Wednesday, 20 November 2013

Abe Lincoln Reconsidered

This was the last topic I thought I'd ever write about, but this month marks the 150th anniversary of Lincoln's Gettysburg Address widely considered one of the greatest speeches ever delivered. I came across this article by a Canadian professor repudiating post-modernism and calling for Canadians to engage in principled rhetoric using Lincoln's famous speech as inspiration. He cites Canadian statesmen Thomas D'Arcy McGee who was Lincolns contemporary and admirer as saying, "A war for the unity of the Republic must be necessarily, ipso facto, a war for liberty.The dogmas of which the Republic is founded are the genuine articles of every freeman’s creed." This caught my attention as a self-detonating statement. We need to engage in war to compel unity so that we can all be free? If a dogma of the Republic is  individual liberty doesn't that necessarily mean freedom from compulsion, force and unwanted unions? I didn't think they had post-modernists back in 1864. I always associated post-modernists with horrible self-indulgent art and war sophistry. This got me wondering about whether Lincolns venerated speech was the principled rhetoric its made out to be or just poetic platitudes and deepities.

Abraham Lincoln is lauded in modern culture as a heroic figure, just watch the trailer of Lincoln played by Daniel Day Lewis to get a sense of the awe American culture has for this man. With little digging I found a few quotes that you aren't likely to see in any modern day portrayal of Lincoln:

"I have no purpose, directly or indirectly, to interfere with the institution of slavery in the States where it exists. I believe I have no lawful right to do so, and I have no inclination to do so." - First Inaugural Address 

"I am not, nor ever have been, in favor of bringing about in any way the social and political equality of the white and black races, that I am not nor ever have been in favor of making voters or jurors of negroes, nor of qualifying them to hold office, nor to intermarry with white people; and I will say in addition to this that there is a physical difference between the white and black races which I believe will forever forbid the two races living together on terms of social and political equality. And in as much as they cannot so live, while they do remain together there must be the position of superior and inferior, and I as much as any other man am in favor of having the superior position assigned to the white race. I say upon this occasion I do not perceive that because the white man is to have the superior position the negro should be denied everything. I do not understand that because I do not want a negro woman for a slave I must necessarily want her for a wife. My understanding is that I can just let her alone." - Lincoln v Douglas Debate

"My paramount object in this struggle is to save the Union, and it is not either to save or destroy slavery. If I could save the Union without freeing any slave, I would do it; and if I could save it by freeing some and leaving others alone I would also do that. What I do about slavery, and the colored race, I do because I believe it helps to save the Union." - Letter to the Editor

Do we take honest Abe's at his own word? That wouldn't make a convenient account of history would it? How would D. Day Lewis recite those quotes with conviction? Would part of his method require he become a racist for 3 months?

History is written by the victors. Had the the United States successfully invaded Canada and absorbed our territories into their control during the War of 1812 then that conflict would likely have been named the 1st American Civil War, had the South successfully repelled its invaders it wouldn't have been a civil war at all but a war between nation states with the Confederacy no doubt having noticeably different history text books than the Union.

I'm no historian but it seems to me that Lincoln was more concerned about preserving the Union than ending slavery and the South seemed more concerned about repelling an invasion than advancing or defending against slavery abolition. Consider the two men leading the armies at the end of the war; General Lee who led the South had set his slaves free prior to the Emancipation Proclamation and considered slavery "a moral and political evil" and General Grants (the Northern General) family still owned slaves at the end of the war because Lincolns emancipation proclamation only outlawed slavery in the South. General Grant was not fighting to free slaves, unless the blood he shed was necessary to free his own slaves, and General Lee was not fighting for the right to keep them.

The American Civil War claimed over 1 million lives (3% of the population) and resulted in the emancipation of 3.5 million slaves. 1 life sacrificed for every 4 lives freed of slavery. Was the price worth it? Would you trade your life to free 4 people from shackles? Would you trade your child's life? What about a strangers?

There is no doubt that many in the South fought to preserve the repugnant and evil institution of slavery they inherited. I am not defending slave owners. I don't think it is fine to use defensive force to liberate captives and I think it is fine to use defensive force to defend ones property or life. I do think it is immoral to initiate force against people and both Lincoln and slave owners are guilty of that evil, although Lincoln has far more blood on his hands. The tragic irony of the war was the inconsistency of the moral reasoning; the South fought for secession while denying slaves the right to secede from their owners, and Lincoln was fighting "for a government of the people, for the people, by the people" by preventing people in the South from having that very thing. Humans are good at protecting their self-interests with moral reasoning that they unconsciously exempt themselves from.

William Lloyd Garrison, the most prominent abolitionist in America, argued that it was the duty of all those who wanted to abolish slavery to push for secession of the North. It was thought by abolitionists that if the North was a separate country that was not tainted with slave ownership or beholding to legislation like fugitive slave laws which required Northern states to return runaway slaves to their owners, it would become a haven for runaway slaves and the enforcement cost of slavery in the South would become prohibitive and cause the institution to collapse. This argument was demonstrated a few years later when the Brazilian state of Ceara, which had a strong abolitionist movement, became the first Brazilian state to outlaw slavery and refuse to enforce fugitive laws becoming a haven for runaway slaves. With the cost of slave ownership and social pressure rising, complete abolition occurred in Brazil in less than a decade.

So if you're an abolitionist how is positive social change best achieved? This is what interests me. I consider myself a modern day abolitionist seeking to find a way to eliminate the free range plantations or tax farms we euphemistically call nation states. Is popular culture to be believed? Is declaring war and creating rivers of blood the best way to achieve abolition? I certainly hope not. Thomas Jefferson famously said that the tree of liberty needs to be watered from time to time with the blood of tyrants. Presumably he was talking about the red coats that America fought to obtain its freedom and we Canadians are currently under the thumb of. Empirically there doesn't seem to be that much difference between the freedoms we have secured through polite and relatively peaceful discourse and the freedoms that Americans have secured through violence.

Slavery (excluding the pockets of human trafficking that still exist) was ended peacefully in every other western society after a tipping point of people found it to be immoral. This is encouraging because it tells me that change can occur as people discarding inherited irrational ideas in favor or clearer thinking and that the only arms we need bear are a reliable epistemology, truth bombs, persuasion and persistence to convince a tipping point of people that we need not organize our relationships around violence. Revolution can be peaceful, eh...




Wednesday, 30 October 2013

Impeaching Redford From the Inside Out

I was recently invited to speak at a rally to impeach Allison Redford in Edmonton. The rally was organized by Richard Heathen a political activist and organizer from Grande Prairie. Here is an excerpt from the Facebook page that explains what spawned this rally:

The Alberta Government under the leadership of Alison Redford has, through it's numerous scandals and it's prolonged attack on the property rights of Albertans shown itself unfit to govern. The Redford government with it's fetish for top down central planning, has shown itself incompatible with the Alberta culture of free enterprise and adherence to property rights.

Under The Land Stewardship Act The Alberta Government has given itself the power to strip any existing rights to the land from property owners. Bill 36 is an authoritarian law giving the Alberta Government complete control over what you can and cannot do on all public and private land, every last acre of it.

With Bill 24 The Carbon Storage Act the Alberta government has stolen the property rights to the pourous spaces underneath the land, underground, which up until the passing of the Bill 24 was the property of land owners.

Bill 19 Land Assembly Project Area Act was drafted so as to allow the government to freeze any existing use of land and restrict development and prohibit landowner's from using their property in any manner that the Cabinet arbitrarily decides.

Bill 2 The Responsible Energy Development Act strips landowners rights to negotiate with oil companies and gives big oil unchallenged access to entry, without the need for any consent from landowners.


I had some considerable trepidation about attending a political rally, but when you appeal to my ego for long enough and give me a soapbox to stand on you've found my kryptonite. 

Here is the speech I delivered:

My name is Tim Moen. I live in Fort McMurray, you know… the black heart of Mordor. I write a blog called “The Fort Mac Philosopher” and recently got 15 minutes of fame when an article I wrote about my experience filming with Neil Young and Daryl Hannah was picked up by the national press. I write about issues from a philosophical perspective, trying to separate truth from falsehood and I also write articles that I hope inspire and empower people to take action and improve and enrich their personal lives.

Richard asked me to speak about the philosophy of liberty today, and I’m sure most of you know and understand this philosophy so my goal here is to present the philosophy of liberty in a way that I hope leaves you feeling empowered!

I came across the philosophy of liberty a little over a decade ago. I had been going through a painful experience in my life where I began to ask myself the question, “Why do I believe what I believe? Where did my beliefs come from?” I realized that most of what I believed about the world was not the product of reason and evidence but rather the environment I grew up in. I realized I was a Christian because I was born in Canada and that had I been born in Saudi Arabia or India it’s likely my belief about the nature of reality would be completely different. I soon realized that people used these cultural narratives of gods and governments as a weapon. That weapon is called morality and the way it works is that you create rules that you immediately exempt yourself from. Don’t kill, don’t steal, don’t counterfeit money, don’t kidnap, don’t commit fraud….unless…unless you’re doing it for god or government cause then it is for the greater good you see.

This destruction of my beliefs was extremely unsettling. I felt lost, without a compass. I knew that if there was such a thing as morality it wasn’t going to be found by listening to the priestly class of public intellectuals, politicians and other pedlars of mysticism. The job of these people is to produce sophisticated words, euphemisms, doublespeak, charismatic non sequiturs that allows them and their pals to break the very rules they create. Imagine you or some other libertarian is in the crowd when Moses comes down from the mountain with the 10 Commandments and says, “God told me that there’s to be no killing, no other God except me, you have to obey me…and God also commands us to go kill all the people on the other side of that hill, except the hot virgins of course.” Do you think you might have challenged old Mo on his story if you were around back then? I don’t think libertarians lived very long back in those days, and I bet being buddies with Moses probably paid off handily in the not getting smote, and the collecting of bounty and booty department. Its really no different today is it? It probably doesn’t hurt to be buddies with Allison Redford.

I lost about a year of my life to a haze of disillusionment and pain. I knew if I was to find my moral compass, to live a life of principle and meaning I couldn’t rely on the priestly classes anymore. I knew that if a moral code was to be taken seriously it would have to universally apply to ALL people. Eventually I came across the philosophy of liberty and it seemed to fit the bill. If you’ve never heard it before I’ll try and briefly summarize it for you.

It starts with the idea that you own yourself and are responsible for your actions and therefore own the product of your labour. If you apply this universally you then have a moral rule called the non-aggression principle which says you should not initiate force against another person or their property. You shouldn’t murder, you shouldn’t steal, you shouldn’t commit fraud, you shouldn’t kidnap. Now you could say, “Uh Tim, we already have those rules, they’re obvious. This is stuff we learned in kindergarten.” This is where I would refer you back to the priestly classes who specialize in sophistry, spin and propaganda to fool you. Or more accurately to fool themselves into thinking they are doing good of the highest order.

There’s an ancient Chinese proverb that says “The beginning of wisdom is to call things by their real name.” We are surrounded daily by a matrix of delusion that is reinforced by language. So if I tell someone to give me money or I’ll kidnap them and if they resist I’ll shoot them, then the words we use to describe it are “theft” or “armed robbery.” If someone from government does this then its called “taxation”. If I’m at a peaceful rally and we decide to have a popularity contest and I win the contest and start ordering you to give me some of your money, and make you get permission to speak or to point your signs in a certain direction, and I notice that some people are wearing nicer clothes than others and I call them bourgeois scum and make them give their clothes to less fashionably privileged, or if I draw a chalk line around you and tell you that you can’t go across it without the proper paperwork what words would you use to describe that system? Well we call it DEMOCRACY and we worship it’s virtues! I think it’s very important to be able to break through the matrix of language and call things by their real name. Does anybody else have any examples they want to share: Borders = imaginary lines, immigration = travelling from point A to B across and imaginary line etc.

Usually we libertarians focus on problems, its almost impossible not too, problems surround us. I think the reason the philosophy of liberty appealed to me so much when I first heard it was that I finally had a seemingly bulletproof philosophy that would protect me from other people trying to control my life. I don’t think my story is unique in any way. I think a lot of us find ourselves intuitively “getting it” the first time we hear it. I always felt a sense of injustice growing up, that people who claimed authority in my life had no idea what they were talking about.

I remember pissing my pants in grade 1 because I saw my teacher treating other kids who asked to go to the washroom harshly, I remember having to use a special training device because the authorities in my life didn’t like the way I held a pencil even though by all accounts I was “gifted”, I remember violent older kids physically hurting me and humiliating me on the playground and on the bus and I remember knowing that appealing to authority figures would make it worse, I remember being teased and ridiculed for not being like other kids, I remember a grade 4 social studies class where an MLA visited us and I asked him if he could build us a zoo because the teacher told us that the government makes our lives better and I couldn’t imagine a better way for my life to be made better than by having a zoo! And I remember feeling humiliated when the MLA and the teacher laughed at me and quickly dismissed my idea and then all my classmates chimed in. I remember being told by parents and pastors about a very real place called hell where I would suffer the worst torment imaginable if I didn’t think the right thoughts or have the right beliefs and that this cosmic dictator knows exactly what I’m thinking and doing every moment and not only is there NO escape but I am required to genuinely love him and have zero doubts about this story….I remember crying myself to sleep at night for a good portion of my childhood worried about my eternal fate.

Do any of my experiences resonate with you guys? Have you ever felt this way in your own lives? That you were the helpless victim of injustice?

I think that one of the reasons we are so ineffective as a movement has to do with the injustice we experienced in our lives that led us to embrace the liberty movement. We see the problem of self-ownership as a problem of other people…It is they who take away our ownership, it is those criminals who make us less free. We frame everything from the mentality of a victim and legitimately so because we are victims.

A couple years ago I did a Masters thesis and studied self-organizing systems. One of the key insights I learned was that ones underlying frame of reference largely determines outcomes. You can look at a system and ask the question “What is going wrong and how do I fix it?” or you can look at a system and ask the question “What is going right, what is alive and virtuous and flourishing and how can I leverage it?” Two legitimate questions that will look at the same system, the same reality, and create drastically different results. I realized the questions that I choose to ask and the way I look at reality determine my destiny!

I noticed that my experiences lined up with the mountains of research in this area; if I focus on problems and trying to fix them it inevitably leads to more problems, the more I fought “the man” and clobbered him over the head with reason and evidence the more I suffered, the less free I became, the more I retreated into a fortress of solitude angry and frustrated at other people and the world. On the other hand when I stayed grounded in the present and focused on all the things that are going right in my life, the things that are baring the most fruit, the things that are creating the most value; I gain more power over my own life, I become happier, I become more connected with those around me, I become more FREE…suddenly I find I’m not a victim anymore.

Ownership isn’t a legal construct so much as a biological process. It is the way life comes into existence and grows and flourishes. It is often called homesteading, you take your creativity and labour, mix it with raw resources and create something valuable that never existed before. This is how I now view my role in the world. I’m not here to engage in protective force, to fortify my defences….this does not create ownership, this does not create property, this does not create value…I am here my friends to create not to defend. We’ve been defending our ideas for to long and I say its time to stop being victims and start being bad-ass beacons of truth, justice and self-ownership.

One of the things I learned in the past couple years is the degree to which I don’t own myself, the degree to which I don’t exercise self-ownership, the degree to which I make myself a slave. What’s your narrative when some asshole cuts you off in traffic? Do you immediately play the victim card, get angry and chase him down so you can give him the finger or pull him over, jersey him and feed him a flurry of uppercuts? Does your mind go to a place of anger, frustration and violent fantasy? Does it ruin your morning or your day when that happens? When you let your mind go to these places you know it doesn’t serve you, that nothing good can come of it and yet you allow it to happen. You might even say “That guy ruined my day.” This is not self-ownership, you might as well put a dog collar around your neck and hand that asshole a leash and tell him you’re his bitch for the rest of the day, the price you pay is the same.

We are our own worst slave masters, holding power over our own self that prevents us from taking action that will SET US FREE! Impeachment is the process of removing a criminal from office. Impeaching Redford is cool, all politicians are engaging in criminal activity and ought to be impeached. I’ve found that the most fruitful activity is impeaching the criminal in my own life, the voice in my head that prevents me from exercising self-ownership, the ghost of my childhood beliefs that removes power from my life and distracts me by reminding me I’m a victim, that I’m powerless, impeaching that criminal has paved the way for every good thing, every freedom I’ve obtained. Politicians aren’t the only people who are excellent at using language to fool themselves and others into thinking that their immoral activity is for the greatest good. I used to hit my kids when they done wrong and I called it “spanking”, I now call it “assault”…if you understand the incredible pain that realization causes a father who loves his children deeply then you understand why we hate facing reality in our own lives and why others including politicians might be motivated to shield themselves from the reality of their own lives. At the end of the day, as painful as it has been, impeaching the slave master in my life has born the most fruit, it has set me FREE!

Fear holds us back. Fear is how we are ruled and how we rule ourselves. Fear of facing reality and what that might mean for our life, fear that we might be bright shining lights and not shrivelled helpless victims whose lives are determined by the whims of the powerful. Without our fear priests and politicians have no power, without fear our inner slave master has no power. I’m going to close with one of my favourite poems:

Our Deepest Fear
By Marianne Williamson

Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate. 
Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure. 
It is our light, not our darkness
That most frightens us.
We ask ourselves
Who am I to be brilliant, gorgeous, talented, fabulous?
Actually, who are you not to be? 
You are a child of God.
Your playing small 
Does not serve the world. 
There's nothing enlightened about shrinking 
So that other people won't feel insecure around you.
We are all meant to shine, 
As children do. 
We were born to make manifest 
The glory of God that is within us.
It's not just in some of us; 
It's in everyone.
And as we let our own light shine, 
We unconsciously give other people permission to do the same. 
As we're liberated from our own fear, 
Our presence automatically liberates others.


Look at what is alive here today my friends. We have each other, we have a meaningful conversation, we have a fellowship that gives us power over our own lives through support and encouragement, we have the sun, we have beauty, we have love. Allison Redford has no power here, she has been impeached in our lives because she is as irrelevant as the slave master in our head.

Tuesday, 10 September 2013

When Neil Young & Daryl Hannah Came to Town

A couple weeks ago I wanted to let my family and friends know what was going on in my life and I tweeted that I was going to be filming with Neil Young and Daryl Hannah in Fort McMurray. I was not prepared for the reaction. My phone was immediately blowing up with media requests to find out what was going on. Reaction from people commenting on social media in the community ranged from concern to rage over how Fort McMcMurray would be portrayed by these people who have a clear environmental agenda.

I refrained from commenting in the media ahead of time because I wasn't sure how much publicity they wanted and I didn't want to ruin my chances of working with these people. I agreed to an interview with Wallis Snowden at Mix 103.7 after filming was over and she presented a fair and brief synopsis of our interview to the listeners. I'd like to offer my readers a more detailed account of what transpired.

Background


I was contacted a few weeks ago by Neil's production company Shakey Pictures and asked if I would be available to shoot some arial footage from a helicopter for Neil's documentary. I've done this kind of work in the past and was recommended by the helicopter company. The details of the project were not all that clear, the only thing I knew for sure was that the documentary was about Neil's 1959 Lincoln Continental convertible that he had a team of specialists convert into a cellulosic ethanol burning hybrid dubbed The Lincvolt.

The production company explained that this was a documentary a few years in the making and production had stalled after the films producer, a long-time friend of Neil's named Larry Johnson, passed away suddenly in 2010. The documentary centers around The Lincvolt from its inception and development to Neil's travels with it across North America promoting the idea that we can be more conscious consumers of energy while still being bad-ass (my words). Filming was originally supposed to take place on Thursday August 28th but Neil stopped and visited his friend Daryl Hannah on the way here and she wanted to join him so they pushed the shoot back a couple days.

I was obviously concerned that this production was going to present an unfair portrait of my community so I wanted to make sure that I was able to provide them with options that presented a more balanced view of the community and the industry. To that end I had well know community cheerleader Theresa Wells and environmentally conscious oil sands development advocate Ken Chapman on standby to be available for interviews if I was able to convince the production team to hear their stories. I also arranged with Joey Hundert the CEO of Sustainival, the worlds first green carnival,  to accommodate Neil and the production crew should I be able to convince them to film at this carnival powered by used cooking oil. In the end there, while they were polite and curious about this picture of Fort McMurray, it wasn't on the production agenda.

Impressions


Meeting the production crew at the Chateau Nova I found them all to be friendly and professional people. Ken Chapman happened by and Neil chatted with us around his and Daryl's cars for quite some time. Neil seemed genuinely surprised and impressed with some of the green initiatives happening in the community. He seemed to know little about the oil sands industry, he'd never heard of SAGD for example. His understanding seemed to be that bitumen is mined by digging giant open pits, using tonnes of water, and creating giant tailings ponds. He was unaware of the advances that have been made.

The first song I ever practiced, perfected and played live at Paddy McSwiggins with my garage band was Rockin' In The Free World so I may be a tad bias here but I really liked Neil. Neil introduced me to his 34 year old son who his wheel chair bound with severe Cerebral Palsy and told me about how he had been given a life expectancy of 16 years. Neil explained how lucky he felt to have been blessed with the resources needed to keep him alive this long and I admired his resolve to keep his son by his side determined to give him the opportunity to experience life to the fullest.

Daryl was a very nice lady, ever since the movie Splash I've thought so. I got the sense that she wasn't all that interested in the hearing a counter narrative or anything that might create cognitive dissonance in her judgement on the oil sands. She asked me about how scary it was shooting film out of a helicopter and asked if I was an adrenaline junkie. While the rest of us were chatting about the community and the oil sands industry she was more interested in picking sweet grass and posting her stickers around. She gave me an encouraging hug after filming and told me I did a great job, which was nice but nobody had actually seen my footage yet. That moment pretty much encapsulated my sense of her, a lady with a huge heart who makes judgement's with little information.

The thing I admire most about Neil and Daryl is the fact that they are trying really hard to make a difference in this world. Daryl has been arrested for standing up for what she believes in. She is diligent about practicing what she preaches and lives off the grid generating her own energy from wind and solar and growing her own food. Not many environmentally active starlets have her integrity in this regard.

What Was Filmed



The production company chartered the chopper for a couple hours and asked me to get a list of shots. Mostly I shot the two cars driving around the highway by Syncrude and Suncor. They were essentially interested in shots of Mordor (my words) juxtaposed behind these beautiful cars. They also wanted shots of tailings ponds and industrial plants. We lucked out with a dramatic sky that had a dark rain cloud roll in over top of Syncrude while the nearby boreal forest was bathed in sunlight and blue sky, David Suzuki himself couldn't have asked Gaia for a better shot. The pilot and I also took the liberty of shooting some beautiful river valley, wetland and boreal forest shots while we had free time.

I was told that the previous day was spent with a First Nations Chief getting his story and they were planning on spending the next day with a First Nations Chief as well. The only other thing on their agenda was an interview with Dr. O'Connor in Edmonton to presumably talk about the ill health of First Nations people because of the industry upstream.

What we didn't shoot was as informative about the narrative as what we did shoot. We did not film any reclaimed land. We didn't film any new extraction operations using greener technology. We didn't film any industry experts. We didn't film Neil's diesel burning bus that his crew rode in. We didn't film the environmentally conscious community active in Fort McMurray. That stuff wasn't on the agenda.

Final Thoughts


All living things consume energy and pollute. Nature is as cruel as it is beautiful. Bacteria and viruses pollute this Earth and for the majority of our history have mercilessly put us in an early grave. Burning wood has improved our lives dramatically by allowing us to ingest more energy at less cost by cooking food and it keeps us warm. Our ability to find and harness energy has caused human life to flourish. Each energy source we innovate is not without it's detriments. Nearly 2 million people die prematurely each year in developing countries from inhaling cooking smoke, what they wouldn't give for the comparatively clean energy of coal generated electricity.

People in developing countries generally care very little about the environmental standards we care about, they are too busy trying to survive to worry about their carbon footprint or how many blooms their community gets. The good news is that the richer a country gets the more environmentally conscious it tends to get and the cleaner and more efficient its energy tends to become. This investment in clean technology requires wealth, and wealth requires energy abundance.

Neil Young himself proves this point in a number of ways. He is able to fight off the polluting secretions invading his sons lungs that would otherwise kill him if not for a fortuitous chain of events starting with the industrial revolution and all the wealth that it brought to the world that allowed a man enough free time to pursue a thing called rock stardom and afford round the clock care for his boy extending his life. His wealth also allowed him to pay a team of engineers and specialists to retrofit a classic car into a technological green marvel. His wealth allows him to pay for the energy expenditure to get cellulosic ethanol shipped from the one plant in the US that makes it to wherever his Lincvolt is. His wealth allows him to traverse the world with his entourage spreading the gospel of green. His wealth affords a helicopter to fly around and film him and that is okay. I promise you I do not mean this facetiously; getting to the cutting edge of cleaner technology creates a lot of pollution...always has. That's why I don't consider it hypocritical of Neil to preach clean energy while creating a bunch of pollution and why I'd like him to grant the rest of us the same consideration. We are conscientious adults with the same goals he has.

Hiroshima Seems Nice
One has to wonder about claims of genocide and holocaust that are thrown about so cavalierly by those with a mission to bring down the oil sands, I wonder what survivors of actual genocide must think. Neil recently stated that Fort McMurray looks like Hiroshima (I wonder if he meant Nuked Hiroshima or beautiful reclaimed Hiroshima today) and that Natives are sick and dying because of the oil sands activities. These are serious claims that paint a pretty bleak picture and seem to lack any evidence. One would simply have to look at life expectancy rates before and after the oil sands started developing in this region. Are we to believe that the First Nations people in this region have increased mortality and morbidity rates because of the oil sands development, that over a billion dollars worth of First Nation business per year has caused declining health? Seems to me that is backwards. We could also compare life expectancy in First Nation communities around the oil sands region to those of First Nations people in other less Hiroshima looking parts of Canada.

The other bit of Neil's message I take some umbrage with is his anti-Keystone XL stance. It seems a tad hypocritical to use the guns of government to cut people off from energy they want and force them to use OPEC conflict oil. Nobody is cutting Neil off from all the energy he's using and forcing him to burn bitumen, why would he do that to people who can't afford other sources of energy or who don't want to use bloody OPEC oil? In the same vein I don't want government pointing guns at land owners to force Keystone through their land. I just wish people would learn how to peacefully negotiate without constantly appealing to government to pull out guns on their behalf.

So Neil if you're reading this Keep on Rockin In The Free World! I dig your message of clean energy and I can't wait for affordable cleaner energy, one day if we extract enough oil and generate enough wealth like you we will be able to create a cleaner world and even be able to extend the lives of our sons and daughters and move on to a better energy source. If you would've looked a bit closer at the people in this community developing this resource you'd have found people of kindred spirit, we are concerned about the environment and about the health of those that live around the oil sands...this is where our children live. We want to leave this world a better place like you do and we have the energy to do just that. I challenge you to find a community of oil producers anywhere else in this world that more closely aligns with your values of stewardship and respect for this Earth and it's people. Not only do we not stone people to death, we don't even use plastic grocery bags.

Monday, 9 September 2013

Back To School Rant

My wife called me today while I was downtown and asked me to pick up a Texas Instruments TI-83 graphing calculator for my daughter who is in grade 11 math. I asked why she couldn't use a free app on her iPhone instead of buying $130 piece of 1970's technology. Apparently they aren't allowed to use new technology...it's considered cheating.

I remember running into the same line of reasoning when I was a kid with regards to using a calculator. Its cheating. I was required to memorize times-tables up to 12 and spend inordinate amounts of time doing equations by hand that could be rapidly figured with a calculator. Never mind that in the real world we have access to technology, the internet, and all sorts of apps and information that can help us rapidly solve problems. The job of school it seems isn't to prepare kids to problem solve but rather to be tested and ranked on their ability to memorize, regurgitate, and obey.

The lesson here kids is that problems are solved by information given to you by people in power over you, like the ones whose permission you require to perform biological functions like go to the washroom. Problems are not solved by information you find, explore, understand and synthesize with the tools you have at your disposal...that is cheating. Your judges in school are ranking you on your ability to be a useful means to the ends of powerful people, to be the opposite of independent free-thinkers, one day your ability to get rewarded handsomely will depend on you being a valuable human resource.

So learn to be a good consumer of the information and instructions you are given and your reward will be a good job where you will be rewarded with more stuff you can consume; tropical vacations, big homes, vehicles, ATV's. Whatever you do don't fuck this up by asking any serious questions. Don't go off curriculum and learn stuff you're interested in...it's not useful to your future employers and you won't be a very good human resource.

Sigh...I lost my mind for about an hour today. You did not want to be around this guy. All I could picture was my kids with their skull caps removed having their synapses arranged by a machine. For a few minutes I was mad at the school teacher for making me spend grocery money on stupidity, but she didn't create this system and she didn't force my kids to go to these institutions and she's probably doing the best she can with good intentions as is everyone. Only one to be mad it is myself. I didn't do enough to prevent this binding of my children's brains...and they are being bound as physically and handicapping as a Chinese girl's feet that have been misshapen by traditional foot-binding. The lessons my kids are learning more than anything else are outlined by award winning school teacher John Taylor Gatto; confusion, class position, indifference, emotional dependency, intellectual dependency, provisional self-esteem, and there is nowhere to hide.

If I could have a mulligan I'd be a better dad. I'd teach them how to pursue their interests, how to discern truth from falsehood, how to honestly appraise themselves, the process of meta-learning (critically examining how you obtain and synthesize information), how to set goals and achieve dreams, how to empathize, how to gain self-awareness and examine their own beliefs, how to communicate in a language of connection instead of domination, how to care for their mind and body, that happiness comes from experiences and helping not from things. I'd never have institutionalized them.

Friday, 9 August 2013

No Justice for Rehtaeh

At the tender age of 15 Rehtaeh Parsons was allegedly raped by four boys about her age. As a father of two girls (aged 15 and 16) I doubt I'd be able to contain my rage or impulse to commit violence against those who harmed my children. I am, however extremely thankful that justice is not left to enraged fathers and lynch mobs, we aren't known for our reflective objectivity, our rationality, our dispassionate evaluation of the evidence. There is a process, in theory, that exists called justice, the rule of law which is to negate the rule of passion and impulse.

In an ideal world justice would not be punitive, designed to inflict pain and discomfort in order to gain compliance, but rather restorative and healing. Rather than locking criminals in cages at the expense of taxpayers criminals would be held to account for their crimes. Being accountable means fixing what you broke, restoring a victim to a future you took from her, it means restoring your credibility as a citizen through acts of virtue and value. Sitting like a lump in a rape cage on the tax payers dime is the opposite of accountability. Those who took from Rehtaeh what was not theirs to take need to be held to account.

In this case there is no justice for Rehtaeh. She was let down by everyone who had a duty to protect and nurture her. Real justice might have looked at all the red flags, all the symptoms indicative of underlying suffering. Social media feeds like Rehtaeh's proudly depicting drugs, alcohol, partying, and failing grades don't occur for no reason. I can understand that perhaps there was not enough evidence to proceed with a rape prosecution against these boys, however there was certainly enough evidence to suggest something inappropriate, unhealthy, and psychologically damaging occurred. Boys raised in healthy, attached and nurturing environments don't participate in this kind of activity consensual or not, and this kind of activity, consensual or not should raise the alarm that these boys need treatment at the very least. Lack of accountability by those who hold themselves up as authorities is demonstrated by their failure to acknowledge their responsibility in creating the environment these kids live in.

In a culture where peer attachment matters more than parental attachment to many teens, there seems to be a kind of distorted, pornographic view of sex that is worth bragging about. How many people commentating on this tragedy even stop and think about what they do to encourage or discourage a culture of peer attachment that is killing kids? I don't see any reflection from Rehtaeh's parents, the RCMP, the hospital where she was treated for 6 weeks prior to her suicide, or her school about things they did or didn't do that may have contributed to putting that precious life at risk. What I am looking for is not an acknowledgement of blame but rather an acknowledgement of learning so that more tragedies can be prevented. I have made my share of mistakes as a parent and I'll be the first to point out the things I did that put my child at risk, the actions that are mine to own that created an environment that made my child see certain unhealthy choices as preferable to others. I don't see any learning, or accountability, all I hear are cries for blood and so I can reasonably predict that this destructive culture of institutionalizing our children in government schools where they attach to their peers, giving no thought to a child's preferences or needs, and working three jobs to pay for our idea of success will continue and children will suffer mental anguish and some will take their own life.

The boys that allegedly raped Rehtaeh and then harassed and bullied her are now charged with child pornography. Yes children can be charged with child pornography in Canada. A 14 year old boy was recently charged with child porn in Nova Scotia after video taping a 15 year old girl giving him oral sex and then posting it on social media. This type of prosecution seems to cheapen real victims of child pornography and pedophilia. If consent was not given then a crime was committed. There currently is no law against distributing intimate images without consent, perhaps there should be, or perhaps there should be civil recourse to collect damages caused by distribution of these images. The fact that there exists no law that can currently be used to prosecute these boys for damage that they did to Rehtaeh does not mean that we should be cavalier with our justice system, subjecting it to the passions of the lynch mob and manufacturing nonsense crimes in our bloodlust. Justice is not served by ignoring our own accountability in creating a system that breeds bullying and peer attachment.

http://www.democracynow.org/2010/11/24/dr_gabor_mat_on_adhd_bullying

https://twitter.com/rprsnsxo/media/grid

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8v9ckeF4Y_g

http://www.huffingtonpost.ca/2013/08/08/rehtaeh-parsons-child-pornography-charge_n_3728764.html?ir=Canada+Alberta

Tuesday, 16 July 2013

The State as Addiction

The State is not something that exists in material reality. You can't point to something and say, "there is the State." So we know that the State is a concept, a narrative, a story we tell ourselves and each other, a belief system that has unhealthy consequences, it is a pattern of neuronal activity that one day we may be able to see with advanced imaging devices. The problem is how do we deal with this mind virus that prevents us from being free of violence and a sustainable, virtuous world? It occurred to me recently that it might be helpful to view the State through the lens of addiction. 

New insights into addiction may help those of us who want freedom from superstitious violence to make some progress with battling the State. Gabor Mate a psychiatrist that has made a career of treating addicts in Vancouver's inner city has interesting things to say about addiction. Addictions fill a need in the addict. Substances in and of themselves do not create addiction. Most people when exposed to chrystal meth or heroine do not become addicted for example so what is different about the people that do become addicted? When an addict injects Heroine the same pattern of brain activity lights up on an FMRI scan as when a baby locks eyes on a maternal gaze in a loving embrace. Heroine addicts without exception in, Gabor Mate's experience, report childhood abuse and neglect...they never had the love connection they needed until they met Heroine. 

In other words the things addicts consume, the things they are addicted to, fill a deep seated need in their life. The way they are treated is often a reproduction of the environment they experienced that led to the addiction. They are marginalized, locked in cages, brutalized by authority, scorned by society, and have the very thing that gives them relief forcibly taken away from them. Think about the emotional reaction that occurs in somebody who has his core belief about the State challenged rationally. Do they engage you with health reflective curiosity, rationale debate or express gratitude for correcting the story in their head, or do they act more like an addict who feels threatened that their particular nectar is going to be taken away, manipulative, Golum like, dismissive, attacking you with ad hominems and straw men and all manner of personal insult? 

Maybe there is a lesson to be learned in Portugal. Portugal legalized all drugs a decade ago and instead of treating addicts with the criminal justice system now treats them with the healthcare system. Addiction rates have since been cut in half and crime is way down as a result. Quality controlled Heroine is provided in a safe facility, addicts are plugged into therapists and employment opportunities and slowly but surely many addicts kick their addiction.

So if statism is an addiction, a story that fills a deep seated need in the addict, then what can we learn about the way we treat these addicts? In my next post I'm going to offer some suggestions of where we might start.

Tuesday, 18 June 2013

Superman and Jesus

This fathers day my kids took me to see the latest Superman movie and I was struck by the similarities between the Superman narrative and the Christian narrative. Here are the things I noticed:

1)      Heaven – Krypton is a designed and created Utopian paradise where Kryptonians seem to live forever.

2)      The Fall of Lucifer – General Zod was Kryptons top general and disagrees with the ultimate authority and battles for control and is ultimately cast out to another dimension, just like Lucifer and his minions.

3)      A Unique Birth – Jesus was born to a virgin (assuming Mary and Joe didn’t lie) and Superman was the first Kryptonian born through a vagina in Millenia, all others were birthed in a genesis chamber.

4)      Sent to Another World to Be its Savior – Jor’el pontificates that Superman could guide and lead the people of Earth to a better future and prevent them from being destroyed.

5)      Raised by surrogate parents of an inferior class – Superman had otherworldly powers his parents did not possess. Both Supe and JC’s earthly fathers were simple tradesmen.

6)      Guided by his incorporeal father – Superman is guided by Jor’el whose consciousness can converse with him and guide him with his sage wisdom.

7)      Begins Ministry at about Age 30 – Superman finally goes public at about the same age as JC.

8)      Practices Non-violence – Several times Supe is physically assaulted and turns the other cheek.

9)      Performs public miracles – Self-explanatory

10)  Is either loved or reviled – Authorities are afraid of Superman, they don’t know what to make of him.

11)  Sacrifices himself to save the world – Superman struggles with whether he should sacrifice himself to save the world, reminiscent of Jesus in the garden of Gethsemane. He seeks the council of a man of faith and with a stain glassed image of Jesus in the background resolves to sacrifice himself. He is then taken into Zod’s (Satan) lair and held captive just like JC was.

12)  Breaks out of hell and saves the world – Self-explanatory

I don’t know if it was Zack Snyders conscious decision to incorporate these elements of the Christian narrative. When two young Jewish men, Siegel and Shuster, created Superman in 1938 he was seen as a metaphor for the Jewish people. Perhaps this incarnation is a manifestation of the prophesy the Jews always hoped for – an ass kicking savior instead of gentle Jesus meek and mild. Perhaps the great narratives that resonate with the human psyche all have similar attributes for a reason, after-all at least 10 Christ-like figures predated Jesus and Superman (http://listverse.com/2009/04/13/10-christ-like-figures-who-pre-date-jesus/). Whether conscious or unconscious Zach Snyder’s version of this mythology definitely resonated with me and apparently with a lot of other movie goers raking in $128 million in its first weekend.


If you notice any other similarities that I’ve missed please comment!

Sunday, 9 June 2013

The Extraordinary Claims of Statists

Carl Sagan popularized the phrase, “extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence.” Skeptics of pseudoscience, paranormal activity, deities, snake-oil salesmen, psychics, Loch Ness Monster, and leprechauns often use it to explain to people that the onus is on the person making a claim so extraordinary that it exceeds everything we know of the natural world and the universe. So a person claiming, “I have a dog” requires far less evidence than a person claiming “I have a dragon.” In the former claim we all know people who own dogs, we know that dogs exist empirically and so when Bob shows us a picture of a dog we can justifiably believe him. The latter claim requires more evidence because there has never been evidence for dragons existing and it is incredibly likely that a fire breathing monster would have been seen and reported at some point in the past century if it exists, so when Bob shows us a picture of his dragon we cannot justifiably believe he's telling the truth knowing that photos are easy to photoshop.

Theists are people who believe that a god or god(s) exist. There are many theists and there is no evidence for a magical man in the sky. Any good Christian apologist will rightly tell you, “Absence of evidence is not evidence of absence.” Of course the problem with this logic is that it does not justify a belief. There is also no evidence of absence for every imaginary thing including leprechauns, unicorns, Santa, Elvis escaping death and fairies and yet even though these entities cannot be disproven people who take these claims seriously are largely considered naive children. I’m going to skip technical philosophical details here and assume that you intuitively get why belief in every made-up claim is not justified even though it may be impossible to disprove the claim. Many beliefs that we consider ridiculous and far-fetched today were at one time taken as reasonable stories and explanations to explain the natural world, and there are many beliefs that are commonly accepted today that will be looked at with equal scorn and ridicule as future generations wonder how we could be so ignorant. Is there a way to predict which beliefs are congruent with reality and which beliefs are simply made up stories to be scoffed at by future humans? Yes there is.

Science has yielded incredible results because it is a method for aligning beliefs with reality. When beliefs are aligned with reality amazing innovation, creativity, and flourishing occur. One of the ways that science works is that it sets up a process to destroy dogma. A scientist starts with a set of beliefs, a hypothesis, and figures out what evidence would destroy that belief and then sets up experiments to try and destroy that belief. If the scientist is unable to find a way to falsify his hypothesis and other scientists are likewise unable to falsify their hypothesis then the hypothesis becomes absorbed as a rational belief about the natural world. One way to tell if you have any dogma in your life is to examine a cherished set of beliefs and ask yourself the scientific question, "What evidence could be presented that would falsify my beliefs and cause me to revise or discard them?" If you can't think of any evidence that would change your mind about a belief then you have likely discovered and area of dogma in your life and are in danger of being judged by future generations as just one more of the ignorant herd.

Beliefs matter because they inform behavior and not all irrational beliefs are created equal, some lead to empirically more destructive behavior than others. Jainism for example has non-violence as a central tenant of their religion to the point where they strain water with cheese cloth to avoid accidentally drinking tiny insects. Jihad on the other hand is a violent tenant of Islam and the results speak for themselves. Steve Weinberg once said, “With or without religion, you would have good people doing good things and evil people doing evil things. But for good people to do evil things, that takes religion.” I would argue that there is a far more insidious and dangerous religion than Islam that the large majority of the world still subscribe to and that is Statism.

Statism is the belief that governments should govern individuals and the result of this belief system has resulted in a staggering death toll in the past century. Statists make a number of extraordinary implicit claims whether they realize it or not. My goal here is to  outline some of the claims and the evidence that could be presented to support those beliefs and what evidence actually exists that falsify those beliefs.

Political Borders 

Some borders do exist in material reality; the beach is a border between land and ocean, skin is a border between a human and his environment, a ploughed field has a border where churned dirt meets undisturbed soil etc. When statists say something like, "We need to control immigration" they are making a series of implicit claims about the nature of reality. 1) That there exists a line that is real or imaginary that separates 'us' and 'them', and 2) that by virtue of birth or citizenship process they have an ownership claim over territory enclosed by this line that allows them, among other things, to use force to prohibit individuals born on the other side of the line from moving across that line.

Consequences of this belief:
Men in costumes with guns and badges stand guard at this imaginary line ready to kill those who would cross without permission of the owners. Papers are issued to identify those that are allowed to cross the imaginary line from those that aren't. Individuals are required to submit to all manner of indecent search and interrogation while crossing these lines. Individuals looking to acquire or homestead property on the other side of the imaginary line are controlled by the use of force supported by the opinion of others living inside the imaginary line. Most individuals within this imaginary line consider themselves 'us' and people outside the line 'them' allowing depersonalization of violence to the point where dropping bombs and staging military invasions against 'them' evokes no reaction or even a positive reaction, the opposite of how these same people would feel if a military dropped a bomb killing women and children within their imaginary lines. People within these borders believe they have some ownership claim over each others property and virgin undisturbed resources that reside within these borders by virtue of being born.

Evidence that would support belief in political borders: 
Empirical evidence such as visual, satellite or arial imagery that reveals this line as a physical line in material reality. Preferably multiple lines of empirical evidence by eyewitnesses, documents, photography, or videography etc. that show the line to be the edge of property obtained by an individual or group of individuals through biological means by mixing labour and virgin resources to create something that did not exist before and that nobody else can make a legitimate ownership claim too. That the owner of this piece of land did voluntarily transfer ownership of this property through trade or agreement or contract to the people who now make claim over it. If all this evidence exists then people who live on this land may have a legitimate moral claim to use force to prohibit other people from damaging or stealing their property, but they still have all their work ahead of them explaining how they are justified in using violence to prohibit travel from point A to point B.

Evidence that actually exists:
Multiple historical accounts exist that explain how borders came to be in the imagination of people that live within them. A group of men a long time ago used violence to stake an illegitimate claim of ownership over that which was not theirs and settlers in this territory who were used to rulers making ownership claims readily bought into the new paradigm of democracy where the illusion of control gave them the idea that they had an ownership stake in that which did not belong to them. This narrative was passed down through generations and so now it is accepted by all who live within the imaginary line that it belongs to them and that they have a legitimate ownership claim over territory that is hundreds or thousands of miles removed from where they live and actually own property.

Democracy

This is the belief that engaging in activities like popularity contests (voting for political representatives) gives an individual the right to impose their opinion through force on other peoples body and their property. To support democracy one must have the belief that those individuals that win these popularity contests have the right to initiate force against individuals, a right which other individuals do no possess. Belief in democracy requires holding two seemingly contradictory principles; 1) that politicians get their right to initiate force delegated to them from voters and 2) that citizens do not have the right to initiate force. Note that belief in democracy also carries a requisite belief in borders, in that individuals who do not live on the 'us' side of the imaginary line do not have binding opinions.

Consequences of belief in democracy:
The consequences of this belief are broad and far reaching. Billions of people worldwide participate in the religious sacraments of democracy including voting and rallying in ecstatic congregations, singing hymns to the state (national anthems), learning obedience to power and reverence for the state in state run schools (public schools), worshiping sacred symbols (ie saluting flags), quoting sacred documents (ie. constitutions and charters). Individuals are coerced through threat of kidnapping and forcible confinement, or death if they resist with equal and opposite force, to hand over a large portion of the product of their labor to individuals representing the state as well they are prohibited from using their bodies and their own property in ways that harm no other person based solely on the rules imposed by individuals who have won popularity contests. Euphemistic language twists brains into thinking up is down, taxation is different than theft, immigration is different than a person moving from one place to another, national defence is invading and bombing backwater countries, the state is something that exists in material reality.

Evidence that would support the belief in democracy: 
That political borders exist and are legitimate.  Empirical evidence that winning a popularity contest colloquially referred to as 'the vote' physically/biologically creates changes in the winner that makes them something other than a human ape, something better with an exempt moral status akin to a deity. That the opinion of a tipping point of people changes an individual persons biology (a politician, or state enforcer) to something extra-human allowing them to be excluded from the very moral prohibitions they hold all humans too such as; violence, theft, forcible confinement, kidnapping, and counterfeiting. FMRI's images of brain changes, DNA sequencing, EEG tracings, are all lines of evidence that could be presented to demonstrate that a politician or state enforcer has deistic properties that would elevate their moral status. Once deistic status is confirmed, however, the state apologists still have all their work ahead of them explaining how deities imposing an involuntary relationship on people is ethical. Are gods exempt from ethics? Is everything they do considered ethical?

Evidence that exists in reality:
No documented cases of extra-human physiological changes occurring to popularity contest winners have been reported at the time of this writing. All biological evidence seems to point out that politicians and state enforcers are still in fact human apes; they use the washroom, eat food, get sick, die etc. Further evidence that they are human apes comes from the psychological sciences that predict what will happen when an individual human is recognized by a social group as having extra-human status; corruption, delusions of grandeur, megalomania, psychopathy, increased use of violence to solve problems etc.

Non-Belief

Atheism is simply non-belief in the claims that theists make. It is the position that theists have the burden of proof. Anarchism is essentially non-belief in violence and human ownership. It is the position that those who would make claims of power have the burden of proof. The onus is not on the non-believer to disprove extraordinary claims, the onus is on the claimant to provide evidence. The religious often confuse this point and ask the non-believer to explain how the universe came to be without a magical man or how the roads are going to be built without creating magical moral exemptions that allow certain people to steal what is not theirs. The intellectually honest answer is, "I don't know and it doesn't matter." It doesn't matter because atheists and anarchists are not proposing anything other than non-belief we don't have to provide evidence for our non-belief in extraordinary claims.

Everybody is a non-believer in most extraordinary claims. Just think of the sheer number of claims and stories people have concocted over the millennia. There have been tens of thousands of gods and other supernatural and magical entities made up over the years and nobody believes in all of them. We are usually able to apply some amount of rational thinking when it comes to all the extraordinary claims present in other cultures and we don't often adopt beliefs from outside our culture, on the other hand we are all relatively blind to the irrationality inherent in our own culture and have no problem adopting irrational beliefs that comfort us.

Finding yourself unable to believe the things that keep you connected with community, family, and identity leaves one feeling adrift and isolated. I was once a Christian with dreams of becoming a pastor and when I came out as an atheist I lost the community I had once found connection and comfort in. Pursuing the truth is not for cowards and it is the only way to leave the world a better place for our children. Those who are brave enough to confront truth in their own lives have a duty to help others go through this emotionally painful process. It is time for us to mature past the superstitions handed down from our more primitive ancestors.

More than convincing people to discard irrational belief in god(s) and government my hope is to convince people to discover truth in their own life. Congruence with reality is necessary for growth and virtue to be unleashed and learning the process is of aligning ones beliefs with reality is far more important than simply subscribing to somebody else's conclusions even if they are atheism or anarchism. My experience is that beyond the pain, isolation and withdrawal symptoms of discarding comforting beliefs is incredible beauty, fulfillment, health and flourishing. The questions I continually ask myself are: Why do I believe what I believe? What evidence would cause me to discard or revise my beliefs?

I know what evidence will cause me to believe in god(s) and government and Santa Claus. Do you know what evidence will change your mind?


Further Reading


Thursday, 21 February 2013

Leadership and Self-Organization

Part I - Lessons Learned

My graduate thesis looked at self-organizing emergency response teams. I wanted to look at things like firefighter team dynamics and effectiveness through the lens of self-organization and see what could be discerned about things like leadership and why some teams were more effective than others. I became interested in looking at this because I noticed that teams that were led by autocratic leaders seemed to run into far more problems and be far less effective than other teams.

These are the lessons I learned about self-organizing systems and how leaders/change agents can create real change in systems.

All Systems are Self-Organizing

When I started researching my thesis I had a difficult time finding a clear definition of what a self-organizing system was among scholars. How would I know whether I idnetify a team to be self-organizing or behaving in a self-organizing fashion if I didn't know what criteria to use? In the end I identified the properties of the teams I wanted to study. The team would have to be comprised of individuals who were autonomous actors working towards a common goal where they did not feel coerced or threatened. So that helped differentiate teams that felt they were under the thumb of an autocrat from teams that felt free to iniate action.

As I reviewed the literature on this subject I had a startling realization: all systems in the universe are self-organizing systems. How could it be otherwise? Subatomic particles started the whole thing and simple systems become more complex over time. There is no evidence of a puppet master pulling all the strings and controlling the universe and people. It all seems to have arisen from the bottom up.

 All Systems Are Relationships

Matter is not solid. What we percieve as solid is actually 99.99999% empty space. What we are perceiving when we see and touch a block of matter is essentially a very dynamic system comprised of relationships. Consider the fact that you are not made up of the same atoms or cells that you were 7 years ago. Does this mean that your identity as an individual has changed? Are you not you anymore?

As far as I can tell what makes you a person, is not the elements, the atoms, the cells that make up your body, but in a very real sense it is the stuff in between...the relationships. Atoms and cells can change out, be replaced and die precisely because who you are, what makes you person is still intact...the relationships between all the discrete units. If one by one each neuron in you brain was replaced with an identical neuron in exactly the same state and position, you would still be you even though your brain would be comprised of entirely different atoms.

The lesson in this, at least to me, is that it is important to pay attention to relationships. Does my presense in a system create health or disease? Well that depends on my relationships with others in the system. Violent relationships are qualitatively and quantitatively different than loving relationships for example and result in different system outcomes.

A Systems DNA Determines What it Looks Like

Surely a dictatorship can't be considered a self-organizing system? In fact it is. When one describes a system called a "dictatorship" you are describing an aggregate, or group of individuals that are in relationship with each other. Like any other system the individual agents organize themselves according to their core beliefs and motivations and the environment.

Another example might be two people in a park. This can be called a diadic system (2 agents). In this system one agent is a mugger and the other a victim. Within this system each agent has a number of choices available to them based on the actions and perceptions of the other. The victim can hand over money, try to talk his way out of it, fight the mugger, run away etc. Within each course of behaviours lie a number of sub choices as events unfold. In every system the environment and other agents create both constraints and allowances for other individuals.

This dynamic interaction determines what a system looks like, and this interaction is created by the individual behaviour of agents. That is not the end of the story though because that behaviour is created by the individuals core beliefs, motivations and thoughts. This is what I mean by the "DNA" of a system. If a molecule is viewed as a system the DNA that determines what that system looks like is the aggregate properties of the subatomic particles that comprise the system. Similarly a human organizational system can be viewed as an aggregate of the individual DNA of core beliefs, motivations and thoughts. Mathematician Benoit Mandelbrot elegantly demonstrated the similarity of a system at different levels of magnification in his fractal set. (see video)


Have you ever noticed this fractal pattern in organizations? You meet individuals from that particular culture and they all have similar beliefs and motivations? You zoom out and look at the group as a whole and you see that group performing in the system called the marketplace and it looks and behaves very similar in relationship to other system agents as the individual people within the system behave. Different DNA or cultures result in different organizational behaviours and success. Your individual beliefs and motivations have real world consequences.

The fractal or DNA called "we must respect individual property rights" results in a much different looking system than the fractal "the state owns everything" doesn't it?

Hierarchies are Emergent Properties of Systems

Hierarchy is a word that I'm not sure is entirely accurate. Our tendency to look at systems as top-down or bottom-up isn't necessarily the best way to look at systems. These are really inelegant ways to look at a system where agents take on different but complimentary roles and dance dynamically in life affirming ways, but for lack of simpler explanatory language I'll engage in typical organizational language.

Hierarchies emerge from the bottom up. Single celled organisms often evolve over time into multicellular organisms that eventually need brains and nervous systems. Richard Dawkins suggests in the "Selfish Gene" that a more fruitful way to view evolution and reproduction is that the body and brain are serving the purposes of the gene. Successful species are ones whose hierarchy (brains and bodies) successfully serve the needs of genes, namely propagating.

We usually think of hierarchies as system controllers but they are really there to serve individual system agents by decreasing the amount of information each agent needs to track to stay in organization with the rest of the system. When teams of fire fighters are attacking a blaze it is critical that they work in organization with each other, if one team engages the wrong tactic at the wrong time it can put another team in real danger. With multiple teams on scene it becomes problematic for each team to track and know what each other team is doing. The incident commander (a poor label in my opinion) exists to serve the needs of these teams by keeping track of the big picture and feeding back to the teams pertinent information for them to act effectively. Without a proper incident commander hierarchy the fire teams would not be able to act effectively in their own self-interest, namely to put out the fire and get home safely.

Entropy is Death

Entropy is a term that physicists use to describe how closed systems tend to go from order to disorder over time. Stars explode, life dies, and organizations dissolve. There are ways to negate entropy and even engage negentropy (growth, life and flourishing). For example hierachies that are servile can increase the freedom and choices available to individual agents (empowerment is the term in organization development circles). On the flip side, hierarchies that fail to recognize that they are part of a self-organizing system and prescribe control over agents usually accelerate entropy. The key seems to be in the DNA (the beliefs, motivation and knowledge) of the leader.

In my research I found that teams that had incident commanders that were described as autocratic had far more issues with chaos and disorder. Sometimes fire fighters would get tired of waiting for orders and would freelance, sometimes the orders a team would receive would be wrong, teams found themselves in more dangerous situations, frustration level were high, fires tended to take longer to put out and higher property losses were reported. This type of entropy is nurtured by a belief that is incongruent with reality. The incident commander here might view the fire fighters as pawns for him to move around as opposed to autonomous actors in a self-organizing system. As a result he sees his role as a controller and tries to impose control with incomplete information. He doesn't see what each team is seeing, hearing and feeling. He is not in the best position to control each team, the teams are in the best position and really need a hierarchy that is going to serve their needs.

It might best be understood  that hierarchies emerge as a way to increase the freedom or choice available to individual agents within a system thereby decreasing entropy, but failing to recognize the servile purpose of hierarchy and attempting to impose control and limit freedom and choice of individual agents results in increased entropy.

Reality Alignment

Recent research has shown that your genes are not set in stone. The field of epigenetics is unveiling astonishing ways in which our environment and the behaviours we engage in can alter our genetic expression and even pass these new traits on to our offspring. Likewise our organizational genetics are far from set in stone, we can change. It starts with our core beliefs about reality. Failure to align our beliefs with reality result in inaccurate mental models that lead to bad decisions and bad decisions to entropy..


An example of an often useless mental model is an organizational chart. Organizational charts with well defined boundaries and boxes are rarely an accurate description of an organization. There are a number of problems with it. What do the lines mean? Do they represent information, coercive power, attraction or something else? What happens if Bob doesn't follow the line on the chart and connects with someone on the other side of the chart? Do people look at the chart first to see why they have something that doesn't accurately describe what is going on and work on revising their mental models,or do they go to Bob and reprimand him for not following the line? I think its often accurate to say that two people who get a pay cheque from the same place and work in the same building are not part of the same organization.

An often fruitful exercise in organizational workshops is asking participants to attempt to draw accurate organizational charts that show what is actually happening in the organization, the degree to which these charts differ from the official charts often says a lot about the level of reality congruence an organizational culture has. Another worthwhile exercise is asking people to draw their organizational pyramid upside down with the boss at the bottom and ask what the implications are in terms of individual behaviour when the "boss" views himself below his "subordinates". What happens if we replace the words "boss" and "subordinate" with something more accurate? What changes then? It is this kind of inquiry that changes the organizational genetics and brings mental models closer to alignment with reality and sets the stage for unleashing real performance and flourishing.

Leadership is Attraction

Forces that hold organizations together are attractive not repulsive or compulsive. This is as true of molecules and biological organisms as it is of social organizations. In chaos theory the term "attractor" or "strange attractor" is used to denote a core that attracts organization, in human organizations I call this a legitimate leader. Sometimes when we identify ourselves as a leader, maybe because we've been given the title "manager" or "supervisor" or "captain", we get into trouble thinking that it is our job to enforce compliance to a particular set of words called policies or laws. This gets us into trouble because it causes one to apply a force that is the opposite of attraction. While the force you apply may cause short term compliance you have in fact added entropic force to the organization and destabilized it. That person, in the core of their being, understands that you are not in organization with them, you simply get a paycheque from the same place. 

Understanding that you are not a leader if you apply force is important if you are concerned with creating change. If you hear a would-be leader talking about trying to overcome resistance to change you have heard someone explain why they aren't a leader. People aren't resistant to change so much as they are attracted to a core of personal power, dignity and esteem. Leaders connect with this core in a person and are good at communicating how a particular change will create personal flourishing. When people understand that their lives are improved by a change in course or behaviour then the change agent can be called a leader. If a change agent has forced compliance then they are not a leader but an entropic force and you can expect to see systemic disorder emerge.

Part II - Hacking Performance

There are a number of things I learned in my research that can be useful to anybody interested in creating organizations that are healthy, high performing, robust, and sustainable. We want a system that is dynamic and can adapt quickly to changing conditions. The boundaries of this system are not rigid and brittle, but alive with possibility and creativity. I'll briefly describe eight things you can do to hack negentropy and make it work for you. Each one of these disciplines is worthy of lengthy exploration and mastery, and my hope here is to simply provide information that motivates you to find out more and start to look at your organizations through a lens that is more congruent with reality.

1) Look in the mirror and be the change

Obese people don't sell many diet books. If you weigh 400 lbs and you walk around spreading the gospel of a new diet you found in hopes that others will live a healthier life you just aren't going to be all that credible or make that much change. In fact you are likely creating harm by turning people away from a healthy diet. Contrast this to a guy who has done the work and lived a healthy life style and it shows. He will have people constantly asking him how they can achieve similar success in their own life. You can create better health in those around you by simply being healthy yourself.

Self-knowledge is incredibly important if you want to make a real difference in your organization. The most effective leaders in a given domain are the ones that understand intimately what motivates them, what their base assumptions about the world are, where their beliefs come from, and what evidence it would take to change their belief. Being able to reprogram ones DNA or fractal to adapt to reality leads to flourishing and this adaptability can only come when engages in the practice of self-examination. Without this self-examination we are simply automatons playing out our programming and can't hope to help others re-program their own lives. Preaching what you practice is far more powerful than practicing what you preach.

2) Remove yourself from toxic environments

Biology is amazing. The way organisms respond to their environment altering genetic expression and behaviour is what determines success and flourishing. Infants that are exposed to in-utero maternal stress and malnourishment exhibit observably different traits than infants who experience good maternal nourishment and peace, with the former being more aggressive and the latter being less aggressive and more attached to mom. It makes sense, an environment of scarce resources favours survival and flourishing of aggressive and dominant individuals whereas an environment of abundance and peace favours survival and flourishing of peaceful and socially attached individuals.

Jim Rohn said "You are the average of the 5 people you spend the most time with." It is well established that the company you keep, your environment, largely determines who you are. The difference between adults and infants of course is that we can change our environment and change our lives. When we have self-knowledge and understand the kind of person we are and what type of person we aspire to be we can take action and notice whether our environment is nurturing that change or poisoning it. If you find yourself wanting a peaceful, balanced, self-actualized and happy existence in organization with other individuals you do not want to be in a Machiavellian environment because you will not flourish in that environment without becoming aggressive and dominant.

A corollary practice to removing yourself from a toxic environment is that leaders (particularly leaders like parents who have an involuntary relationship over another) are responsible for creating environments that are healthy. The environment you expose your child to will largely determine who they become as people. The environment you create in the work place has similar repercussions. Pay attention to the environment you create through your thoughts, words and actions.

3) Engage in legitimate leadership

There are so many definitions and concepts of leadership floating around that it is a difficult word to pin down a definition for. To be a legitimate leader in my definition at least two conditions need to be met; 1) There are willing followers, and 2) Leadership is expressed as work that seeks to eliminate the need for leadership. As explained earlier leaders are attractors and hierarchies are servile in nature. The most effective, life infused organizations are ones where individuals operate with high knowledge, expertise and creativity.  The function of leadership then if you want a high performance, negentropy nurturing, thriving organization is to eliminate the need for leadership. Leadership is dynamic and often temporary. Effective leaders follow others at least as much as they lead, learning from experts and mavens, because they understand that authority is not derived from coercive power or force but rather ones ability to improve the life of another.

My research showed different results for team leaders that engaged autocratic styles and team leaders that empowered individuals. Legitimate leaders expand the view of the individual and give them the information they need to make the right decision in their local environment. Autocratic leaders tend to foster dependency and make teams less intelligent. Teams are given orders that they don't always understand and questioning these order often results in negative treatment and so individuals quickly learn not to learn, not to inquire, not to do anything but what the boss wants. Unfortunately these teams have their expertise eroded, they become more about following rules than understanding systems. Contrast this with an incident commander who views those he is in organization with as autonomous individuals working in coordination with each other. This incident commander finds and provides his team with information that empowers them to meet their goals, which are all the same...put the fire out.

4) Make exploring role clarity a regular practice

Role clarity is best understood as a process that occurs within an individual as they learn their place in relation to other agents within a system. Contrast this with what may be a traditional view of roles being established and imposed from the top by an authority figure as managers and union leaders write out job descriptions for subordinates. This traditional view often fails to recognize the fact that hierarchies emerge from the bottom up. Roles are not static because the environment and the system are not static and so constant examination of ones role is needed for life to flourish in an organization.

Exploration of roles can occur in a number of ways. It usually occurs in real time while a job is being done. "Since you're doing that, I'll do this other thing" Where we tend to get trapped is in our dogmatic mental models of what the organization is or should be. These mental models are often heavily influenced by the memes that infuse our organizational culture. Language, policies and organizational charts are often viewed through a lens of coercive power. One might be inclined to think that these memes are the dictates of a higher authority sent down from on high to maintain control. Isn't it ironic that our delusional idea that using force or control of others to create order actually results in more disorder and chaos?

One of the things that high performing fire teams do to foster role clarity is operate in a heightened state of curiosity. Feedback is constantly sought and communicated on these team both during events and practice drills and afterwards. Understanding ones role in relation to others and the others role in relation to ones self is key to being an adaptive high performing team. I remember one fire call where communication broke down because of conditions and the incident commander realized he couldn't function inside the organizational chart and asked another experienced officer to take command on an adjacent side of the building to compensate for the communication barrier. It was beautiful to observe the way leadership and communication flowed back and forth between these two officers in a dynamic dance that allowed the firefighters on scene to adapt to changing conditions.This kind of dynamic and adaptable dance is not possible when roles are dictated, only when they are understood and arrived at autonomously.

5) Choose a positive mental state

There has been a lot of research done on mental states. It turns out our brains are hardwired to perform better in a positive mental state. More choices occur to us when we are in this brain state and we engage creative problem solving which is important for complex situations. One study even showed that peripheral vision improved with a positive mind state. One neuroscientist described the optimal performance mindset as being one where cognition is balanced on the edge of chaos, it dips in and out of the boundary line between order and disorder exploring possibilities. Being comfortable with uncertainty is important because solutions don't always present themselves immediately during this process.

Negative mindsets like fear, that raise cathecolamine and cortisol levels, are rarely useful in today's environment. This mindset narrows choices and limits or negates learning. When you explore the base of autocratic leaders you often find fear lurking. These people are often afraid of losing control and failing. Fear of losing control drives them to become dictatorial and chaos ensues.

Successful incident commanders are able to stave off fear and anxiety and create a positive mindset. One thing that can be done when fear and anxiety creeps up on you in stressful situations is very simple...breath. It turns out that one of the objective indicators of a state of stress is low heart-rate variability, the heart beats at a steady rate due to stress hormones. A person who has an absence of stress has high heart-rate variability, in other words the time gap between heartbeats changes in a predictable rhythm that coincides with your breathing. As you breath in and out it increases thoracic pressure which in turns presses against the vagus nerve which controls heart rate parasympathetically. When you are stressed, anxious, fearful, the sympathetic system is controlling the heart rate visa-vi catecholamines like adrenaline. When you feel anxiety and fear welling up you can stimulate your parasympathetic system and negate and eliminate the sympathetic response by focusing on breathing. Deep and steady breaths with equal inspiratory and expiratory phases while focusing your attention on visualizing breathing through the center of your chest has been shown to return heart rate variability to higher levels and eliminate stress within one to two minutes. This is a simple exercise that works that can help get you into a more positive state of mind. It works great before stressful meetings, and it also works great while you're are responding to a giant fire.

6) Ask the right questions

Part of having the right mind-set is asking the right questions. You can view an organization by asking, "What is broken that needs to be fixed," or by asking, "what is working that we can leverage?" These are two questions that are looking at the same thing but delivering drastically different results. One line of inquiry fixates on problems and the other one fixates on achievement. Appreciative inquiry is a research philosophy that suggests that problem fixation tends to produce more problems, whereas fixating on the positive tends to result in more positive and problems then seem to not be issues anymore.

Marilee Adams has a fantastic book on this issue called "Change Your Questions, Change Your Life" that I highly recommend. She differentiates between a learner and a judger mindset. Judgmental mindsets ask questions like, "whose fault is it","why am I such a failure," and it leads to win-lose relating, blame focus, and automatic reactions. The learner mindset asks questions like "what are my assumptions", "what are they thinking, feeling, and wanting" and leads to thoughtful choices, solution focus and win-win relating.

The right questions bring us more closely in line with reality. Dogma is refusing to ask questions about your beliefs or asking the wrong questions and it prevents us from harmonizing with reality. Psychologist Gary Klein studies adaptive decision making in high performing fire teams and suggests testing ones self for dogma by asking the question, "What evidence or logic could convince me to revise or discard a dearly held belief or assumption?" He suggests that if we cannot think of an answer to this question we have likely found an area of dogma.

7) Watch your language

Confucius said that the beginning of wisdom is to call things by their real names. Our language strongly shapes our perception of reality and so its often worth examining words we use regularly especially when we are in organization with others. One label that often bothers me is "Human Resource Department". This term suggests that humans we are in organization with are resources at our disposal like all the other organizational resources.  This term creates the delusion that the organization is an entity that is served by the individual rather than the reality that the individual is served by being in organization with others...its the organization that is the resource not the human.

The lumping of humans in with capital equipment has real world consequences. For example health and wellness programs developed in HR departments tend to look like those you'd find on any farm where a farmer is concerned about his livestock. You are scheduled for tests and immunizations, your health is checked and a record is kept at the corporate office. I don't know if I should bother pointing out that the difference between you and a cow is that you are not food to be harvested.

Contrast this with another organization where a person might have the role of supporting the health and wellbeing of the other members. This person would understand that they are there to serve the other members and seek to eliminate dependency on them for health leadership. Helping employees get a handle on their own health, listening to them describe their hopes and dreams for their health, providing resources to help them, and ensuring they get, own, and understand their own health care records would be important. In one organization an 'employee' sees health and wellness as a prescription and reporting process, like vehicle maintenance, you bring your body into the garage to get fixed. In the other organization the individual feels confident and powerful, armed with the knowledge and wisdom to make healthy choices everyday and constantly self-monitoring bio-feedback to understand how their body and mind work and respond to different environments and inputs.

One of my dreams is to change the language of command & control in the fire service. It doesn't align well with reality. Commanders do not command or control a scene. They don't seize the brain of each individual and move them like puppets on a string. I get the motivation to use terminology like this because its comforting to think we can control disorder, our biggest fear and enemy on the fire ground. As discussed leaders who take command & control literally ultimately create more disorder. I'm not sure what language I'd replace it with, maybe 'serve & communicate' or 'feedback & learn'. These words to me are a more accurate description of what high performing teams are doing and recognizing about reality despite the language of 'command & control'. In life and death situations we need to be practiced at checking our assumptions about reality, and language influences our thoughts and actions.

8) Seek out conflict and play with it

Learning at its essence is conflict resolution. You know one thing about the world and you are presented with another piece of evidence about reality that seems to challenge that thing you know. The result is a kind of foggy or confusing state that psychologists often call cognitive dissonance, you are holding two truths in you head that seem to contradict each other. Working through this is where learning occurs, eventually you solve the puzzle and see how they are connected and revise your theory about the world. You can see this happen clearly in infants and toddlers who are exploring the world. They are little scientists constantly repeating experiments like throwing food on the floor to watch it fall or see fido eat it. They repeat these experiments over and over again and eventually learn to make accurate predictions about what will happen. Play peek-a-boo with a baby and you can see the shock and confusion as their world (their parent) suddenly seems to disappear and then reappear. They are in a state of cognitive dissonance, one part of them knows that you are a constant in their life and another part of them knows that you just disappeared. How do they resolve this conflict? They play. They have fun, they laugh and are in a constant state of curiosity and amazement.

Babies who at one time were delighted with the cognitive dissonance peek-a-boo caused eventually grow into adults who associate cognitive dissonance and conflict as discomfort. As we get older, self-exploration of the world is frowned upon by those who benefit from our ignorance of reality. We are discouraged and attacked for asking questions about reality and trying to understand. I remember as a child asking very curious questions to my religion teachers that made them uncomfortable and I was told to have more faith, it was I that had the deficit you see. We don't like uncertainty, conflict, and confusion, we want concrete black and white answers and constantly look to those in power to provide these answers. We depend on the priestly class to rid us of our cognitive dissonance, it creates Pavlovian suffering because of our conditioning. The priestly class of public intellectuals, politicians and religious leaders often rid us of our cognitive dissonance and take away our temporary suffering at the expense of our congruence with reality. Heroine does the same thing for addicts, relieves suffering caused by childhood conditions at the expense of flourishing.

Successful leaders play in the realm of cognitive dissonance, they delight in it as a child does. If two or more people in organization with each other hold different views of the work to be done a conflict exists. This conflict is not resolved by doing what many organizations do and treat the symptoms; arguments, inappropriate behaviour etc. Reprimands are handed out, letters are put on files, disciplinary action is taken and no conflict is actually resolved it simply goes underground. These organizations simply play symptom wack-a-mole. Real leaders get to the heart of the matter and engage in conflict the way a toddler would; with extreme curiosity and inquiry. What occurs as a result is organizational learning. I believe this is why organizations that engage in play, humour, and fun at work tend to be higher performing by most metrics.

Conclusion

Successful organizations in the future will be those that find ways to eliminate coercive power structures, treat people as the ends and not the means, eliminate the imposition of rules, engage in radical honesty, create cultures of autonomy that increase the aggregate organizational intelligence, stimulate moral development, increase liberty and create environments of trust and engagement. You can be the fractal that changes the world. Start by looking in the mirror and engaging in practices that bring you into integrity and virtue otherwise known as alignment with reality. All systems are self-organizing and change always starts with the self.