Thursday, July 17, 2008

It's Cool in the Pool (Column)

I have a headache. Not a bad one. Just a slight dull pushing against my brain. I should tell you I virtually never get headaches.

I had an epiphany today. I've been in Johannesburg 2 weeks short of a year. It's been an interesting year. I came to Johannesburg with high hopes, and fears, and I've had both exceeded by some margin. A highlight this year was my trip to Seoul, and publishing a story shortly afterward in Financial Mail. A lowlight was publishing nothing else on the trip, not for a lack of trying, but certainly from a lack of manners from some individuals. Anyway. Epiphanies. I've been getting a few of those lately. I still need to transcribe a dream I had, well, a series of nightmarish scenes really. Today, trawling through all the news I'm more convinced than ever that not only must the world change, I need to make some radical and immediate changes.

This evening I was swimming at Melrose Arch and could feel the water tugging at the hair on my chinny chin chin. It's grown quite long, despite a trim this morning. That ever so slight gnawing made me think about all those little things that are gnawing... Things we ought to be paying attention to... At one point in the water, I had an existential moment (something I'm famous for if you know me well enough). I was looking at the water, trying to see the water. Not the light bouncing off it, or the sides of the pool swinging through the surface...I wanted to see, to be aware of the essence of what water is. It took me a few moments to come down to the level of the water, and follow a bubble, noticing its shape, the speed of its movement. I also watched how the water curled around the plastic lane doughnuts. I got a sense of the turgidity of water. It's thinner than jelly, and thicker than petrol or vinegar. And quite clear. I tried to get a sense of the water through my body, but I could only feel the currents touching some parts. I watched the water move.

You might think this a ridiculous exercise, except that it is in these moments, and in daydreams, that we fall into a recognition of what life is, and what those patterns really represent. We can only do this by paying attention to the moment, being alert to our surroundings. We're not.

Some of the things I am doing is carrying those material grocery bags with me wherever I go, to avoid using up plastic. And drinking more water rather than anything from a can. And exercising. Bizarrely since I've been exercising harder I've actually put on a few kilograms. I'm now 87kg. I'll be going outside on Friday morning early to take on that challenge. Some of the things I'm not going to do is run after people who have lost their manners, who are quick to defend their own egos but slow and lazy and full of excuses in everything else. It's wasted time. It's energy inefficient.

I remember when I was at school (and I was alternately one of the most popular and balanced kids for a few years and one of the most unpopular and unbalanced kids in my class - also for a stretch) - and at school I was imbued with a sense of basic justice. That if you treat others a certain way, I felt that they will in turn treat you in a similar fashion. To the extent that you respect others, they will respect you. No, life doesn't work like that. People respect people based on levels of authority, power, attractiveness, what they think they can get and just ordinary perception. Very little of that respect is based on reality. It's not fair, it's just the way it is. So when you appeal to other's sense of fairness, they may well accuse you of whining. Let me assure you though that where the markets are going is fair. Fair, by the way, is connected to reality. So when you appeal to someone to treat you fairly, with manners, you're actually just saying, "I'm a human being, so are you, here we are together in the world. can you see that?" You can generally expect an answer that goes something like this: "Why should I?" (Why should I see that we are both equals in the scheme of things, equals in a world at this point in time. ) The market has got nothing to do with how attractive you, or your car or house is, or the authority you hold in your job, or your perception of reality. It's the market really moving along what is a fair level, also known as equilibrium. So whatever the bullshit invested in schemes, the market can't be manipulated. People like to bullshit each other into getting/having what they want. Even if it has nothing to do with reality (in other words, what is fair). It will turn out that it pays to be fair, it pays to give people their due not because of how it looks, or seems, or feels, but because of the way it is. I expect to hear a lot of whining as people lose everything. They will wail: "It's not fair." Actually, it is. It always fucking was.

There is also other stuff. I see people around me who think if they just work harder, if they simply do more, things will somehow be okay. To some extent I've been doing that too. For example I did 4 drafts for a publication -something I never do- and then today saw the editor (who didn't get back to me on any of the drafts provided) had just recycled a story from an overseas publication. Very easy, the lazy editors approach. He doesn't have to check spelling, or go back and forth on emails, or invest himself, or even care - just copy over the story. He emailed me to say he was 'under no obligation' to publish the story, but welcomed the fact that I tried, and encouraged me to try, try again. No that's something I have brought up for some time. Manners. Very few people have them. We think nothing of interrupting someone by answering our phones (preferring a virtual conversation to a real one). The convenience lifestyle makes people expendable to what is convenient for us. My friends, in the world to come, we will rely on the goodness of others for our very existence. More simply put, our lives will depend on the extent that those around us have manners (that is, a sense of decency about them, the ability to value a human being for being a human being, in essence, the ability to be real about our common human existence). Scary thought: very few people are capable of this. Very few.

I started studying a BSC QS(Quanity Surveying) at university. I struggled to know what i wantedto do because even when I was at university, the world (the way it was configured) made liuttle sense to me. It seemed that the more successful you were, the more obviously you were an asshole and a bullshitter (with some exceptions). But in terms of my initial foray into building, I looked at the stuff we were building. Shopping malls and highways. It wasn't easy to have a romantic sense of loving the mission that is building. Because we haven't been building or deisnging environements that make sense, that we're in love with. We've been instead designing car-based environments. Drrive-thru restaurants, parking lots etc. There is no future in suburbia. I think Quantity Surveyors and builders made a fortune over the last decade (in South Africa especially). Many of those guys are going to go bankrupt because they invested heavily in projects that - we now know - have no future. Some of them have had to pull out of 2010 projects. The future will be about downscaling. There will be very little building in the future, just some renovating, and re-engineering of what already exists. I also studied law, and at the time, South Africa was still invested in an Apartheid system. The law seemed like a joke at the time, and as it turns out, it still is. In the end I studied economics. It proved to be a good decision, not in the sense that I have learned how to get rich, but in the sense that I have been able to understand the governing mechanisms in the market.

I always held contrarian views. What if...? So when we started globalisation, I said: what if systems start to collapse? That will mean instead of just one country going bankrupt, all will? Of course, nobody listened because everyone wanted more, bigger, faster. I began to notice also that if everyone had the same ideas, if everyone was doing the same thing, it meant someone wasn't thinking. It was easy to maintain a contrarian view because I travelled around the world, and moved in and out of many relationships, meaning I was constantly free to learn and explore and find my own truth (and that's what I wanted) rather than have to patronise a partner, or an ideology. You have no idea how loyalties to family, friends and communities bind us to a way of thinking that we probably wouldn't otherwise justify. We believe we what believe because of our investments in those beliefs, even if it's clear both the beliefs and the investments are worthless. Interesting, but in some ways understandable.

Even with religion, I asked, so if the unforgivable sin is to 'blaspheme the Holy Spirit', what if I have committed it? And when we pray to God, do we change God's heart, or ours? I realised that when we pray, we change ourselves, and this is how God works in us (which means we don't really need God, just the idea - the hypothesis - of Him). And blaspheming the Holy Spirit is really about not thinking, not questioning, maintaining an insecure fear of God. Anything, when you think about it, can be called blasphemy. Any contrarian view. And people who don't like me have called me arrogant, those who do like me, say I am healthily confident. My point is critical thinking is vital. In Highschool we were given a Higher Grade Maths exam. Two students answered a particularly tough equation correctly. One of the A students, and me (and in high school I paid very little attention to mathematics despite having some aptitude). The equation asked you to prove that X=1 and X=0. It is an appropriate analogy for my point. There is an exception to every rule, and what if that exception applies? What if the worst case scenario is the next case scenario? For as long as we accept x=1 but deny x can also equal zero, we attract the latter possibility by loading and unbalancing the equation via our behaviours. And nature's business is to balance the books.

In the Bible, Old Testament, as a child, I couldn't believe how the Israelites wanted to go back to Egypt after God had done so much. How could they doubt God after all the stuff he'd done (the abundance of reality) How could people be so slow to learn their lessons? I prayed I would never be like that.

It's interesting to read in the Sunday Times, for example, all this commentary now on oil, or related to it. Some of these same people were just a few months ago laughing it off, calling talk about high oil prices etc. alarmist, doomsday, depressing, the usual. Now that there's money to be made in stating the obvious, well, now it's their bread and butter and they're all experts.

I anticipated that I might get a few phone calls from people I discussed oil issues with. You know, when I was saying way back in 2006 that $100 was imminent and we needed to prepare. I was preaching that gospel to my economics classes. It's interesting that in all the cases where I've had to defend myself legally (through the CCMA and whatnot) I've won. So I think I have a handle on what is fair and rational. I must also admit that I've been wrong about a few things too. Christianity for one. I was a fundamentalist Christian for a while, and then, for a while, an ardent atheist. Both were not quite the right take on reality. I was also wrong on y2k. On energy issues, I've been closer to the mark. Like Kunstler, some might call me alarmist. I wonder what word describes the news that was on the wires just today. Really. I wonder if there is a word other than alarming. The problem though isn't that I am alarmist, or that I am setting off alarms. The problem is most people are still fucking sleeping. Even now. What do they expect, that this is all somehow going to carry on? That they will just keep going to work and picking up a salary cheque each month? Koo koo. Can somebody please get a wake up call?

I look to the future and I see a lot of change coming. I'm lucky. My family has a farm. I've considered doing a show called Free State Survivor (in the next 24 months, when the residue of the past still makes sense for a while). We can study how a group of people can survive off the land on our land. We have a river, we have some wildlife. The soil is pretty kak, but it can produce the odd mielie. I suppose we could have a bit of fun, play kleilat and develop a MTB track. I was thinking that in the future, in the middle of the Long Emergency, I might teach philosophy. Seriously I don't know if people really know how to be people, how to be civilised. I don't know if they know how to function, how to be alive. Really, I don't. In Korea I taught some adults (doctors and so on) English and philosophy and lives did change. I wonder whether in times to come whether people will recognise my efforts to evangelise the world (well, fragments of it) on the Peak Oil conundrum. That said, I can think of over a dozen people who would be (and are interested). I'm lucky to still be in contact with Jim Kunstler. We exchange very brief emails from time to time. He has been a terrific mentor.
So what I would teach, and share? It would be more philosophical. Even existential. It would be about how to live, how to share, how to care about another person in a way that brings out the best in them and you. What works. I don't think our society ever cracked that. We ended up worshipping the beautiful and the rich, and an idealogy that anything was possible with no effort. Something for nothing. I'd like to inculcate a sense of valuing the human being, any person, whether a beggar or beauty queen. And celebrate our common human-ness. Of course, right now, human beings are so fucked up, I don't mind waiting a while before we start learning to value ourselves. We first have to separate the wheat from the chaff, and there's a lot of chaff.

It does strike me as somewhat blasphemous, this sudden surge I'm seeing...these layabouts who contradict themselves by suddenly paying attention and writing about oil. Unfortunately, virtually no one who is writing about oil knows what they are talking about, so it is yet another mess. It's a case of seeing the trees but having no idea about what the forest is doing, and how one forest has a bearing on all the others.

The epiphany I had was that it is also inefficient for someone like me to continue to approach people - people who think/believe they know better and don't. I have offered to write on oil a few times(I somehow thought I'd be approached at some point, a foolish notion no doubt). For Financial Mail for example, I suggested I do a piece for them to follow on something they did and they said they they already have a resident expert. It makes me think of the production guy at GM who said they were building SUV's because no one could have foretold $140 oil. Some guys were. I wonder when the guys at Financial Mail (and any other publication that asserts itself as 'expert in economics') took the great gamble of publishing the words 'Peak Oil'. I can tell you now, right now, some publications are still shit scared to utter those words lest they attract mockery from their peers. Gasp: what if we're wrong.'ve been wrong all along guys. Some guys were making documentaries about Peak Oil titled THE END OF SUBURBIA. I think that came out in 2005 or 2006. Just the title ought to make a carmaker think twice about building a car. I mean, what allows suburbia even to function, if not a car?

Remember I wrote that I drafted four articles and then this guy pulled a piece from an overseas publication? It makes no sense to continue to offer someone like that anything in future. You have to find out how you are banging your head against a brick wall and stop doing that. I am not saying find excuses not to try. By all means, put in an effort, but also, be quick and critical about what's not working. Become efficient in how you live your life. Stop doing what's not working. Look carefully at how you're sleeping, and what you're habitually doing.

I firmly believe that people who are now between the age of 30 and 40 stand the best chance of emerging in fairly good nick out of the times to come. We will need our wits, we will need to be spiritually strong, physically strong, mentally healthy, and mature. It is better to not be married or encumbered with children right now, because there will be a fight, a battle, in all the areas I've just mentioned. Do you want to lose your house and have a family to worry about (feeding and sheltering and protecting). We face a time where manners will mean the difference between life and death for some of us, and this is me encouraging y'all to learn some for those dark days in store. We'll be needing them as much as we need each other. And those without, we may feel we can do without.

1 comment:

Deborah said...

Howzit Nick
I really enjoyed this piece of writing. To me it sounds like the experience you had in the pool was the essence of Zen, really being in the moments to the point that the rest of life makes sense. You are so right about manners, they will be the making and breaking of our future. Great job!!!