Transition: Madness of the Mainstream…


The following dialogue continues an on-going cyber-discussion between two cultural philosophers, Dr. Sherry Ackerman and Dr. Guy McPherson.

ACKERMAN: Wow! I don’t leave the homestead all that often. And, when I do, I don’t go that far. But, today I had occasion to venture out into mainstream culture for the afternoon and I was flabbergasted.

The mainstream has never been my thing, but, Guy, I’m telling you that it’s plunged even further into madness. Sheer madness. There’s nothing out there that has anything to do with real life. It’s an entirely constructed false culture.

I live here on the homestead and there’s life all around me.

There are living plants in the gardens, animals in the paddocks and active people working with the soil, trees, water and solar patterns. Everything’s connected in a very practical, necessary way. Kitchen garbage goes to the chickens who then give us eggs. Livestock manure is composted for the gardens that give us our food. Solar energy fuels our living quarters, heats our water, and cooks our food. If any part of the chain of life breaks down, we’re all impacted.

Conversely, mainstream culture is dead.

It’s packaged, sterile, predictable, isolated (perhaps alienated is closer to the truth), and lifeless.

People lack enthusiasm (which, by the way, in Greek, means “filled with the gods”), are unanimated (anima, in Latin, means “soul”), disconnected and stressed. Time, which is a manmade construct, governs mainstream culture’s machinations. Products are old, boasting incredible shelf-lives. Prices are high, and the proceeds go directly to The Man, instead of to any real person(s). Conversation is superficial; factory food proliferates; gas belching machines, with single occupancy, are everywhere; dumps are brimming and so is psychotherapy.

Derrick Jensen makes a strong distinction between “real life” and “culture”. He says that most people have the two confused. I would agree. Culture is something that people have created. Real life is there irrespective of human intervention. I think it’s really important to examine this distinction because a lot of current initiatives are aimed at trying to preserve culture at the expense of real life!

McPHERSON: You summarize the predicament so well, Sherry, it’s difficult for me to add a thing. But, rarely at a loss for words, I’ll give it a try.

Television anchor Edward R. Murrow is credited with this expression:

Just because your voice reaches halfway around the world doesn’t mean you are wiser than when it reached only to the end of the bar.

Murrow understood the power of television to misinform the masses.

It’s a strategy that’s worked brilliantly on every front — but none more pronounced than the all-important issue of global climate change. Seeking “balance” on the idiot box means presenting two sides to a one-sided issue until it’s too late to address the crisis.

Climate chaos is only a small part of the big story, though it’s among the phenomena poised to cause our extinction within a single human generation.

As you point out, we turn toward mass culture and away from reality. In addition to triggering climate chaos, we’ve initiated the Sixth Great Extinction, and we revel in its acceleration as one more sign of progress.

Furthermore, we continue to ratchet up the madness of human-population overshoot on an overpopulated, overheated, increasingly depauperate planet. Environmental degradation proceeds apace as we gleefully trade in living soil for smart phones, clean air for fast computers, potable water for high-definition televisions, healthy food for industrial poison, contentment for exhilaration, decent human communities for hierarchical death camps, and life for death.

All the while, we take truth-tellers to task while looking to corrupt governments for leadership. Truth is treason in an empire of lies and the people, largely convinced they’re consumers instead of citizens, keep seeking guidance from the television and nourishment from GMO-tainted faux food, all while seeking happiness from exhilaration instead of introspection.

My heart aches to the breaking point.

Industrialized humans are destroying every aspect of the living planet with all the joy one would expect from homicidal maniacs. We don’t think about what we’re doing. If we did, we wouldn’t. Or perhaps, driven by a culture of madness promoted by our contemporaries, we would.


ACKERMAN:  I agree with you on all points and find the whole conundrum quite interesting.

I can’t muster up any interest in mainstream culture and, thus, can’t fathom why people are so fascinated with it.

I love the simplicity of my life: my gardens, animals, quiet contemplation, and slow pace. I like not being chained to a contrived schedule, a phone, a commute, or debt.

I like feeling healthy from eating home-grown, clean food. I like sleeping well at night after a day in the fresh air. I like swimming in the alpine lake down the road at sunset. I like sitting outside in the evening, with a good book.

I feel like my life is so rich and good and I certainly don’t feel that I’m doing without anything.

I experience my life as rich and full. Yet, I don’t have most of the things that most Americans crave. I don’t, for example, have a TV, or a cell phone (let alone a smart phone!), or a microwave (I cook in a solar oven, actually), a fancy new car, air conditioning, designer clothing, or a credit card.

I don’t use airports anymore. I don’t go to shopping centers or malls (or even supermarkets). I don’t eat out. I rarely drive my truck (I bicycle) unless I’m hauling something. And, I don’t feel as if I am going without anything. I feel that I am living a really full, abundant life.

It’s interesting, though, to observe the reactions of the WWOOFers (World Wide Opportunities on Organic Farms) each year. In my mind’s eye, I think they’re stepping into paradise and being offered a real gift of leaving behind the madness of the mainstream. That’s why, invariably, when they begin to complain about things like not getting their text messages, or having a sufficiently robust social life or being able to eat copious amounts of Thai food, I just shake my head and wander off in disbelief. I can’t even imagine trading the sanity and serenity of life here on the homestead for any of that. W

hen I watch a herd of deer grazing in the meadow, I’m content. I can’t even get this into a comparison ratio with having an iPod (or whatever).

My whole thrust lately has been re-skilling — to learn the simple, creative techniques that my grandparents knew for growing food, home repairs, resource conservation, making clothing, and preparing herbal medicines.

My idea of preparing for the future is to relearn skills from a simpler, saner time when neighbors helped neighbors (instead of hiring professionals for every little job), and bread was eaten straight from the oven — still warm.

McPHERSON: As humans, we lived durable lives on Earth for two million years. Contrary to the arrogant and disparaging term, the Stone Age was a time of great abundance.

Neolithic humans knew each other and they knew the plants and animals with which they shared the area. They had minimal impact on the lands and waters that supported them. The people of that era spent a few hours each week doing what we call work — making sure the members of the community were well-hydrated, well-fed, and warm.

In contrast to the first couple million years, we’ve pursued growth for the sake of growth only during the last few thousand years: As Edward Abbey pointed out forty years ago, such an approach represents that of cancer. Along the way, we’ve destroyed the living planet while creating a depauperate world. And now we disparage or ignore the way humans lived when we truly were part of the world, rather than living as we do now, apart from the world.

I’m sad about our recent past and I’m inspired and invigorated about our future. Embarking on this new paradigm, which resembles the truly old, durable paradigm, translates to a life of abundance, as you’ve described. And we don’t even need smart phones to secure our happiness.

Back to the future

ACKERMAN: You have stated it very well, Guy.

We’re going back to the future. This is going to require a real change in consciousness for humans. We’re going to have to honestly and authentically care about all life — not just that of our own species.

This means stepping out of acquired habits of competitiveness, accumulation, resource depletion and all other forms of egoistic I-ness.

It means becoming content with simplicity.

It’s interesting: I use WWOOF interns here at my place every year. Invariably, they start the growing season with an overly romanticized vision of what constitutes simplicity. They wax poetically about their “readiness” to embrace a more simple lifestyle — until the honeymoon wears off.

And then, without fail, their conditioned passions plague them. They miss their smart phones, microwaves, fast-food, automobiles, lengthy showers and late night outings. This is the bifurcation point: they have to either rally up and shift into what it takes to live without creating such a large carbon footprint or they need to admit that they are really not ready to take on that task. Sure, it looks good on paper, but …! Or, it’s interesting to talk about conceptually — to sit around and intellectualize about — but …!

To get back to the future, we need to walk the talk. The time for thinking about this stuff is over. It’s time to do it.

McPHERSON: I love the WWOOF program and when I speak to college-age students I encourage them to pursue such opportunities instead of wishing the future suits their degree in marketing.

The latter wish demands ongoing military engagements to retain a future similar to the recent past. Never mind the morality of these pursuits — as Americans, we’ve never seemed to mind — we know empires fall, and we know the current empire is in serious decline. But our profound sense of entitlement, which transcends generations in this country, keeps us shackled to the feel-good notion of infinite growth.

Why it’s wrong to “support the troops”

I have a few thoughts about the thoughtless support of imperialism, as reflected in this country’s rallying cry of “Support the Troops.”

Supporting the troops is pledging your support for American Empire. Supporting the troops supports the occupation of sovereign nations because might makes right. Supporting the troops supports wanton murder of women and children throughout the world. And men, too.

Supporting the troops supports obedience at home and oppression abroad. Supporting the troops throws away every ideal on which this country allegedly is founded. Supporting the troops supports the ongoing destruction of the living planet in the name of economic growth. Supporting the troops therefore hastens our extinction in exchange for a few dollars.

Supporting the troops means caving in to Woodrow Wilson’s neo-liberal agenda, albeit cloaked as contemporary neo-conservatism (cf. hope and change). Supporting the troops trumpets power as freedom and fascism as democracy.

Your comment about going back to the future makes me wonder whether we’ve forgotten about America’s cultural revolution. It’s as if we never questioned the dominant paradigm in an empire run amok; as if we never experienced Woodstock and the Summer of Love, bra-burning hippies and war-torn teenagers, Rosa Parks and the Cuyahoga River.

We’re right back in the 1950s, swimming in culture’s main stream instead of questioning, resisting, and protesting!

I encourage every act of resistance, and also most alternative paths. If that path includes WWOOFing or backpacking or driving into the end of the world as we know it, I’m a fan. In contrast, I detest the idea of dreamily swimming in the powerful cultural current of the main stream.

The time for action

ACKERMAN: We’re on the same page.

The time for going to conferences, watching videos and having think-tanks is over. It’s time for action. Conceptual activism is just another way that people swim dreamily in the current of the mainstream.

“Oh, ain’t it awful” isn’t going to get us anywhere. Neither are all-night conversations about psuedo-solutions. What has to happen is an unprecedented amount of Unplugging from The Man. Walking Away from Empire.

The Cassandra Syndrome is a term applied to situations in which valid warnings or concerns are dismissed or disbelieved. This is where we stand in psycho-history. The writing is on the wall and the warning has been sounded, but most Americans are reticent to make any significant behavioral changes. We’ve been too comfortable for too long.

I want to loop back to the beginning of our conversation, Guy, and take another look at Jensen’s distinction between real life and contrived culture. It’s a critical distinction and most people have them confused.

If we’re going to move into a new paradigm we’re going to have to be very clear that we’re a part of real life and not merely cogs in the endless manufacture of contrived/conditioned culture. This poses, for most, a serious existential crisis. But, it’s only through that kind of deep angst and discomfort that most people are going to truly commit to walking away from culture and participating in real life.

McPHERSON: Knowing culture will lead us astray, we nonetheless invite scorn when we seek the truth beneath the cultural current of the main stream.

Culture does not have answers to meaningful questions. But skepticism for the sake of skepticism is no virtue, either.

In sum, then, it’s difficult to know what to believe, and whom to trust, but it’s clear we’re surrounded by lies.

During our finest moments, we don’t believe the media, the politicians we elect (from the very small slate of candidates selected for us), or the CEOs and NGOs to whom we give our money. Awash in misinformation yet surrounded by culture’s unrepentant, never-ending message, we vacillate between cynicism and swimming in the powerful current of culture.

Most Americans turn to neoclassical economists for information about the industrial economy, but that approach is rife with danger, as explained by this old joke:

Four shipwrecked economists wash ashore on a deserted tropical island. The first Asian economist says, ‘I’ll gather wood and start a fire to keep us warm and cook our food.’ The second Asian economist says, ‘I’ll find water.’ The third Asian economist says, ‘I’ll find food.’ The American economist sits down, smiles, and says, ‘When you’ve got that all taken care of, I’ll consume whatever you produce. You’re darned lucky I’m here: Without me, the entire system falls apart in a hurry.’

In response to the misinformation associated with imperial living — not to mention the lies I was telling myself about the irredeemably corrupt system in which I was ensconced — I’ve moved from imperialist city educator to rural sharecropper in very challenging step. This move was driven by many factors, including the profound (and profoundly late) realization that we live immorally, buying and selling nature’s bounty at an imperialist whim.

The transition to living as part of the world, rather than apart from the world, has been accompanied by rewards too numerous and varied to list here, although you’ve articulated them in The Good Life and summarized them in your opening statement (above).

ACKERMAN: You point to the very real vacillation that we make between cynicism and denial. The solution lies, of course, somewhere in-between the two. I think that we should talk again soon, Guy, with an eye toward the perennial question of T.S. Eliot in “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock:”

So how should I presume?

One Comment

That was fun. Lot’s of good links. Can’t think of any important left out. It is possible that all encompassing catastrophe might shake out as normal (as in not brain damaged sociopath, etc.) folks resort to doing normal things to survive and maybe even, as suggested, have a much happier life under the influence of involuntary simplicity. Must admit these are the day dreams that beckon. My observation is that culture, destructive or not, is held to irrationally to the bitter end. The alternative is for folks to adopt an entirely new culture (the aim of Transition it seems). It is possible if a significant, read big, majority commits to a new set of values. I saw something like this with the medical school class behind mine. They all changed their attitude to a productive, happy one, AT ONCE. But it is hard to imagine scaling that up to nation size. Some areas of the country on the periphery, like the upper New England states, have the potential. Perhaps as the rest of industrial culture collapses such refugia might make a new stand in the climate wreckage, but the logic of mass extinction seems to make that unlikely. I suspect that intelligent sociopaths are already thinking about leaving the Earth for life in space and figuring out how much they need to rob and kill to monopolize the resources to accomplish that. Think about that stupid movie 2012 with all the billionaires crammed into steerage on monster life boats. If you are a sociopath that sort of nonsense seems to make sense.

What it comes down to, I think Chomsky said something like this, is the times are liberating. Waiting to see how it comes out is not morally suspect, neither is doing whatever you can think of to try to help. The latter approach is, in the short term, a mentally healthier alternative. Essentially, there is no longer any reason for good heated folks to argue with each other about who has the superior plan. Learning to grow one’s own food is a good start.