opposing forces, some groups and ideas succeeded while others have not. This is more a matter of everyone losing – all ‘sides’ – because the real terms of the struggle were never recognized. As trite as it may seem Pogo pegged it: “We have met the enemy and he is us.” But with that the trivial appearance ends and the truly difficult begins.

All of life depends on physiological homeostatic systems to mediate and regulate the volumes and speeds of chemical reactions so that the right amount of a substance exists at each step of any process: too much acts as a poison and too little starves the process [1]. This same principle applies to ecological relationships and structures. Organisms and biophysical conditions feedback through exchanges of materials and energies resulting in ecological stabilities; environments that, when unperturbed by uncommon dramatic events, change at the typical rates of evolution, i.e., more slowly than generational turnover of constituent organisms.

Humans have been on a 50 to 70 thousand year rampage through the ecologically stabilities. Our nearest hominid relatives began to develop not just tools, but a new way of bringing order to the collecting/selecting of information, to the storing of that information and to the implementing of both directly stored and, even more interestingly, modified information. Homo sapiens has carried this process to the level of a completely new system of ordering information, new to the universe.

I am calling this the Consciousness System of Order (CSO). It creates a new probability structure for what might exist in the world; and thus creates a new world. But the new world of the CSO is still dependent on the Living System of Order and the Physical System of Order. It is just that it is ‘possible’ for the CSO to create the idea that it is not. And so Pogo’s prescience.

Genetic evidence and geological inference suggests that our species has gone from only a few thousand members following the devastation of the Toba volcano in Indonesia about 70,000 years ago to our present world population of 7 billion, about a millionfold increase. We have gone from a negligible impact on the ecology to using about half of the earth’s total photosynthetic production. The consequences of our actions, intended and unintended, are changing many long-standing, primary and stabilizing biophysical cycles and extinguishing species faster than any time other than major extinction events, of which there have only been 5 in the last 640 million years.

Our “problem” is not global climate change; it is global human impact. While the insanity of excess can be blamed in proportion to the excess, still our impact ultimately comes down to the human organism needing 1500 calories (Kcals) everyday to sit around and 3000, up to 5000, calories to do physical work; plus anywhere from a few thousand calories to several hundred thousand calories of energy per day for our tools and comforts. Simply and devastatingly put: it cannot be sustained.

Part of our political trouble today may come from the denial of these realities: “We will get to these ‘long-term’ issues later, but right now Gov. Sanford is screwing an Argentine reporter.” I do the same thing – not the Argentine part. Facing a difficult situation, I will clean corners that I had forgotten existed; amazing how important getting those dust bunnies from under the fridge becomes when I have to go through 5 years of tax records. Amazing how important (and comforting) those tax records become when I have to truly consider changing my whole way of life.

And yet that is where we are. All of humanity, every last one of us will have to change how we live if we are to adapt through the next few decades. The option is to take down the biophysical structures of the biosphere in a convulsive collapse of unprecedented horror. It must have been awful to be a dinosaur in the marshes of New Mexico when the shock wave blew across the mid-latitudes. And it must have been worse to be in the fires in China or part of the starvations that followed, but these were not creatures that had destroyed themselves by their own aware actions.

The arguments that fill our media and our minds are finally distractions from these larger concerns: dust bunnies under the fridge. Of course, we must deal with health care, torture, economic and justice equity, bribery in government, spread of weapons, racism and the thousands of other issues that form our actions everyday. But, and this is a prodigious but, every one of those deliberations must begin to put the maintenance of environmental stability and biodiversity at the front end of consideration. We are quite literally doing the laundry while the muddy floodwaters are rising up fill the washer.

I have wondered out loud if the economic elite might be considering a way to kill off about 5 or 6 billion people as a solution. But, I think that even a well-planned and powerful biological attack on the Great Many would so devastate both the ecological and economic order that such an attempt would prematurely precipitate the kind of convulsive biophysical collapse that is inevitable without great change in how we live. So, we really are ‘all in this together’ to whatever end it is that we either attempt or allow.

I must admit to occasionally being discouraged. In this moment our world is being run by gangs of criminals and madmen (generic term – madwomen happily included). Just listen to the leaders of corporations, churches, government, think (sic) tanks, media and universities! They are like looters trying to grab up ‘everything’, but before the disaster happens. The sophistry is as thick as the shit on an industrial hog farm.

But the Great Many are beginning to understand even as they are being propagandized by multimillion dollar disinformation campaigns. A recent NY Times poll, as much as they tried to spin the public as confused, gave these results:

-92% favor "requiring car manufacturers to produce cars that are more energy efficient"

-75% are "willing ... to pay more for electricity if it were generated by renewable sources like solar or wind energy"

-64% would "pay higher taxes on gasoline and other fuels if the money was used for research into renewable sources like solar and wind energy"

-69% approve of more coal-power plants "if the plants used a new method of burning coal, which would cost more but produce less air pollution." (Otherwise, support for coal was at 41%.)

Similar findings have been made for single-payer health care: when people know what it is, majorities prefer it. For war and peace: people reject gratuitous war. For personal freedom, safety and privacy: people reject institutional spying and support the protections of the Bill of Rights.

So, as an acquaintance maddeningly used to begin almost every thought, ‘Here is the deal:’ We have lost. Just look at the situation. Seven billion. Insane criminals running things. If we can’t work together we are screwed. Asking people to do things that they have historically not done well. The apparent need for vast resources. The opposition of the most powerful forces in society. It does not look good – that is why we have lost.

But if we have lost, then there is no reason not to kick butt. It is becoming more and more clear that the truly crazy people, who for example are letting the insurance companies deny the whole population the only functional design that can deliver the knowledge and practice of medicine to the people in a cost effective way, are willing to let thousands and millions suffer terribly so that they can have a seat in a big wood-paneled room. It is becoming clear that, since we have lost, in not all that many years those who are left will be digging roots to chew on and straining water through their t-shirts.

This country is just about ready to turn the devastation of losing into the desperation of losing. We are the numbers. It is time for the millions upon millions of the losers to speak up forcefully. I suggest the battle cry: “Remember Missionary Ridge!” But any that you like will do [2].

Does this mean that we still might win? Not a chance [3]. But we can be an active part of the adaptation process to whatever it is we will be after and not some stupid lump of protoplasm ground to a pulp by crazy people. We can at least fight to be members of the honorable human species to the very end.

[1] There are many thousands of enzymes. Each one controls the rate of chemical reactions, speeding those that would go too slow in the environment of the living thing and slowing those that would go too fast – by just the amounts needed.

[2] The Union forces were in a valley below Missionary Ridge. The Confederate forces were on the ridge top pouring fire, rifle and cannon, into the valley. The Union troops were in an impossible position with no retreat and only withering fire coming from the ridgeline that they could not possibly assault. No order came from the leaders. In almost spontaneous movement the Union soldiers ran up the ridge. Since they had lost the battle, they did this with no strategic purpose other than to stop the rain of ball and canister on their heads. The character of the war in the south was shifted to the Union advantage.

[3] Creating the belief that you can win is what the crazy people use to take the effectiveness out of your action. If you know that you can’t win, then you can. But if you think that you can, then you are screwed because you get suckered into playing the crazy game.