Control, mediation and guidance systems

The Great Acceleration has been a time of unprecedented human impact on the environment. Brian Swimme and Thomas Berry (1992, 4) wrote that ‘the human has taken over such extensive control of the life systems of the Earth that the future will be dependent on human decision to an extent never dreamed of in previous times.’ But this is a strange kind of “control” …

This is part of a 4-part meditation on control and mediation in the ‘System Guidance’ part of Turning Signs. It updates some older post-points to include some things i’ve learned since they were originally posted. It might take you 10 or 15 minutes to take it all in. Comments always welcome of course!


Remembrance Day, as we call it in Canada, is intended mainly for honoring the veterans of what we call the “World Wars.” To observe it properly, we ought to see those wars in their context – which is also the context of the 26th UN Climate Change Conference of the Parties (COP26) now winding up (or down) in Glasgow. To give us a glimpse of it, George Monbiot “crudely summarized” the story of the past 500 years in his blog post yesterday. That history has brought us to the ecological, economic, energy and equity crises we face today, and living through them will be a far greater challenge than living through those wars, devastating as they were. We have less than a decade to turn that story around.

There’s another kind of remembrance that we ought to engage in every day. In Turning Signs i call it mindfulness.

We who live in the “wealthy nations” don’t have all the time in the world to mend our unjust and ruinous ways. But we have all the world in the time, if we live it mindfully.

In essence, all things in the entire world are linked with one another as moments. Because all moments are the time being, they are your time being.

— Dogen, “Uji


Another excerpt from Breaking Boundaries:

In our global intertwined system of 7.8 billion inhabitants living within a complex biosphere, the best way to change course is to alter the lens through which those people in the system view the world.”

Carl Folke: “We must reconnect with the biosphere: the living part of the planet.”

“This may seem obvious. It is like saying, ‘Hey, guys, remember, we live on a planet and we depend on it being stable.’ As if we had forgotten. But when you step back a bit – while driving down asphalt roads surrounded by concrete, steel, and glass, on your way to the shopping mall, to fill up on basic goods like food, and materials for shelter, safety, and comfort – you must admit that, yes, most of us have disconnected from the planet. A slow, silent, but all­-encompassing disconnect. We take our planet for granted, at least its stability.” [Breaking Boundaries, p. 110]

Viewing the world at every scale, without taking it for granted, refreshing our view of the time and place we inhabit, is the kind of meditative practice we need in order to “change course.” It’s also an essential practice for philosophers, who are perpetual beginners.

That link takes us to the beginning of the reverse side of Turning Signs, which is also “under refreshment.” The current (2nd) edition of Turning Signs, like the current (3rd) edition of the Oxford English Dictionary, is frequently updated online. In addition to some of the points in TS ·1, i’ve updated my introduction to phenoscopy (my name for the practice of “stepping back” to refresh our perceptions). It’s now also an introduction (or “presign”) to Turning Signs online. I’ll be giving links to other updates in future blog posts.

review: Power

Richard Heinberg has been researching the central role of energy in civilization for years, and shown how the human addiction to oil has brought us to an unprecedented crisis. His new book gives us a longer and broader perspective on the deeper addiction to power in its physical and social forms. He draws upon insights from biology and anthropology to tell the story of the evolution of power, from the beginnings of life on earth through the development of social hierarchies up to the present, in a very accessible way.

The book’s subtitle is “Limits and prospects for human survival”, and he does explain the radical changes in human habits and systems which must be made in this decade if we are to salvage our planetary life support system along with the better qualities of our collapsing civilization. But given the history of how this situation has evolved, it’s difficult to be honestly optimistic about our prospects. Heinberg’s view is more realistic, for instance in this excerpt from the final chapter:

“There can be no perfect, stable society. Imbalance and impermanence are baked into biological existence. But we are in a particularly explosive moment now. History shows that overconcentrations of physical, economic, military, and political power create instability, and, in the past few decades, humanity has found ways to build and concentrate these kinds of power as never before. The strong likelihood is that we are headed toward what economists glibly call a ‘correction,’ though not just in stock market values but also in population and consumption levels. If we hope to minimize the shock and casualties, we will need to mobilize cooperation and behavior change, aiming to limit our own collective power at a speed and scale that are unprecedented.” [p. 356-7]

This is not a feel-good book, but it is a live-well book that everyone can learn something from.

Breaking Boundaries

Time is running out. The decade we have just stepped into – the roaring 2020s – will be decisive for humanity. It is the moment to catalyze the most remarkable transition in history to become effective stewards of Earth. The scale of the challenge is immense. In the same way that the 1960s had the moonshot, the 2020s has the Earthshot. The goal of the Earthshot is nothing less than stabilizing our planet’s life-support system. But compared with landing men on the moon, the stakes are far higher.

Johan Rockström and Owen Gaffney (2021, p.13)

This quotation is from Breaking Boundaries: The Science of Our Planet (published by DK/Penguin Random House). Netflix is currently featuring two documentary productions based on the work of these authors and their colleagues. One has the same title as the book, and can be viewed at The other is an 8-part series. Both are highly recommended and feature narration by David Attenborough. The book, of course, gives much more detailed information about the boundaries we are breaking – global heating is only one of nine – and how we could still stabilize the planet’s life-support systems, if we took the trouble to do so.

Turning points?

Yesterday was Canada Day, but few of us felt like celebrating, after the discovery that hundreds (probably thousands) of Indigenous children lie buried in unmarked graves near the residential schools where they died. We had heard the stories told by survivors of the horrors of those government-sanctioned institutions, but this was even worse. Will this cause Canada as a whole to recognize the systemic racism that has plagued our history right up to the present, and to make an honest effort to eradicate it? Time will tell.

Time is already telling the horror story of global heating. Hundreds have died in the past week under the heat dome in Western Canada, where a town in British Columbia hit the highest temperature ever recorded in Canada, just under 50 C. (over 120 Fahrenheit). Now the same town has been almost wiped out by one of the forest fires raging in the region. Will this convince Canadians that climate change is a real emergency? Parliament has just passed Canada’s Net-Zero Climate Accountability Act (Bill C-12), which finally sets some near-term targets for curbing greenhouse gas emissions, and even includes provisions for monitoring and enforcement, so that could be seen as a turning point. But that point should have been reached decades ago, here and elsewhere, so it’s hard not to feel that this progress is too little, too late.

Meanwhile on Manitoulin Island we’ve had an unusually cool June; yesterday’s high was about 19 C. Normal weather patterns are being disrupted in all directions. Even closer to home, my blog posting has been interrupted by another writing project (for publication elsewhere). Now I’m back to revision toward a 2nd edition of Turning Signs, and have now finished (or refinished) Chapter 16. Does it contribute anything to the the global transformation I’ve been blogging about for years now? I think it does, but only for readers who can relate it to their experience, and especially to their practice of living this time, which is the subject of the chapter.

I can’t resist copying here a couple of quotes from near the end of the chapter. One is by C.S. Peirce, about the “spiritual reality” of a human:

by action, through thought, he grows an esthetic ideal, not for the behoof of his own poor noddle merely, but as the share which God permits him to have in the work of creation.

Peirce, CP 5.402n

For me at least, this “esthetic ideal” is not some static image that one aims to achieve in the future, but a way of living the time now into the future. Eihei Dogen comes as close to expressing it in words as anything I’ve come across:

A buddha’s practice is to practice in the same manner as the entire earth and all beings. If it is not practice with all beings, it is not a buddha’s practice. This being so, from the moment of arousing the aspiration for enlightenment to the moment of attaining enlightenment, all buddhas realize and practice the way together with the entire earth and all beings.

Dogen, SBGZ ‘Yuibutsu yobutsu’ (Tanahashi 2010, 880-1)

So is this moment a turning point? Yes, but not a discontinuity in what Dogen calls continuous practice. The earth and all beings continue to turn.

Swimming through uncertainty

The principle of continuity is the idea of fallibilism objectified. For fallibilism is the doctrine that our knowledge is never absolute but always swims, as it were, in a continuum of uncertainty and of indeterminacy. Now the doctrine of continuity is that all things so swim in continua.

C. S. Peirce, CP 1.171 (c. 1897)

Chapter 13 of Turning Signs (the netbook), on meaning spaces, has now been revamped for the 2nd edition. Now included is a sketch of Peirce’s Existential Graph system, which illustrates one of the paradoxes of inquiry: in order to learn how a whole system works, we usually have to analyze it and study how its parts are related.

Peirce did this with the continuous thought process, and his graph system was his favorite method of analysis. He did not limit himself to the human thought process, but tried to model the thought process of any being capable of learning by experience – even the “thought” of Nature herself. (What do those quotation marks around “thought” mean? The newly revised chapter delves into that as well.) Anyway, i hope it helps to give some fallible inkling of why we’re all swimming in a continuum of indeterminacy.