2007 - 2020

Notes on the Tragedy of Indefinite Postponement

As we survey the wreckage of the Madrid COP25 and look to the Glasgow COP26 – it’s difficult to ignore Umair Haque who writes:
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“It strikes me that the planet’s fate is now probably sealed. We have just a decade in which to control climate change — or goodbye, an unknown level of catastrophic, inescapable, runaway warming is inevitable. The reality is: we’re probably not going to make it. It’s highly dubious at this juncture that humanity is going to win the fight against climate change.”
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We are in deep denial and captured by an economic system which is burning us out of our homes.
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Sydney is surrounded.
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As bushfires in Australia reach catastrophic proportions the PM flies to Hawaii for a holiday.
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The same happened in Brazil earlier in the year, but we’ve already forgotten about that.
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This month the South China Morning Post asks: “When will the Netherlands disappear?”
We’re told that: “What seems clear now is that Greenland is no longer changing in geological time. It is changing in human time.”
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The melting of Greenland’s ice sheet is routinely treated as a unique business opportunity.
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You know all this.
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The meta message that churns through your life is this: everything must be deferred, nothing must really change.
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This is ‘indefinite postponement’, ‘capitalist realism’ and ‘depressive hedonism’.
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We know what we need to do but we will not do it. We have lost collective agency.
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This is the idea behind Mark Fisher’s Capitalist Realism: Is There No Alternative? (2009).
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And the more you survey the world, with Bolsonaro, Trump, Johnson and Erdoğan triumphant, the more you feel this is essentially right.
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As Adam Corner writes: “Capitalist Realism, published just after the banking meltdown of 2008, articulated the fear that the global consensus around market-led, lightly regulated economics and international trade (aka neoliberalism) was here to stay, despite its glaring failure to deliver prosperity for (most) people or the planet.”
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Fisher comes to the same conclusion as that of Frederic Jameson and Slavoj Žižek that: “it is easier to imagine an end to the world than an end to capitalism”.
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He describes this closure as more of a “pervasive atmosphere” than an organised system and goes on to lay-out how it affects areas of cultural production, political-economic activity, and general thought.
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With regards to our own views of this economic system, Fisher coined the term ‘reflexive impotence’ which describes a phenomenon where people recognize the flawed nature of capital, but believe there are no means of effecting change. According to Fisher, this inaction leads to a self-fulfilling prophecy as well as a negative toll on their mental health. Crucially Fisher arrives at a political understanding of depression .
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As Mikkel Krause Frantzen writes:
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“… psychopathology needs to be related to a world of capitalist realism, where there really is no alternative, as Thatcher triumphantly declared, and the future seems frozen once and for all. The crisis embodied by depression thus becomes a symptom of a historical and capitalist crisis of futurity. It is a kind of structure of feeling, as Raymond Williams would say. Consequently, any cure to the problem of depression must take a collective, political form; instead of individualizing the problem of mental illness, it is imperative to start problematizing the individualization of mental illness.”
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He continues:
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“HOW DO YOU throw a brick through the window of a bank if you can’t get out of bed?” This question, formulated by Johanna Hedva in “Sick Woman Theory,” has been with me for quite some time now. I haven’t been able to get it out of my head. Why? Because it points to a situation familiar to too many of us (but who is that “us”?): a situation characterized by despair and depression. A situation in which you really can’t get out of bed. This situation is also, in most cases, saturated by politics and by the economy. Contrary to mainstream psychological and psychiatric discourse the reason why you can’t get out of bed is not because you have a bad attitude, a negative mindset, or because you have somehow chosen your own unhappiness. Nor is it merely a matter of chemistry and biology, an imbalance in the brain, an unlucky genetic disposition, or low levels of serotonin. More often than not it is a matter of the world you live in, the work that you hate, or the job that you just lost, the debt that haunts your present from the future, or the fact that the planet’s future is going still faster and further down the drain.
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A Radical  Relinquishment
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So far, so impotent. At some level anyway, you know all of this already.
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It is worth noting that we have almost all of the solutions before us in terms of energy, housing and food production. Some are technological but most are social and cultural.
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What we need is a complete re-orientation of life – as Chris Erskine has suggested:  “re-imagining all of life away from coercion, competition and consumption towards compassionate solidarity.”
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This is what some have called “breaking the drivenness of acquisitions” – a radical relinquishment.
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There are plans for a Green New Deal but these require the election of candidates and governments arguing for mass state intervention and this is (largely) unacceptable and un-imaginable. Efforts for a Just Transition are stymied by the reality of globalisation:
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“The new EDF offshore wind farm has a lovely gaelic name – Neart na Gaoithe – which means “power of the wind” – and promises clean green renewable energy. It’s a £2 billion pound investment. The project has the potential to generate 450MW of renewable energy, which is enough power to supply around 325,000 Scottish homes – more than the whole of Edinburgh & will offset over 400,000 tonnes of CO2 emissions each year. All of which is great. But instead of using the BiFab shipyard at Burntisland currently lying idle some 15 miles from the site, EDF are using Indonesian yards some 7,300 miles away.”
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In order to smash through to this space though we would need to be able to act with cross-cultural solidarity, access a level and depth of humanity and consciousness and to reject a series of concepts which have been deeply ingrained for generations: growth is good; endless choice is freedom; avarice is a virtue; progress is certain; technology will save you.
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The idea of buying less, wanting less, having less, working less, is a difficult one for people who have been conditioned to be consumers, to be always online, always shopping, or always for sale.
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For a people conditioned to precarious work and cowed into priapic consumerism to become citizens, and to simply ‘be’ is the task. It is a hard one.
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If we’re not buying shit we don’t need, we’re selling ourselves to get by. Who has time to care about the environment?
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But as the climate realities spills into your life, or your timeline, and the endless conveyor belt of eco-conferences and summits continue to fail, these two realities become incompatible. And yet, and yet, still we postpone, we prevaricate. This is “indefinite postponement”. We wait for more evidence, things to get a little worse, and global consensus to emerge. We would act but we don’t want to be economically disadvantaged.
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The reality is that climate breakdown is and has been in your life now, not in some imagined future.
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In the meantime a public suffering disfiguring poverty, extreme precarity and the stress of the ‘gig economy’ finds it hard to cope, never mind respond.
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The problems at a global level are mirrored within the first world.
COP25 failed because of chaos brought by those with an interest in business as usual.

Rebecca Leber writes:

“The U.S., along with Australia, Brazil, Japan, and Saudi Arabia, has helped create a gridlock in this year’s negotiations. The vacuum left by the U.S. has led countries interested in maintaining the status quo — including Australia, a major coal exporter, and Brazil, led by a right-wing government promoting deforestation of the Amazon — to block stronger rules for a global carbon-emissions trading system that are supposed to go in effect next year.”

She continues:

“Fundamentally, COP25 brings to a head a widening chasm between the richer, historic polluters that prefer to maintain the status quo and the poorer nations that suffer the most consequences despite contributing the least to the crisis.”

In that sense the global politics in which those who have contributed least suffer most is mirrored in our domestic social order, in which low income communities are low-carbon communities but suffer most from the authoritarian populism that now keep us in line. This is a fractal of colonisation.

The answer to this “pervasive atmosphere” is to transcend it, to develop an anti-capitalist politics that’s also based on a politics of care.  In an article called ‘Everything for Everyone‘, Mark Fisher described it as:

“Real wealth is the collective capacity to produce, care and enjoy. It is about belonging to a movement: a movement that abolishes the present state of things, a movement that offers unconditional care without community (it doesn’t matter where you come from or who you are, we will care for you any way).”

There are radical alternatives to our broken politics emerging everywhere, we need to find them and connect them.

While we face the realities of what is happening, and as we prepare for a year of preparation for COP26 in Glasgow, we should know the depth of the task ahead and look away from the usual models of (in) action and the normal responses because we know that they have failed and will fail us again.

 

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This the first of a series of articles exploring alternative ideas and grounded projects as we enter a new decade looking at deeper levels of crisis and response.
For more on groups organising around these ideas see We Are Plan C and see also ‘K Punk. The Collected and Unpublished Writings of Mark Fisher’.

Comments (25)

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  1. Maxwell macleod says:

    Fantastic stuff Mike you are to be hugely commended particularly as you publish on this the eve of Christmas Eve when so many of us drag ourselves off to the stores to buy more unnecessary garbage in response to the blasphemous suggestion that in order to celebrate the birth of an illigitimate homeless refugee we have to contribute to a consumerist orgy in His name as the world self destructs .I would have more respect for the Church if it disowned the way it is used as aTrogan Horse for such ecological obscenity.Of course our main disagreement is whether now is the time to be concentrating our efforts on nationalism,but I do respect your intention.
    See you on the jetty.
    Maxwell

  2. squigglypen says:

    I complained to our local community police re the damage done to the beautiful trees in front of our property by children….ripping off cherry blossom branches ..battering the old chestnut tree with whatever came to hand….youths appearing with footballs etc……council put up a notice to protect the green space…and received a flurry of phone calls of complaint from neighbours. I did not ask for a notice on a pole but a leaflet pointing out the damage being inflicted on a non stop basis I phoned and asked for the pole and notice to be removed as we already had one a few yards away!…no ball games was the legend on said notice.( It was removed leaving a great hole with a lump of concrete.)
    The children must have somewhere to play was the war cry..(they already have a local park and their own gardens). I mentioned to my neighbours that the value of their property would be affected if…etc etc. So far the trees have been safe. What’s this to do with climate change?
    How do you change a mindset of damage to the planet at a global level where money rules when people don’t care locally about their environment until it affects them personally..they just live their lives and if that means cutting down trees in their garden so they can sunbathe..(they cast a shadow you see)….so be it.
    I live on the edge of Glasgow….look forward to next years conference with interest.

  3. Mark Bevis says:

    I’m just reading Mankind in Amnesia by Velikovsky which adds an interesting layer to the psychology of traumatic natural disaster.

    The author claims that just as we have collective subconscious memories of community and communal living, currently suppressed by capitalism, we also have collective subconscious memories of previous global disasters, but they are so traumatic that our brain’s natural defences suppress them, to facilitate coping with what’s going on in our current lives. So much so that writers in previous times would alter their observations/opinions. The trauma is too great to deal with, so it becomes denied.

    So in a way, we are wired to not face up to climate catastrophe, or any mega castatrophe. Which of course makes it easier for those promoting ‘business as usual’ to get away with it on the scale that they are doing.

    Velikovsky cites historical writings where planetary movements caused massive natural disasters – deluges, mountains collapsing, mountains rising, oceans appearing, entire populations, both human and animal, wiped out together, etc that seem to occur every 700 years or so. The last one being at the time of the black plague, c1340s. ….

    1. james gourlay says:

      Hi Mark,

      Velikovsky also points out (in agreement with Freud and Jung) that the unconscious mind will impel us to try and repeat the catastrophes that the conscious mind tries to submerge. These unconscious urgings may well be the causes of the devastations of wars, pollutions etc and these are to strong for us to consider rationally.

      If this is true we may be attempting to fight a losing battle.

      A bit grim for Xmas, but look at the state of the people who are “in charge” of our governments.

      Is it possible to psychoanalyse the human race?

      1. Mark Bevis says:

        “Is it possible to psychoanalyse the human race?”
        Probably, at great expense, and a good PhD grant work for somebody no doubt. The end result I suspect would drive the researcher mad though, bit like that episode of Star Trek where they are banned from looking at an alien in a box, but for some curiousity got the better of them.

        Complex systems collapse is inevitable. Far from being grim, I quite look forward to not having to work for a living. Although being dead is a highly likely outcome, until then I will continue to grow things, plant trees and protect what little wild spaces we have left.
        Being dead is quite commendable from the planet’s point of view as it has the lowest carbon footprint possible.

        The only advantage of Boris et al being in charge is that they will actually speed up the collapse. Every 5 year Tory term brings forward the total collapse date by a few years.

    2. Thanks. I find that unconvincing but will read and – thank you!

  4. Bill Ramsay says:

    Good stuff Mike. Trying , in the democratic context, to persuade rather than scare “the horses” , appears to be failing. Certainly close attention to the “democratic” discourse around climate change in Australia might give us some pointers for the future.

    The human security implications for everyone everywhere are huge, the analogy of a slow motion asteroid impact I find useful, but only as a very imperfect way to start to conceptualise what it all means in terms of social instability, supercharged inequality and the like.

    Human Security is of course and always should be the core political issue. Unfortunately the concept is sidelined,even to an extent in the UN and elites prefer to use “National Security” as it is easily conflated with the concept of National Interest, though its always the national interest of the few not the many.

    However conflict , in all of its iterations, ( militaries now talk of the conflict spectrum) will increase , when , as you suggest, we reach the climate tipping point, sooner , I fear, rather than later. This exponential rise in all of the iterations of conflict need to be unpacked now.

    Interestingly , from my perspective , though I admit, heretofore for very few of us on the left, will be the new Royal United Services Institute work stream on climate change that is to be taken forward next year.

    RUSI’s subtitle is, “independent thinking on defense and security”, however, when their audience was asked at their 2017 General Election hustings if they thought climate change was an issue, a little less than 50% thought so. I for one ain’t holding my breath. Indeed one wonders of it as a response to the fact of COP 26 in Glasgow rather than the outcome of serious analysis. We will see.

  5. Alasdair Macdonald says:

    And, despite the public outcry for remaining on holiday while the fires raged, the Australian Prime Minister on his belated return, loudly denied climate change and supported coal mining.

    1. Daniel Raphael says:

      Returning to the previously mentioned matter of psychoanalysis, I believe Freud named the Australian PM’s impulse. It is a death wish.

      1. Bilco says:

        I wonder if Scott Morrison’s religious beliefs mean that he views death, as well as the end of the world, in terms different to those outside of his faith?

  6. Daniel Raphael says:

    Yet another brilliant piece. I hope I don’t embarrass you by being so enthusiastic about the writing and thinking at BC; it is the site I most value on the net, along with the necessary multitude of daily news sources.

    Bella Caledonia is a gem.

  7. Alistair Taylor says:

    We have some ideas, and then we die?
    Off to eat, pie in the sky.

    I don’t know.
    It’s words and words only
    It’s life and life only.

    Dylan, Jesus and Buddha
    they all said and did some stuff
    but was it enough?

    Too little too late
    see you at
    the same old gate.

    Happy New Year
    whoop it up
    fill your cup.

    (Ach, just snippets from my probably never to be published “Joys of Frugality” book. We’re totally screwed.
    But make the most of it whilst we can. Be kind, be compasionate. Walk in the woods, take care of the animals, the trees, the plants, the bees.)

    Btw, Bella/Mike, thank you very much for your wonderful website and thought provoking, honest, incisive, writings.

  8. Dougie Strang says:

    Great piece Mike. Difficult, because normally such a litany of negatives is followed by the ‘but if we just push one more time…’ yet, as you say, “the normal responses have failed and will fail us again.” I think people are starting to see beyond false hopes, problem is there’s no indication yet of the kind of paradigm shift that just might change our direction, whether too late or not.

    1. Thanks Dougie, hope to deepen this discussion in the New Year

  9. Hamish100 says:

    I hope the Scots Government and parliament prevents the Glasgow conference next year being used as an excuse by Johnson and his acolytes to ignore the climate and turn it into a publicity vehicle for the anglicisation of this country. Maybe the council can prevent the wasteful production of britnat flags which Johnson wants to adorn our streets with. Can our planning laws prevent it?

  10. SleepingDog says:

    Capitalisms exist in many forms, parasiting upon various political systems, but in general all require goodwill to continue (though that will not be enough in all cases). For example, you need firefighters who are not primarily motivated by money. There are many other, often highly successful, economic models at work in the world today, that again capitalisms parasite upon (the various forms of communism in global science, open technology and digital commons, for example). Various capitalisms would likely collapse very quickly indeed if their supports were removed. For example, if enough people lose faith in the value of money, or if there was a technological collapse in financial systems, or reckless criminality by major corporations (or other organizations) blew a hole in international trust systems, or if a catastrophic event (like half of California falling into the sea) rendered monetary-based evaluations useless.

    The world changed dramatically within the few years of the Great Depression, for example. Various forms of belief are unsustainable, and sometimes efforts to sustain them draw attention to their very inconsistencies and illogicalities that must be ignored to continue believing, hastening their dismantlement.

    I think it is very likely (if international law still exists) that there will be a major series of ecocide trials within half a generation, perhaps much greater in scale than the Nuremberg ones. The foreshadowing of such a reckoning may itself accelerate its emergence, as even if people doubt they can collectively save the living planet, they will be crystal clear that mechanisms exist to hold prime wrongdoers to account. It will be interesting to see which state will first offer sanctuary to indicted ecocide criminals.

  11. greenergood says:

    “There are radical alternatives to our broken politics emerging everywhere, we need to find them and connect them.” This is true, but after witnessing the Saturday before Christmas in Glasgow – it goes much further than broken politics. People spending money like crazy, walking past homeless people on the pavements on the richest streets in Glasgow. People booking their bucket list holidays to Peru, Madagascar, India, in addition to their cruise to the Adriatic or the Caribbean. People insisting on asparagus from Peru, peaches and raspberries in December; iPads and Nintendos from Foxconn slave labour sites in Taiwan and ROChina. How do we decide we have enough, and don’t need any more? I’m originally from New York City, which is a place where you can not only get nearly every commodity you could ever dream of, but will discover even more stuff that you didn’t even know existed, but now you want it. How do we vanquish this unending, vacuous need? How do we become the good part of being human again?

    1. Mark Bevis says:

      One of the first steps is to ban advertising. Not by laws or coercion, but by not participating.
      I have no TV, don’t read MSM, don’t listen to commercial radio, well, any radio now, have adbloc2+ on my pc, I don’t do FB, so the only adverts I see are on the few billboards on the walk into town. Out of capitalist context, most of them don’t even make sense to me. The adblocker removes adverts from youtube videos, and did so when I was on FB. I buy most things with cash, therefore my data on spending habits isn’t sold on to third parties, and thus I get no junk mail. Flyers do come through my letterbox for local businesses, which is fair enough, and which I glance at then recycle.

      The power of advertising should be treated as a real threat component of the capitalist monster that is eating the planet. Without that vital component, the monster would be on starvation rations.

    2. Yes very true – this is the ‘radical relinquishment’ referred to in the iece – and yes you are 100% right – its part of a far deeper process than just ‘fixing politics’.

  12. John O'Dowd says:

    I’m afraid nothing will happen. “Humankind cannot bear much reality”. We will consume our way to oblivion – frogs in the beaker.

    The world is driven by the tiny minority who own it. They own the governments – most of which are dictatorships – and those that are ‘democracies’ are sham democracies – owned by the 0.001% – in whose interest the economy-machine works. The own the media – itself driven by business interests – and the driving force – capital accumulation just cannot stop itself – even if it wanted to do so. A calculation has been made that ‘they’ can survive – even if the huge majority of mankind will perish. They are planning their bolt-holes – but where? New Zealand? That is rapidly becoming a non-starter.

    The owners reckon they can escape all the consequences – or be dead before it matters – but the can’t. They nevertheless delude themselves that they can. Meantime they spin denial – or that some techno fix will save them. It won’t. The masses imagine (if they imagine at all) that we human are some sort of post-ecological species. yet we are bound by the same biological constrains as any other species – and will have a mass die-off when the ecosystem can no longer be kicked about. It’s started already – probably irreversible already.

    Loss of biodiversity; soil erosion/depletion; loss of phyto-oxygenators; global heating; desertification; all are happening and any one of them would wipe us out – but we have the lot – and a lot more I haven’t mentioned.

    Before that resource wars (already happening – can only get worse. Capitalism is Promethius. Its driving force – capital accumulation (now at the end-stage of fictitious capital accumulation) has no feed-back correction system . It is linear.

    Life sustaining systems – water, oxygen, nitrogen – are cyclic – with negative feedback inhibition systems – self limiting and self-regulating. The release of millennia os stored solar energy (fossil fuels) to drive capitalism (including in – perhaps especially in – China) – has broken these systems. There is no going back.

    Does anyone really believe that the Chinese government will risk overthrow and mass disorder by interrupting the drive for growth?

    Does anyone really believe that US capitalism can be tamed, contained or even limited, by anything other that auto-destruction?

    Our only hope – a reversion to sustainable subsistence systems – even if politically possible, are rapidly being driven out of reach by ecocide.

    And so we indulge ourselves in our post-Christian orgy of Christmas consumption – oblivious to the peril – for the most part – or hopeful that ‘something will turn up’

    I’m afraid we are beyond that. It is already too late – even if we knew how – and if we knew how – even if we could educate and pursued a largely unknowing world population what we are being driven to.

    Great writing Mike – but pissing in the wind.

    1. Alistair Taylor says:

      Aye, but what if “they” are really we?
      And “we” just really need to change our way of living?
      (Easier said than done, perhaps…)
      Ha.
      (Off for a walk in the woods, to talk with the squirrels).
      Maybe a piss into the wind also. Refreshing shower.
      Happy New Year.
      All the best.

      1. John O'Dowd says:

        Alistair Taylor:

        “Aye, but what if “they” are really we?”

        Personal and collective culpability acknowledged right at the top:

        “We will consume our way to oblivion – frogs in the beaker.”

        Enlarged cerebral hemispheres may have seemed a clever evolutionary experiment – but over-ruled by un-enveolved limbic system and hypothalamus.

        We can try to think our way out of this as much as we like – but ape, primate, and mammalian and vertebrate base urges are what really drive us.

        That and delusion!

  13. Frank says:

    Having read through the comments I am reminded of a short poem by Wendel Berry

    ” Welcome to the one man revolution,
    It is the only revolution that is coming.”

    Or – none of are going to change the world, the best we can do is change ourselves.
    If we can do that at least that way we will know that we have done our bit.

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