Trends since 2016: Psycho-Social Health, Illness, Technology

•October 15, 2018 • 1 Comment

[Third and last part of my trends since 2016 report. The cartoon is by Australian cartoonist First Dog on the Moon.]

As without, so within. Along with the loss of animal and plant life, there is declining physical and mental health in developed countries. The fertility crisis is increasing as the environment becomes ever more artificial and toxic: male sperm counts in rich countries have decreased by almost 40% since 1973, continuing to fall by 1.6% every year, with 10-15% of low-count men needing fertility treatment to become fathers and 20-25% experiencing prolonged waiting time to pregnancy compared with optimal-count men; one in seven US couples now have fertility problems; a 2017 study finds strong correlations between abnormal sperm shape and high levels of fine particulate air pollution; pesticides, plastics, oestrogens, obesity, stress have also all been implicated. 6.5 million children have now been born via IVF or ART (assisted reproduction techniques).

There are increasing levels of serious mental illness: according to a Blue Dog Institute report in April 2016, about one in four young Australians aged 15 to 19 are likely to have a serious mental health problem (having risen by four percent between 2012 and 2016), with 28.6 percent of females, and 27.4 percent of all 18-19 year-olds; areas of self-reported concern: ‘stress’, ‘school problems’ (competitive pressure, bullying), body image, family conflict. In 2017 one in four British girls are clinically depressed by the age of fourteen, with higher incidence among poor and mixed-race girls, and up to 10% of girls and boys between the ages of three and eleven suffer from feelings of depression or anxiety (as reported by their parents). White middle and working class crisis of painkiller-opioid addiction in US: declared a national emergency in 2017, with numbers of overdose deaths increasing 21% in 2016 over previous year: to over 64,000 deaths, now the leading cause of death for the 25-64 year-olds and killing double the number killed by firearms or motor vehicles.

Vicarious Screen Reality is intensifying, totalising, continuing to replace reality for ever more people in the over-industrialised world. Research in 2017 finds seven out of 10 British people admit they are losing touch with the natural world, while a third cannot identify an oak tree or say they know enough about nature to teach their children; a 2016 report finds that Britain is among ‘the most nature-depleted countries in the world.’ Overuse of digital touchscreens is now causing loss of hand strength and digital dexterity in children, preventing them from holding pencils and pens correctly (some reverting to gripping them ‘like cavemen held sticks’). Meanwhile Silicon Valley AI engineer Anthony Levandowski founds ‘Way of the Future’, a religious organisation seeking to ‘develop and promote the realization of a Godhead based on artificial intelligence and through understanding and worship of the Godhead contribute to the betterment of society.’

Google’s AlphaGo supercomputer defeats Lee Sedol, one of world’s leading Go players (2016). The global eSports gaming audience reaches 385 million in 2017 and the Intel Extreme Masters eSports finals in Poland are attended by 173,500 people with over 36 million watching online; eSports professionals practise at least 12 hours a day; gaming addiction in South Korea replaces drug and alcohol addiction as the main treatment object at the Seoul National Centre for Mental Health, especially for male teenagers and young men; addictive gaming is linked to frontal lobe degeneration, anti-social, impulsive behaviour and unhappiness.

To increase sales of material and immaterial commodities within the new ‘platform capitalism’, the expanding gig or ‘attention economy’ has been intentionally designed to control eyeballs and become psychologically addictive using ‘behavioural design’ research (e.g. using ‘behaviour design’, detailed in Stanford lecturer Nir Eyal’s book ‘Hooked: How to Build Habit-Forming Products’, 2013).

Thus, there are signs of increasing divorce from material reality and a stable sense of self: an average c. six and a half hours are now spent on screens of all kinds, and average cognitive interruption is every four minutes from smartphones. 79% of Australian teens and 54% of adults are ‘highly involved’ with their phones, with teens spending an average 3.3 hours/day on social media (5-9 times a day), adults 2.6 hours, teens using Instagram average 6.8 times a day, 60% of them 15 minutes before going to sleep, 49% 15 minutes after waking up, 25% in class and when eating dinner, 63% (51% adults) feeling pressure to look good on photos on social media, 41% sometimes feeling everyone else is ‘living the dream’ except them, 38% using photo-editing to alter the profile pictures to appear more attractive, 25% say they have been bullied on social media; twice as many Instagram teen and adult users classify themselves as having low self-esteem compared with non-users. 31% of UK 18-34 year-olds feels they spend too much time communicating with family and friends online rather than in person.

University of Pittsburgh research finds a correlation between the use of social media and increased feelings of loneliness (‘the more you use Facebook, the worse you feel’). In 2017 48% of people in UK believe we are getting lonelier, 31% of Americans surveyed feel lonely at least once a week; and the younger, the lonelier: c. 50% of UK 18-24 year-olds, 38% of 25-34 year-olds, c. 33% of 35-64 year-olds and 25% of over 65 year-olds ‘often feel lonely’. There is a further steep drop in committed relationships among young within a decade: the proportion of US young adults living singly without partners rises from half (52%) in 2004 to almost two thirds (64%) in 2014.

In 2017 only 20% of German teacher trainees still get their political information regularly from a newspaper, 40% almost never, with most now relying on ‘social media’. In 2018 Facebook admits to having let Cambridge Analytica and Steve Bannon use at least 90 million subscribers’ personal data without their permission for the latter’s use in manipulating Brexit and Trump voters. The ‘holy grail of marketing’, namely tracking and measuring the customer’s entire movements and buying habits in order to sell them commodities, is now possible via combining data from Facebook (profiles, likes, comments), geolocation tracking of smartphones, payment via credit card and customer ‘loyalty schemes’.

In 2017, in a ‘tech-lash’, even former Google and Facebook executives sound the alarm about the pervasive society- and mind-changing powers of digital technology and ‘social media’ ‒ Chamath Palihapitiya (ex-Facebook CEO): ‘The short-term, dopamine-driven feedback loops that we have created are destroying how society works. No civil discourse, no cooperation, misinformation, mistruth …So we are in a really bad state of affairs right now, in my opinion’; Sean Parkes (ex-Facebook CEO): ‘[Facebook] literally changes your relationship with society, with each other …God only knows what it’s doing to our children’s brains’; Tristan Hughes (ex-Google CEO):

Religions and governments don’t have that much influence over people’s daily thoughts. But we have three technology companies [Facebook, Google, Apple] who have this system that frankly they don’t even have control over… Right now, 2 billion people’s minds are already jacked into this automated system, and it’s steering people’s thoughts toward either personalised paid advertising or misinformation or conspiracy theories. And it’s all automated; the owners of the system can’t possibly monitor everything that’s going on, and they can’t control it.

Scientific Innovations. The first human-pig embryo chimera is taken a third of way through pregnancy inside a sow by geneticists at the Salk Institute California, paving the way for growing fully functioning human transplant organs inside hybrid animals; human early developmental cells are injected into a pig’s embryo at the same developmental stage (2016). In August 2017 a new era may have begun in space research, that of gravitational wave astrophysics, combining dramatically different ways of viewing and understanding the universe: for the first time scientists observe a ‘kilonova’, a collision and merger between two neutron stars (ultra-dense remnants of collapsed stars) in a distant galaxy some 130 million years ago; this is the first cosmic event witnessed both via optical telescopes and gravitational wave detectors involving thousands of researchers in more than seventy labs and telescopes on every continent.


Current Global Trends. Part 2

•October 10, 2018 • Leave a Comment

[Following on from the previous post on political shifts, this section focuses on global ecological overshoot and Malthusian scarcity cycles, i.e. the latest ecological and climate trends and figures since 2016.]

Global ecological debt and overshoot are further increasing. According to Mathis Wackernagel and others, humanity as a whole is now using up 1.7 Earths: while global ‘biocapacity’ amounts to 12.2 billion hectares (biologically productive space needed for food, timber, infrastructure, carbon sequestration), global humanity’s actual ecological footprint is now 20.9 billion hectares, i.e. it has an ecological debt of 9 billion hectares. Carbon emissions make up 60% of humanity’s ecological footprint, with rich consumers of course making up most of that. Global Earth Overshoot Day (the day our annual ecological footprint exceeds Earth’s carrying capacity) in 2018 is now August 1st (being extreme earth-consumers, Australia’s Overshoot Day is much earlier: March 31st). (NB ecological footprint analysis does not, and cannot, measure and include important ecological qualities like biodiversity losses, soil, and water mismanagement and depletion, declining ecosystems).

Increased demand for diminishing energy and resources also leads to increased pressure on remaining indigenous lands for oil and minerals, timber, arable land: a record 200 environmental activists are murdered globally in 2016 (100 in the first five months of 2017, especially in Brazil and Colombia). Demand for oil and gas is still growing globally, negating any falling emissions from declining coal use and the increasing shift away from coal and towards renewable energies.

However, there is some good news too. In the UK coal consumption in 2016 is down to early 1800s Industrial Revolution levels, coal falls from 40% of power supply to 2% within five years, and in April 2017 for the first time in 135 years the UK goes a day without burning any coal; in 2017 China mothballs plans for 151 coal power plants; in early November 2017 Germany has so much wind power on one weekend that customers get free electricity; in 2017 solar and wind generation employ 476,000 in the US and coal now only 160,000. Because of the increasing cheapness of solar and wind energy (production costs have plunged 90% over the past decade), in 2017 IEA radically revises its 2013 projections of growth in global coal-burning by 2040 from 40% to 1%. While Europe has radically cut back subsidies to renewables since 2011 (from $126 bn to $41 bn), China in 2017 is investing more in renewables than all developed countries combined.

However, although global solar capacity jumps 25% and renewables account for more than two thirds of new power capacity added in 2016, and although $3 trillion have been spent globally on renewables since 2004, renewables account for only 12% of global electricity production in 2017 (compared with 5% in 2005, excluding hydroelectric and nuclear power) and only 3 % of global total energy use; the proportion of global renewable electricity production is projected to rise to 34% by 2040, not fast enough to limit warming to 2 degrees.
In another vicious circle of technological pseudo-solutions making things worse in the long run, more heating means more air-conditioning which in turn means more heating: air-conditioning now already consumes about 10% of all global electricity, and air-con itself can directly warm a city by as much as an extra 20 C (while the urban heat island effect can also warm cities like London by as much as an extra 70 C, creating the need for more air-con, and so on; in contrast, tree planting can also bring down urban temperatures by several degrees).

Malthusian scarcity cycles are again increasing, especially in west, east and central Africa, with mounting biological mass extinctions and climate change stresses (increasing extreme weather events, ice reduction etc.). In 2016 the concentration of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere increases at record speed, accelerating, and 100 times faster than at end of last ice age, and to a level not seen for more than three million years (403.3 ppm). Due to only slowly dropping birth rates in Africa (exceptions: Mauritius, Tunisia, Libya, with improvements also in South Africa, Kenya, Ghana, Ethiopia), the UN revises its 2100 population projections for Africa and the world upwards from 9.1 to 11.2 billion. There are now 1.2 billion Africans, the African average birth rate is still 4.7 children, rising nearly three times faster than the world’s, with projections now of between 3 and 6.1 billion Africans by 2100 (world average birth rate is now 2.5, half as many as early 1950s, and 40% of nations are at or below replacement level of 2.1 children). There is a continuing mass exodus to Europe from economically and ecologically ailing and overpopulated African states by unemployed young men.

At least a quarter of city residents in the global south are living in sprawling shanty town slums, usually on peripheral, vulnerable land and flood-prone areas; in Mumbai, 60% live in slums and c. 300,000 are homeless; Bangalore has tripled in size since 1995, most of the vegetation has been lost, as have the 2500 water-storage lakes, since 2000 it has flooded regularly and city temperatures have increased by 2-2.5 C.

Climate change-exacerbated drought in Yemen, Syria (already in 2006-10), Somalia, Sudan, Ethiopia, South Africa (Capetown), Mozambique (Maputo) plus overpopulation increase competition for land, food and income, civil conflict, Islamist terrorism (Boko Haram in Nigeria) and migration push factors towards Europe. Temperatures throughout the Middle East in the summer of 2017 reach the high forties and low fifties for several weeks on end; without carbon emissions reductions, by 2100 extreme heatwaves are predicted for the Indian subcontinent (and much of the tropics), making it unliveable with humid ‘wet bulb temperatures’ hitting 35C and even fit people then dying within six hours.

In 2017 revised predictions reveal that under business-as-usual emissions Antarctic ice sheet melting could contribute to a massive sea level rise of almost 3m by 2100 (2m more than previously predicted by the IPCC in 2013), inundating coastal cities. Probably due to extreme warming in the Arctic (20 degrees above average in winter 2018), there has been a 10% decline since 1980 in the speed of the northern jet stream causing it to meander more and trap weather systems instead of pushing them along, and thus creating both longer summer droughts and winter cold spells in the northern hemisphere. Arctic ice loss is now about 30 years ahead of where the models say it should be, with the volume of the ice sheet in the late 2016 heatwave much lower than any other winter on record. The loss of reflective sea ice, and its resulting dark seas, have delivered a warming boost to the whole planet equivalent to 25% of the effect of rising CO2 levels. Darker sea and land masses are amplifying global heating in another positive feedback loop. Current climate models do not even include the loss of Arctic reflectivity (albedo) in their calculations.

As oceans warm and are polluted by fertilizers and sewage, they suffocate and die. While oceans still feed more than 500 million people especially in poorer nations, coastal dead (oxygen-free) zones increase from fewer than 50 in 1950 to at least 500 in 2017, while in warming waters levels of oxygen in all the oceans falls by 2% (c. 77 billion tonnes); lower oxygen levels reduce growth of marine life, impair reproduction, increase disease and make organisms breathe faster und thus use up oxygen more quickly in a vicious circle. Low-oxygen areas in oceans now extend to about the area of the European Union. In another positive feedback loop, microbes and algal blooms proliferating at low-oxygen levels also produce lots of nitrous oxide, a greenhouse gas 300 times more potent than CO2; their decomposition then also sucks more oxygen out of the water.

North-western China is facing acute water shortages due to drought, over-use, pollution, urbanisation, with plans in 2016 to build a 1000 km water pipeline across Mongolia from Siberia. Water scarcity is rapidly increasing in many regions: globally, 4 billion live in areas experiencing water scarcity at least once a month; after $2 trillion has been spent globally on dams in recent decades, 20% of global population have gained water while more (23%) have been left with less water; the four most water-insecure countries are all in Africa. About 200,000 die each year in India because they cannot access clean water and 600 million there face ‘high to extreme water stress’, while by 2030 water availability will be half what India needs and an estimated 21 major cities there could exhaust their groundwater supplies within two years; officials blame a 82% shortfall in winter rain and snow due to climate change. In 2008 the Sea of Galilee, Israel’s largest freshwater reserve, delivered 400m cubic metres of water per year, in 2018 pumping is limited to 30-40m cubic metres per year due to reduced levels. Shrinking reservoirs and water shortages in 2018 are also experienced in South Africa, India, Iraq, Morocco, Spain.

Although the percentage of people living in absolute poverty has been reduced to 10% globally in the last two decades, 385 million children still live in extreme poverty; 65 million people, half of them children, are displaced or refugees in 2016 and 20 million in Yemen, Somalia, South Sudan and Nigeria face starvation; Somalia, Sudan, South Sudan and Central African Republic are considered the world’s most fragile states, least able to securely govern territory; 37% of young adults in sub-Saharan Africa say they want to move to another country, mostly because of unemployment; African cities and slums are projected to explode in population by 2050 (Lagos from 11 million in 2010 to 40 million, Kinshasa from 8.4 million to 31 million).

In 2016 the number of chronically malnourished people reaches 815 million, up 38 million from previous year, increasing for the first time since 2000 when the number of hungry people was 900 million; the number of chronically hungry also increases from 10.6% to 11% of global population; the main hotspots of hunger are South Sudan, Somalia, Yemen and north-east Nigeria. While the proportion of underweight people has lessened globally between 1975 and 2014, the proportion of obese and severely obese people is also rising significantly, with some researchers in 2016 saying much of the world is now passing ‘from an era of obesity to a new era of severe obesity.’ By 2016 50 million girls and 74 million boys are now obese globally, a tenfold increase since 1975 (5 million and 6 million). Anti-biotic resistance is also increasing in bacteria due to over-prescription and use in commercial-industrial agriculture to increase profits; doctors are warning of an imminent post-anti-biotic age. 25,000 children die each year in the EU, 23,000 in the US, from antibiotic-resistant infections, and in excess of 700,000 people die globally each year.

In 2017 the most comprehensive global analysis to date reveals that at least (probably more) nine million people die of pollution every year, with air pollution the biggest killer (outdoor 4.5m, indoor 2.9m), followed by water pollution (1.8m) and workplace pollution (0.8 million). Industrializing and poor countries are the worst affected by pollution, with India and China having the largest number of pollution deaths (2.5m and 1.8m) and Somalia suffering the highest per capita rate of pollution deaths, but with Russia, the US and Japan also in the top ten countries for pollution deaths.

About 300 million tonnes of plastic are produced globally each year, making up about half of all solid waste and with just c. 20% recycled. About 6.3 billion tonnes have been discarded globally since 1950, most of which will not break down for at least 450 years. Like most resource use, per capita use of plastic mirrors affluence: India 11 kg/year, US 109 kg/year. (In 2018 Mumbai even bans both plastic bags and bottles). In 2017 micro-plastic particles from these wastes and from washing synthetic textiles and tyre dust, also carrying chemical nanoparticles and microbial pathogens, are found to be ubiquitous (in an average 83% of drinking water samples from over twelve countries); they are also found in European air, beers, sugar, honey, sea salt; plastic nanoparticles with toxic or hormone-disrupting chemicals or microbial pathogens could penetrate cells and gut walls. Arctic Ocean plastic litter has increased 20-fold just in the past 10 years.

Silent Springs. Neonicotinoids, the world’s most widely used pesticides and harmful to pollinators like bees, are also found in honey from every continent. UK farmland birds have declined by a further 10% in just five years since 2012, and by 56% in total since 1970. An ecological bombshell (a true 21st century Silent Spring) in 2017: a German study finds that an amazing three quarters of all flying insects (even including flies) have disappeared even in protected reserves there since the early 1990s and warns that the world is ‘on course for ecological Armageddon.’ Global warming, even with emissions cuts already ‘pledged’ so far, would make almost half of global insect habitat unsuitable by the end of the century. Insects make up c. 70% of all known animal species on Earth and are to terrestrial food chains what plankton is to oceanic ones. ‘If we lose insects, then everything is going to collapse’ (Professor Dave Goulson, Sussex University). Entomologist E.O. Wilson estimates that humanity would only last a few months without insects and arthropods, the Earth gradually reverting to what it was like in the Silurian period 440 million years ago, ‘a spongy, silent place, filled with mosses and liverworts, waiting for the first shrimp brave enough to try its luck on land.’ (J. Mikanowski, ‘Inside the great insect die-off’, GW 12/01/2018, p. 29).

Deep Disruption. Some Trends since 2016, Part 1

•October 7, 2018 • 1 Comment

[Some trends gathered from various media sources since 2016 and framed from my particular perspective. Mostly I haven’t bothered to note my sources, but they generally come from the Guardian Weekly, the Sydney Morning Herald, the New Scientist. I’ll follow this with more ecological and technological stuff later].

Deep Disruption. Some Trends since 2016 (Part 1)

In September 2016 the Doomsday Clock is set forward to two and a half minutes to midnight, its most critical position since 1948, due to North Korean production of intercontinental nuclear weapons and lethal autonomous weapons systems making killing decisions without human supervision, and notes: ‘The Clock is ticking, global danger looms. Wise public officials should act immediately, guiding humanity away from the brink. If they do not, wise citizens must step forward and lead the way’ (SMH Extra, 10/11/2017, p. 29).

In 2016 there is a sense of a watershed, of an acceleration of deep cultural (and digital) disruption, a new, more fearful zeitgeist and even possible ending (or heightening ?), of the forty-year neoliberal hegemony: there is a general acceleration of the authoritarian, anti-neoliberal, right-wing shift towards post-liberal police states and postmodern/premodern magic thinking, ‘fake news’ and ‘post-truth’ forms of ‘friendly fascism’ (Bertram Gross). Are these the forerunners of the coming global storm? Increasing global disruptions in the economy since 2008, in liberal politics, technological innovation and Earth support systems seem to be combining and reaching a head.

Via the increasing fragmentation effect of increasingly concentrated online media, the spread of internet access to half the world and the expanding and intentionally addictive gig ‘attention economy’, there is a sense of a new zeitgeist and level of cultural, even epistemic, crisis, a hyper-postmodern age of ‘disruption’, ‘post-truth’, ‘post-facts’, of social media ‘news’ and ‘fake news’; democratisation of media, ‘future shock’ and information overload also encourage a new mass irrationalism of superstitions, conspiracy theories, state cyberwar manipulations and mass dis-information through social media self-confirming ‘filter bubbles’ and Big Tech self-confirming popularity algorithms in search engines: a blending of regressive premodern tribalism and naïve magic thinking with the dark cynical-nihilistic side of the postmodern zeitgeist.

There is further online concentration of Big Tech capital and power: in 2017 90% of searches are done via Google, and Facebook adds over a billion users. In 2018 Apple and Amazon are the two first companies in history to reach a capitalization of a trillion dollars. Globally there is also still a stark digital divide in internet access: while nearly 80% of Europeans are online, only 20% of Africans are; also, two thirds of internet users live in countries that regularly censor the internet.

‘Post-truth’ (a term first coined in 1992 re the Iran-Contra scandal and the Gulf War) is the Oxford Dictionary’s 2016 word of the year after its general usage spikes 2000 percent since 2015 in the lead-up to the right-wing-populist (and data-mine manipulated) Brexit and Trump campaigns. More people are now more disoriented and disbelieving in any mainstream-liberal media and government, especially since the lies around the Iraq War in 2003 and the public bailout of the banks and hedge funds in the 2008 Depression.

Britain leaves the EU (Brexit) after a successful populist campaign and close referendum with a four percent majority (52%:48%) also manipulated by data mining analytics (Cambridge Analytica using data from 87 million Facebook users) and targeted disinformation strategies funded by right-wing billionaire Mercer and far-right activist Steve Bannon; Trump, believing in nothing but himself, is perhaps the first postmodern reality-TV, continually and openly lying, post-literate (like Reagan, he doesn’t read, doesn’t take advice, and watches three TVs in his bedroom to get his ‘information’), proudly narcissistic celebrity president to openly revel in populist conspiracy theories, ‘alternate realities’, outright lies and ‘fake news’ and to proclaim his corporate, racist and right-wing ‘policies’ by tweets; his mendacious, bragging behaviour causes outrage only among liberals; he has a large US base of 25-30% of American voters, mostly, but not exclusively, rural, rust-belt and white working-class who believe in him as an ‘authentic’ maverick and ‘can-do’ businessman who will ‘Make America Great Again’ no matter what he actually says or does.

Under the weight of rising inequality, social marginalisation by neoliberal globalisation, demographic change and increasing mass immigration from poor countries, there are regressive populist shifts to the blind politics of fear and anger, of conspiracy theories, of resentment and post-imperial nostalgia for military or industrial ‘greatness’, of mass devotion to authoritarian, nationalist narcissists and ‘postmodern’ (‘post-truth’) populist right-wing ‘strong leaders’ and demagogues. Are the post-liberal states in the west are drifting ever more to the right and some consumerist, surveillance-capitalist form of postmodern ‘friendly fascism’?

These right-wing populist demagogues, like Trump (‘Build the Wall’, ‘Drain the Swamp’, ‘Make America Great Again’), Duterte, Orban, Erdogan, Marine Le Pen, often successfully manipulate mainly old working class and lower middle-class class humiliations and resentments against neoliberal globalisation and mass immigration, i.e. de-industrialisation in high-wage countries and outsourcing to low-wage countries, loss of real wage levels and standards of living, loss of perceived status and identity through economic change and immigration, loss of perceived ‘national greatness’, class hatred against neoliberal elites and urbane cosmopolitanism, mass migrations, multiculturalism and demographic shifts to non-native or non-white people (non-Hispanic whites to be minority in US by c. 2040). Fearful (still slender) majorities hope for authoritarian ‘change’ from ‘strong leaders’ or elite billionaires who promise to ‘drain swamps’ of the elites and stop immigration, shifting diffuse resentments from increasing inequality and powerful economic decision-makers onto powerless and stereotyped scapegoats via premodern magic thinking and xenophobia (the ‘they’ outgroup: foreigners, migrants, asylum seekers, Muslims, terrorists, petty drug runners and addicts). A poll after the Charlottsville ‘alt right’ events finds 9% of US Americans (30 million people) believe holding neo-Nazi or white supremacist views acceptable; in November 2017 in Warsaw 60,000 march under far-right symbols and slogans ‘Pure Poland, White’, ‘Refugees, get out!’, some also explicitly anti-Semitic.

The Trump election also stimulates a progressive, feminist backlash in the US, a peaking fourth-wave feminism relying on social media and blogs (Valenti 2004, Burke 2006, Gay 2014), and then via the #MeToo campaign from 2017, globally, causing further cultural shift against elite male sexism and abuse in the entertainment industry and elsewhere.

Anti-modern backlash and anti-Enlightenment cultural regression into magic thinking by authoritarian populist right: while the Trump admin bans the phrase ‘climate change’ from official EPA documents, in 2017 Erdogan bans the theory of evolution from the Turkish school curriculum, increases references to Islam and increases the number of religious schools. In 2017 Suez University in Egypt also accuses an academic teaching Milton’s seventeenth century epic poem Paradise Lost of ‘rejecting that which is sacred in favour of the authority of the human mind’, of spreading ‘destructive ideas’ that have disturbed ‘public order…in an anarchic call disguised as comparative literature textual analysis’ and of ‘glorifying Satan’.

Socio-cultural dis-synchronicities globally re religion/Enlightenment secularism, premodern/modern mindsets. A US Gallup survey in 2017 finds belief in Biblical Creation (‘God created humans in their present form within the past 10,000 years or so’) is prevalent (almost 50%) among those with high school education or less, over 40% among those with ‘some college’, and, astonishingly, still almost a quarter of college graduates and 21% of postgraduates and professionals. However a global Ipsos 2017 survey across 23 countries of more than 17,000 people finds that globally half (49%) believe religion ‘does more harm in the world than good’ (Australia/Germany/Spain 63%, Belgium 68%) and globally only a third (32%) believe that ‘the religious make better citizens’ (Australia 25%, but in contrast Russia 44% and US 45%); while 60% of Australians tick a religious faith box in the census form (c. 30% said ‘no religion’, up from 22% five years earlier) only 27% say their religious faith ‘defined them as a person’ (UK 23%, Japan 14%, but in contrast US 49%); however globally half also believe ‘religious practices are an important factor in the moral life of my country’s citizens’ (Australia 40%, and US 66%). There is economic-cultural crisis and increased regression to magic thinking outside politics as well: in Italy (with 11% unemployed, 35% among young people) the number of faith healers and fortune-tellers rises fivefold since the 2008 GFC, about a quarter of population visit astrologers, fortune-tellers, tarot card readers (three million more than in 2001).

There is a temporary weakening of neoliberal free trade hegemony but also a historical impossibility of returning to protectionism or the old social-democratic, Keynesian welfare state without global economic depression or collapse; with Trump there is a further decline in US imperial hegemony via geopolitical multipolar stresses from competition with rivals Russia and China, the rising hegemon. 1702 freight trains travel 12,000 km to arrive in Europe from China in 2016, double the previous year’s total, and halving time taken by sea to c. 15 days. Xi Jinping, while consolidating his internal dictatorial power and increasing repression, launches an extension of the mammoth New Silk Road and Belt infrastructure project of railways and ports for globalising Chinese hegemony across Eurasia and into Africa, as central to his nationalistic ‘Chinese Dream’ to ‘realise the great rejuvenation of the Chinese people’. In 2016 the number of Chinese scientific publications outnumbers those of the US for the first time and Chinese R&D expenditure reaches $234 billion; under the Thousand Talents Plan, Chinese and non-Chinese scientists from overseas are given full-time positions at prestigious universities and larger than normal salaries and resources. However, the IMF warns that China’s total debt has quadrupled since GFC to $28 trillion at end of 2016, c. 235% of its GDP, with debt now becoming less effective in stimulating economic activity and needing three times as much credit to achieve the same amount of growth as in 2008.

‘Peak inequality’ and the global plutocracy are at an all-time historical apex: the richest eight men now own 40 percent of the world’s wealth, while the bottom fifty percent own no more than one percent! The three richest men in the US, Bill Gates, Jeff Bezos (Amazon) and Warren Buffett, in 2017 own as much wealth as the bottom half of the US population, 160 million people. This is now a new ‘Gilded Age’, with inequality back at pre-1914 ‘robber baron’ levels. The world has 1,542 dollar billionaires owning $6 trillion in 2017, and gaining average returns on their capital of 17% in 2016. At the same time, five million garment workers in Bangladesh producing clothes for Western companies and consumers still earn less than a living wage to cover their basic needs (c. $113 a month). Continuing concentration of capital: in 2016 Bayer buys Monsanto for $ 66 billion.

With a global right-wing backlash against neoliberal globalisation and peak inequality, a surge in authoritarian nationalism and a retreat from international treaty obligations, there is also a human rights crisis: a World Justice Project Rule of Law index for 2018 finds that fundamental human rights have diminished in almost two-thirds of countries surveyed; 38 countries have seen their overall Rule of Law score diminish since 2016, the UK drops out of the top 10 to 11th, the US ranks 19th but falls to 26th in the fundamental rights category (with worsening levels of discrimination and due process plus decreased guarantees of the right to life).

The elimination of the human right to privacy and total digital state surveillance increases everywhere. Police forces across the world launch face-recognition programmes, using cameras to scan (and intimidate) crowds at public events, protests and demonstrations, sporting matches, festivals without people’s consent or often knowledge. A 2016 audit of the FBI finds it has built up a database of more than 400 million face images, including half the US adult population, without proper oversight, and suspected criminals make up less than 10% of the library. The Chinese government uses face-recognition technology to monitor and discriminate against the Muslim population in Xinjiang: people are scanned as they enter markets or buy fuel, and police are alerted when targeted individuals stray 300 metres beyond their homes or workplace. It also uses face-recognition programs (‘Sharp Eyes’) integrated with police databases (‘Police Cloud’) and a so-called ‘social credit score’ system (bad/good citizen) to control the population in general. In 2018 even Microsoft calls for government regulation of the development and use of face-recognition technology.

The premodern and postmodern also merge in the phenomenon of postmodern slavery: global slavery, including indentured labour, migrant and sex trafficking, is affecting tens of millions (40 million in 2017); based on data drawn from 51 countries over 15 years, at least 21 million are now directly in some form of postmodern slavery according to UN’s International Labour Organization, with annual profits from slavery estimated at $150 billion and postmodern slave traders making a return on investment 25-30 times higher than eighteenth and nineteenth century slave traders; the world’s biggest cotton producers India and Uzbekistan are still plagued by outright slavery and child labour. Huge migration flows are supplying a ready and easily exploitable supply of victims for industries such as commercial sex, fashion, seafood.

How to Use Kookaburras

•September 30, 2018 • 3 Comments

{Poem of mine just published in signs, the 2018 University of Canberra Vice-Chancellor’s Poetry Prize longlist anthology. The laughing kookaburra image is from treknature. ‘Oz’ is Australia, ‘larrikins’ are male playful louts or thugs, ‘toff’ is upper-class. Enjoy.]

How to Use Kookaburras

O, where were we before time was,
and where was death before we breathed?
– Max Dunn

Oz, old timeless self
of invertebrates,
reptiles, bacterial rocks.

Vast as. Sky country,
mind-less. Visitors
like us flying in through
the pure blue nothing
leave only fluffy white
scars quickly disappeared
by wind, eternity’s time-
sweeper. Sky stays, trace-
less as original mind,
full with emptiness.

Here horizons shift
backwards into fire
sunsets the blue-haze
mountains’ trees breathe
out. Ocean always
there like childhood
enfolded in sky.

Yet smack bang into this
Immense, a raucous bird
with a punk hairdo
struts & blusters hidden
mateship, insecurity,
larrikin laughter at
toff raptor pretension
or attempted sublimity
in any thrush, flooding
funerals, orations,
solemn commemorations
with a concussive
of white-out sound.

Stunned, displaced,
perhaps we can use
the occasion of
trickster Kookaburra
itself shitless simply
to remember self,
selves, the Selfless
before we are &
in our human comedy,
birdlike as a skewered
worm, birdlike as
the sky.

We Are Here, and You Are It. A Summary

•August 16, 2018 • 2 Comments

[Another extract from my work-in-progress You Are Here. A Travelogue, our common evolutionary story since the big bang. An attempt at a very short summary of our Big History up to this present critical point of evolutionary decision for humanity in the Anthropocene: One World or None. The images chosen for their symbolic resonance are of the Gothic rose window at Notre Dame cathedral in Paris and a 9-10th century CE painting of two Buddhist monks in dialogue: a blue-eyed Central Asian and a dark-eyed East Asian.]

We Are Here, and You Are It. A Summary

Here is an attempt at a short summary of our common travelogue together as beings of Matter, Life and Mind since the big bang around fourteen billion years ago.

Three Great Waves of Matter (Atoms, Stars, Planets) and three Great Waves of Life (Cells, Organisms, Ecosphere) have created our present bodies and minds. Fourteen billion years ago there is nothing, no space or time, no universe. Nothing, no-thing, exists. In this nothing we think there occurs an explosion, a ‘singularity’ or ‘big bang’, and within a split second something or other exists and quickly expands until some three hundred thousand years later the first atoms of hydrogen and helium are formed.

Every atom and element within us has come from the unfathomable ocean of energy and matter we call the cosmos. We know we are much re-arranged stardust, the material product of some initial great, high-temperature conflict between the four great forces we postmoderns drily call gravity, electromagnetism, strong and weak nuclear force (perhaps six if we add our two ‘known unknowns’ of dark energy and dark matter). The first big-bang breaking up these forces and subsequent cosmic cycles of stellar deaths and rebirths have created all the atoms, elements and minerals we know and are. As material beings we are born in cosmic fires, cataclysms, catastrophes, a cascading torrent of breaking unities or ‘symmetries’ self-organizing into new waves of entities. Death and birth, old and new interpenetrate from the word go.

Then, as it all cools and condenses, and tossed off by another exploding star, our sun, about four and half billion years ago we come forth – in the eighth and ninth waves of self-evolving Matter ‒ as the solar system and Planet Earth with its internal nuclear furnace driving its plate tectonics, its water, air, rocks, minerals and soils, all soon self-assembling over time into complex self-reproducing molecules of DNA, RNA, proteins and the miracle of the first Great Wave of sentient living beings, bacterial cells. Biological evolution, the Superwave of Life, has begun. Life, ourselves, are today still predominantly bacteria, these first ones. So now we are bacterial stardust evolving through conflict, cooperation and incorporation, through competition and symbiosis, eating and being eaten.

Our dear Earth travelogue begins.

Nature loves mistakes: biological change, diversification and evolution are only possible because of imperfection and error. New species arise when mistakes are made in DNA copying and these imperfect copies manage to survive and produce descendants. Within our huge oceanic womb, through long processes of development, of catastrophes, mass extinctions, adaptations and creative ecological responses, we get ever more complex, ever more differentiated, ever more interior, ever more relatively free to choose. Every innovation changes and speeds up our evolution. As bacteria we begin to change the Earth to make it ever more suitable for Life and biological evolution. We oxygenate the atmosphere and later form an ozone layer to protect life from harmful ultraviolet rays, making it easier for life to eventually leave the ocean womb and evolve on land. We invent sex to individuate and supercharge the pace of change and diversity, and pay the price of individual death.

In our next great leap in the Cambrian fourth wave of Life around six hundred million years ago, we become larger, complex and cooperative collectives of cells, we become organisms and superorganisms, we differentiate further into co-evolving plants, fungi, animals. As bacterial stardust animals feeding on plants or other animals, i.e. condensed sunlight emitted from the sun’s nuclear furnace, we metabolise and differentiate this chemicalised sunlight into the beautiful complexities of movement, nervous systems, heads and brains. In the fifth wave of Life, as simple plants, fungi, wingless insects and amphibians, we emerge from the great womb of the oceans and colonise the continents, changing them as they change us. We become a planetary web of interdependent populations of organisms-and-environments (or ‘holobionts’) co-evolving together, we become the sixth Great Wave of evolution, a complex superorganism-of-superorganisms we call the Ecosphere.

As the Ecosphere evolving through mass extinctions and mass adaptations driven by cosmos, planet and our own ecological adaptations as Life itself, we evolve ever brainier, more complexly sensitive and reflective animal selves, amphibian, insect and reptile to bird, mammal and primate. In this self-organizing process we thus open up new worlds within the Ecosphere which evolve their own higher-deeper codes, principles, rules: evolution itself evolves. Thus we reveal ever new ex- and internal dimensions of reality: ever new perceptual and cognitive realms of flight, binocular colour vision, grasping and sensitive hands, motherhood and nurture, childhood and play, cultural learning, the primal emotions of fear, anger, jealousy, grief and joy, ever more prominent individual personalities within the mammal and primate packs of the eighth and ninth waves of Life.

As birds, mammals and primates, within material and biological interdependence, we are individuating, and the next leap from Ecosphere and Life to Mind, to culture and self, is emerging.

Nudged by ice ages, changing climates, grassfires and the spread of savannahs, in Africa perhaps seven to four million years ago we gradually raise ourselves from the ground, stand upright and walk on two legs, look up to the stars and out to new horizons. Bacterial stardust has become preverbal Premodern Mind, the first hominins. Now the human journey, both incorporating and transcending cosmos and Ecosphere, Matter and Life, has begun. We gradually embody, transform and transcend our animal and primate roots into sociality, ritual and custom, biology into culture and Mind. Our brains, hands, tools, group interactions, reproductive success and environmental pressures interact in ever widening and deepening feedback loops, further differentiating and accelerating evolution.

Over hundreds of thousands of years in Africa we move from scavenging to hunting, get more cooperative in order to do so, work and caring splits more into male and female forms, the first great gender division of labour. As homo, our real breakthrough to Mind comes with our development of verbal language and symbolic representation within the context of our extreme sociality, social learning and cultural teaching. We branch out into many adaptive experiments of the genus homo until homo sapiens wins out by fair means and foul. We are pushed by material, reproductive, climatic and ecological constraints and pulled by curiosity towards the unknown. Already as homo erectus around a million years ago we have walked out of Africa and into southern Eurasia. As homo sapiens we later also move beyond Eurasia to Australia and the Americas. Unlike most other species, we are globalisers from the word go. Our unknown trajectory is One World. But before we can know this there are the myriad differentiations, conflicts, regressions and circumlocutions of human history first to be absolved.

As the first great cosmic fire leapt into six successive Great Waves of Atoms, Stars, Planets, and then into Cells, Organisms and Ecospheres, the fire of Mind leaps out of Matter and Life as human speech, body ornamentation and cave art, as dance, chant, ritual and ceremony, trance and magic. Animals use tools, build shelters, communicate, feel, but we are the only animals to represent, symbolize, imagine, worship. Our interiority is becoming ever more differentiated and complex. We are creating another world within the world, a cultural and symbolic dimension of reality within and beyond the biological Ecosphere, an imaginative and infinitely differentiated new world of internal and external representations and images, of meaning and metaphor, of thought and beauty.

Yet the achievement and promise of such new differentiations of Mind cannot be had without loss and the possible perils of new dissociations and pathologies. Becoming more complex and dominant, we also become ever more vulnerable. We celebrate and we fear our immersion in a marvellous and frightening world. Assailed by the potential sensory and cognitive chaos of an overwhelming world and of the spirits of our own subconscious fears, dreams, nightmares, we create our first cultural order and law in ritual and ceremony. We stabilize our world and social group by chanting and dancing together, by imitating and celebrating, and thus we gain a first feint sense of cultural (or ‘magic’) power over both the invisible and the wild creatures that feed us and frighten us. Leaping, shuddering shamans, we create both white and black magic. The mysterious powers of the female over birth, nurture, death fills men with awe and fear.

Around ten thousand years ago, under various pressures of climate, food availability and population growth, we gradually move from foraging the wild to domesticating it. We store our food energy surpluses, have more children to help us with our now greater labour, and settle down in villages, towns, city states. Life is becoming more complex and hierarchical. We radically simplify our nutrition and lose our intimate knowledge of, and respect for, the wild. Insecure, fearful, thankful, we feel we must sacrifice life to keep life flowing into us, that there can be no birth and re-birth of plants and animals and humans without death. We sacrifice humans and animals to the Great Mother Goddess of Life-and-Death and the gods we create in fear and gratitude. Matrilinear and matrilocal, we live in egalitarian and fairly peaceful villages for thousands of years. Yet over time, some of our warriors or herders become ‘big men’, chiefs.

Big men become chiefs, chiefs become kings, kings become emperors. Now having grain surpluses and property to hoard and covet, we split into exploiters and exploited, order-givers and order-takers, the literate and illiterate, enslaved and free, hosts and macro-parasites sucking off their tributes and taxes. In our first agrarian civilisations about five thousand years ago, we invent numbers and writing to track the stars and keep accounts, our scribes and priests living off our siphoned surplus grain. We begin to despair, and to hope. We become ‘civilised’ and create the first mass labour machines, organized religions, armies and warfare. We both build great new monuments and engage in mass slaughter. We learn to kowtow and to rebel. As women we are made men’s property, chattel slaves, birth machines. Yet both war and trade link us into ever greater webs of exchange of matter and mind. Within the Premodern, we have now moved from a planet of isolated few worlds to one of many, often linked, worlds.

In our agrarian civilisations and empires over the millennia we are always still tossed by climate, weather, animal competitors, micro-parasites, our own overpopulation, sudden invasions, mass atrocities and massacres, plunder and slavery, taxes and tributes, by abundance and famine, population growth and crash. Premodern (and later modern) empires, linking several worlds, rise and spread, contract and fall like species, like waves, like individual lives. We continue the degradation and destruction of soils and forests, and we also find many different ways of sustainably adapting to local ecological constraints and challenges.

Finally, perhaps eight hundred and fifty years ago in Europe, we begin to first enter the Modern: taking up some of the cognitive achievements of the premodern Classical Age, we break through into the modern individual and new humanistic and secular horizons beyond the closed world of the Medieval and premodern Mind. About five hundred years ago, our continents of Afro-Eurasia and the Americas come together for the first time through European exploration, exploitation and trade, and we thus create the first truly global system of exchange, one based on plunder, slavery, spices, sugar, cotton. We begin to erect the purely secular reign of quantity, of science, of increasing commodification and the market society, the machine, and at the same time the emancipatory notions of social progress, potential human liberation and universal human rights. We develop a secular, mechanical, ‘disenchanted’ worldview and learn to harness the stored energies of ancient forests compressed into coal, gas and oil.

About two hundred years ago we use these fossil fuel technologies and build the first industrial factories, organize and apply science, begin to envisage the possibility of a material good life for all. In the nineteenth century we finally create One World, a global economic and industrial system under the domination, and for the benefit of, European imperialism. We engage in the first global wars. We split the unsplittable atom and have learned to use the explosive power present in the Big Bang to potentially annihilate civilisation or the Earth. Culturally, we collapse into the industrialised inhumanity of Auschwitz and Hiroshima.

And thus we have arrived in the present, the Postmodern, the Human Age, the Anthropocene.

We are now ever more objectively One World, but we do not yet consciously know it. We are now objectively hybridising and merging into One Human Family, but we do not consciously know it. We are now objectively in charge of evolution, but we do not yet consciously know it. It is now objectively possible to create a sufficient material standard of living for all within the planet’s ecological limits, but we do not consciously know it.

On a deep level of our being, ‘within our bones’, we do know all this, however. Can we let this deep, intuitive knowledge, this wisdom we all share, rise up into our consciousness? Can we let this consciousness inform all our individual and collective actions? Has all our fourteen billion year evolution been leading to this present moment of decision, a decision to realise our true common humanity on One Earth?

Your Friend the Ego

•August 12, 2018 • Leave a Comment

[Recent thoughts while driving home from a bushwalk. Took the photo of the window in the country town of Braidwood about five years ago. I think Einstein’s ‘reality’ certainly includes the ‘I’ as ego or personality or image, and all that self-image stuff that’s put on Fakebook, InstantGrammy etc…]

Your Friend the Ego

Your ego is like your fingernail.

You need to clip it now and again,
otherwise it will grow so much,
it will incapacitate you.

Then it grows back again.

It’s no big deal if you lose one,
it will regrow, more or less the same.

It’s tenacious: apparently
it even grows a bit after your brain
stops and your mind wings it.

It’s both part of you and not YOU.
To identify with it as ‘you’,

would be quite strange indeed.

On the hottest midwinter day on record

•August 11, 2018 • 2 Comments

[Recent poem, an elegy for an old friend who died four years ago. The poem has just been published in the Grieve Poetry Competition Anthology 2018 of the Hunter Writers Centre. Took the postmodern photo at a recent sculpture show at Hillview Southern HIghlands.]

On the hottest midwinter day on record

i.m. Barbara Sterling

Now changes carry sharper edges,
cut deeper into the thin skin
of memory. The house just visible
now among the tangle of trees
from the fire-trail hacked through
your anarchically unfenced bush.

These days another person dies
every other day. Then always air
thick with silence, sudden cool breeze
soughing leaves, that dull ache
pulling memories out of now
like an overworked midwife.

Not even sure if it is your house,
the hardwood house I helped you build,
always loved being in, so small,
so large with the sheer force
of your life poor in means, rich
in spirit, your house a creaking
wooden boat with an unrailed, death-
defying deck leaping out into that
grey-green ocean of fire-loving trees.
Into all that silent, waiting space.