09 June 2022

The important issues

For perspective, I think the most important issues in the world are:

  1. Ensuring the material sustainability of human civilization is more important than everything else put together. This includes not just climate change but also resource exhaustion, ecosystem breakdown, nuclear & biotech weapons, and so forth.
  2. Global poverty is more important than the sum of everything other than the the material sustainability of human civilization. About a billion human beings will go to bed hungry tonight. About another billion are poor enough that they do not have shoes. The next billion are not doing so great, either: they suffer with easily preventable diseases, backbreaking substistance labor, and other fundamental privations.

I cannot name the #3 problem in the world; the next tier has several problems which are tough to rank:

  • Millions live in slavery
  • We have ongoing slow genocides and outbreaks of acute genocide
  • Billions live under authoritarian states, and the liberal democracies all have authoritarian movements growing in strength
  • Preventable diseases — easily preventable, even trivially preventable — kill millions each year, and severely disable millions more
  • We have constant bloody wars

We should be working harder on the big problems.

My contribution is not necessarily special, but I really should be working harder on this stuff. Partly this is my own failure. Partly this results from living in a society in which one must kick & scratch hard to get to work on the big problems. Which is itself a big problem.

I was moved to post this because I was just asked, “Do you feel that you, your interests or your community are represented in the media? Why or why not? What do you wish people knew?” That is not quite the same question, but obviously it is related. My answer to that was:

  1. The climate crisis and general breakdown of the material sustainability of human civilization is not just the most important thing, it is more important than everything else put together. On the one hand, I am frustrated that this is not central to all news & political reporting; on the other hand, everything to say has been said. That this is barely reflected at all in news & political media is maddening.
  2. The threat of fascism and the broader far right as a driving force in US politics — both in our political culture and in its hold on political institutions — is not just the most important political story in the US, it is more important than every other political story put together. In this instance there is a lot left to say, including that every political story need to be informed by this ongoing issue.
  3. The US is in the grip of institutional breakdown across all institutions, public and private, with decades-deep taproots. Few Americans can name this pervasive problem, and many cannot even conceive of effective institutions. This underlying problem drives both our inability to address the climate crisis and also our susceptibility to the anti-politics transformative fantasies of the far right.
  4. The ongoing crises above produce and are supported by a failure of American political and policy imagination. Without the ability to imagine big changes to make things better, we cannot address their challenges. Political media — especially accessible progressive political media — need to put big ideas on the table as plausible to consider and to enact.
  5. All of these connect to the issue on which I am an obsessed crank: the built environment of American life created through decades of suburbanizing housing and transit policy making the material fundamentals of living resource-intensive, expensive, soul-deadening, and corrosive of social cohesion. Most Americans cannot imagine the world with less economic and logistical pressure and stronger communities which we could have that also dramatically reduces pressures on the climate and ecosystems.

04 June 2022

Social wisdom classics

Mostly from the internet, a bunch of good vocabulary for thinking about how people communicate and work together.

Five Geek Social Fallacies

  1. Ostracizers are evil
  2. Friends accept me as I am
  3. Friendship before all
  4. Friendship is transitive
  5. Friends do everything together

Ring theory

  • The “Ring Theory” suggests that, in a crisis, we sit at the center of a set of social rings.
  • When we face a crisis, the people closest to the crisis would fit around us in the first ring, and others fill outer rings the further they are from the crisis.
  • The person in the center ring, and inner rings, can complain about the crisis to those in outer rings, but those in outer rings should offer only comfort and support to those in inner rings.

Ask culture vs Guess culture

In some families, you grow up with the expectation that it's OK to ask for anything at all, but you gotta realize you might get no for an answer. This is Ask Culture.

In Guess Culture, you avoid putting a request into words unless you’re pretty sure the answer will be yes. Guess Culture depends on a tight net of shared expectations. A key skill is putting out delicate feelers. If you do this with enough subtlety, you won’t even have to make the request directly; you’ll get an offer. Even then, the offer may be genuine or pro forma; it takes yet more skill and delicacy to discern whether you should accept.

All kinds of problems spring up around the edges. If you’re a Guess Culture person — and you obviously are — then unwelcome requests from Ask Culture people seem presumptuous and out of line, and you’re likely to feel angry, uncomfortable, and manipulated.

If you’re an Ask Culture person, Guess Culture behavior can seem incomprehensible, inconsistent, and rife with passive aggression.

Ask vs Guess is a particularly vivid example of different cultural meta-communication styles in action. I recommend Deborah Tannen’s pop books about language & metacommunication not just for being good on the subject but as some of the books I most recommend, period: That’s Not What I Meant! introduces the subject in general and her book You Just Don’t Understand is very instructive on gendered communication patterns and their breakdowns, a not-evil not-sexist version of Men Are From Mars, Women Are From Venus. I have a long Twitter thread mostly about gendered breakdowns in meta-communication. I also very strongly recommend the book Black And White Styles In Conflict about communication breakdowns which emerge from different styles in Black vs white meta-communcation which is powerful but also heartbreaking if one has any engagement in anti-racist work.

The Tyranny Of Structurelessness

Contrary to what we would like to believe, there is no such thing as a structureless group. Any group of people of whatever nature that comes together for any length of time for any purpose will inevitably structure itself in some fashion. The structure may be flexible; it may vary over time; it may evenly or unevenly distribute tasks, power and resources over the members of the group. But it will be formed regardless of the abilities, personalities, or intentions of the people involved. The very fact that we are individuals, with different talents, predispositions, and backgrounds makes this inevitable. Only if we refused to relate or interact on any basis whatsoever could we approximate structurelessness — and that is not the nature of a human group.

This means that to strive for a structureless group is as useful, and as deceptive, as to aim at an “objective” news story, “value-free" social science, or a “free” economy. A “laissez faire” group is about as realistic as a “laissez faire” society; the idea becomes a smokescreen for the strong or the lucky to establish unquestioned hegemony over others. This hegemony can be so easily established because the idea of “structurelessness" does not prevent the formation of informal structures, only formal ones.

The Missing Stair

Have you ever been in a house that had something just egregiously wrong with it? Something massively unsafe and uncomfortable and against code, but everyone in the house had been there a long time and was used to it? “Oh yeah, I almost forgot to tell you, there's a missing step on the unlit staircase with no railings. But it’s okay because we all just remember to jump over it.”

Some people are like that missing stair.

Being a systems (over)thinker

From John Cutler:

Some things I’ve learned over the years as a Systems (Over)Thinker
  1. Take care of yourself. Your brain is working overtime—all the time. Practice “radical” recovery
  2. You may spend a lot longer thinking about things than most people. Pace your delivery
  3. If you go deep first, and then simplify…keep in mind that you don’t need to show all of your work
  4. Your default description of (almost) any problem will be too threatening/overwhelming
  5. Do your deepest thinking with co-conspirators (not the people you’re trying to influence)
  6. Informal influence is often not formally recognized. Prepare mentally for this
  7. The people you’re trying to influence spend 98% of their day overwhelmed by business as usual
  8. Remember to also do the job you were hired to do (if you don’t you’ll be easier to discount)
  9. Seek “quick wins”, but know that most meaningful things will take a while
  10. Some things take ages to materialize. It is discontinuous, not continuous
  11. Make sure to celebrate your wins. They will be few and far between, so savor the moment
  12. The people who support you in private may not be able to support you in public. Accept that
  13. Hack existing power structures—it’s much easier than trying to change them
  14. Consider becoming a formal leader. It’s harder in many ways, but you’ll have more leverage. What’s stopping you?
  15. In lieu of being a formal leader, make sure to partner with people who actually “own” the area of change
  16. Watch out for imposing your worldview on people. Have you asked about what people care about?
  17. You’ll need a support network. And not just a venting network. Real support
  18. “Know when to fold ‘em”. Listen to Kenny Rogers The Gambler. Leave on your own terms
  19. Don’t confuse being able to sense/see system dynamics, with being about to “control” them. You can’t
  20. Grapple with your demons, and make sure not to wrap up too much of your identity in change

01 June 2022


In understanding the US right, one must grapple with Christian Dominionism. Political Research Associates have a good overview of the state of play as of 2016, Domininism Rising, which provides a good overview if the movement is new to you.

Dominionism Defined

Dominionism is the theocratic idea that regardless of theological view, means, or timetable, Christians are called by God to exercise dominion over every aspect of society by taking control of political and cultural institutions.

Analyst Chip Berlet and I have suggested that there is a dominionist spectrum running from soft to hard as a way of making some broad distinctions among dominionists without getting mired in theological minutiae.106 But we also agree that:
  1. Dominionists celebrate Christian nationalism, in that they believe that the United States once was, and should once again be, a Christian nation. In this way, they deny the Enlightenment roots of American democracy. Dominionists promote religious supremacy, insofar as they generally do not respect the equality of other religions, or even other versions of Christianity.
  2. Dominionists endorse theocratic visions, insofar as they believe that the Ten Commandments, or “biblical law,” should be the foundation of American law, and that the U.S. Constitution should be seen as a vehicle for implementing biblical principles.
  3. Of course, Christian nationalism takes a distinct form in the United States, but dominionism in all of its variants has a vision for all nations.