Interview: Straight Talk With Independent Journalist, Charles Hugh Smith, Part 2
Charles Hugh Smith explains why the status quo is unsustainable in answers to questions submitted by readers.
Charles Hugh Smith has been an independent journalist for 22 years. His weblog, www.oftwominds.com, is a daily compendium of observations and analysis on the global economy and financial markets, as well as notable political, social and cultural trends. Charles has authored a number of books across several genres, including the recent "Survival+: Structuring Prosperity for Yourself and the Nation."
6. In your book Survival+, you outline strategies concerned individuals can pursue to prepare for a tumultuous future. Can you summarize the key elements of your guidance for those yet to read the book?
Charles Hugh Smith: The basic ideas are simple: The political, financial, and resource structures of the status quo are unsustainable, and so dependence on the Savior State is not a viable survival strategy. The "new" model is actually an "old" model that has atrophied and been lost: self-reliance, resilience, reciprocity and transparent, opt-in organizations with clear lines of accountability.
I spend two-thirds of the book on the critique because I thought it was essential to explain the powerful yet subtle layers of our social conditioning that resist this sort of fundamental transformation: permanent adolescence, the growth of the Global Empire as part of the national identity, the substitution of consumption for productive work, the surrender of autonomy in favor of over-reliance on the Savior State, and the conquest of our politics of experience by marketing and propaganda.
This sort of "soft" conceptual analysis is alien in a culture that is so reliant on quantifying everything, and that is part of the crisis we face.
To give a real-world example: About one-third of the US citizenry is obese and unfit. Extrapolate these trends even a few years and we're told fully half the populace will be at risk of diabetes. The consequences of this are horrific for individuals and society alike.
We know these trends are not good for us, but the majority of people find maintaining their weight and fitness to be essentially impossible tasks. While we are culturally conditioned to blame our own weaknesses for any deficiency in our response, I think social conditioning is the key factor. An economy/society dominated by marketing, instant gratification, and a desperate (and highly manufactured) yearning for self-glorification is not a healthy society, and the illness of that society manifests itself in poor mental and physical health.
In effect, our society makes us ill if we "buy into" the marketing and political/financial fantasies.
We can't really fashion self-reliance and a new parallel way of productive living if we're trapped in an interlocking mess of destructive social conditioning.
The Survival+ approach is an intrinsically hopeful one, because I know it is possible to free ourselves of the social conditioning that leads to ill-health, and to live on a small percentage of the energy we currently consume.
For skeptics who say this is "impossible," then I turn to the developing world for examples. People in productive, stable societies live quite nicely on a fraction of the energy we consume. The American lifestyle is not inevitable.
7. Every period of history feels unique and special to its inhabitants. Looking back through time, the sorry excesses of empire, maintenance of the status quo by the elites, and financial folly are quite commonplace. What, if anything, actually makes this period of time, troubling as it is, unique or different in the human experience?
CHS: Clearly, Peak Everything and a very fragile system of global supply chains upon which industrial societies are totally dependent are two unique characteristics. All the efficiencies of these global supply chains are based on cheap, abundant oil and political stability. These two requirements are interconnected, of course; when the US finally stopped shipping oil to Japan in 1940, then the Japanese Empire had no choice but to launch a war of conquest aimed at resources such as Indonesian oil.
As political stability and these long supply chains devolve, then nation-states will increasingly have no choice but to expropriate resources nominally owned by corporations located 6,000 miles away. Once the supply chains are broken, then the dependent structures will have to adapt. Those that can't or won't will collapse.
Information itself is a supply chain which is exquisitely vulnerable to disruption.
The other unique factor is the proliferation of disruptive weapons, not just nuclear but biological and cyber weapons. China has every intention of "winning" any potential conflict with the US by disrupting the US military, society and economy via cyber-attacks on our infrastructure and communications. That ability to disrupt an entire nation via fiber-optic cables is new.
On the positive side, we as a species have never had such ubiquitous access to information, and to a global ability to fashion our own networks of sharing and cooperation. It is easier now than ever before to share what "works" and how it "works" in specific situations.
The potential for open-source, transparent, scalable structures which operate in parallel with nation-states and global cartels is new. In the past, only nation-states and global corporations had the resources to establish these sorts of networks, and they were operated for the express benefit of the Elites at the top of the State and corporations.
What's also new is the widespread access to very powerful technologies. Computers and networks were once only accessible to small circles of specialists. Setting up supply chains or manufacturing were so capital-intensive that only a few organizations could afford to do so. This is still true for certain things such as computer processors, but a wide range of other productive work is now available to a much larger pool of humanity.
Innovative, appropriately scaled, and sustainable technologies are not new, but global access to them is new.
8. What formative experiences in your life led you to create a blog like OfTwoMinds.com? What are your goals for the site?
CHS: Since I'd been writing about housing and real estate as a freelance journalist for 15 years, it was a natural progression to push the sort of analysis I could never get published in the Mainstream Media onto the Web.
Writing for the public is something that I started in high school and it's manifested in various ways over the years.
In 1969-70 my good friend Colbert and I started an underground newspaper in Lanai High School. The administration assumed it was published by teachers, which was quite a compliment to a couple of 16-year-olds. We printed it on the ILWU's mimeograph machine.
As an activist in the American Friends Service Committee (AFSC) and in our political party (a legal third party) in the 1970s, we had to constantly produce newsletters, leaflets, and campaign material, so the process of communicating ideas and defining positions in writing became familiar.
A close friend and I started a print magazine in Berkeley in 1984 called VoltAge, with a focus on technology and culture. It was horrendously expensive to publish a magazine, and I could only fund one issue. But that experience gave me a taste for eclectic media that combines a variety of topics and perspectives under one roof.
Though I wasn't consciously aware of it, I guess those previous experiences gave me the confidence to see OfTwoMinds.com as a platform for a range of ideas and analysis.
Lofty goals can sound awfully pretentious, but alongside that risk is the notion that big goals can inspire us to great things. I have four goals for OfTwoMinds.com:
- Promote serious journalism on the Web by presenting issues which the Mainstream Media sidesteps, dismisses, or whitewashes.
- Encourage an online role for what was once called "public intellectuals," a category which has atrophied into MSM-approved academic pundits such as Paul Krugman and "entertainer"-type ideologues like Glenn Beck, both of whom parrot simplistic ideologies that are increasingly meaningless.
- Contribute to the ongoing discussion of practical solutions for the interlocking crises we face.
- Construct an integrated understanding of the ideas and issues which interest me and my readers.
And when I can't do any of the above, I try to write something mildly interesting.
9. Many leading econobloggers came to the profession via unorthodox paths, but perhaps none so much as you: philosopher, social activist, freelance writer, musician. What about your idiosyncratic background do your attribute your success?
CHS: How the site has gathered such a smart, world-wise readership has been a mystery, and I think the key ingredients that attract people are the two complementary threads which run though my apparently random interests and careers: an interest in the structure of problems, and a desire for a hands-on, practical grasp of how these structures work in the real world.
In our increasingly specialized world, few people seem to bridge the divide between a conceptual understanding and a practical understanding. All the things which have deeply interested me -- building, urban planning, music, politics, gardening, health, fiction, journalism and financial analysis -- have a conceptual framework that you can learn, but that doesn't mean you can actually build a house, play a chord progression, start a business, write coherently, or make a profitable investment.
As we all know, the real world is messy, contingent, and unpredictable. So actually starting and running a small business that does millions of dollars of business is completely different from a pundit's simplistic view from 30,000 feet. That's one reason why the political class of the US is so divorced from reality; they speak glowingly about "small business" with no appreciation for how difficult it has become to start a real-world enterprise.
Since I know about small business from experience, then it's obvious to me that small business is being strangled and will not be hiring millions of new workers.
We all want a coherent explanation of what's unfolding, and we also want practical suggestions on how to adapt. It's difficult to provide both, and the great thing about having a smart readership is that readers educate me about things I don't have any real-world experience in, such as health care.
So philosophy and hands-on working knowledge act as a sort of yin-yang unity: Both are necessary to understand and navigate the real world.
The basic idea behind philosophy is to think clearly about issues and work from first principles. Even non-linear philosophies such as Taoism have first principles which illuminate and explain the whole.
So my goal in any subject is to establish the first principles or assumptions, and then try to explain how each link in the thesis leads to various conclusions. Rather than accept ideas that are repeated as if they are true, we ask two questions: Exactly how does this argument work, and cui bono -- who benefits if we accept this as true?
That is also the core of good journalism.
But in addition to journalism -- explaining, critiquing, asking questions -- we all want and need practical solutions or pathways. I guess I have always been drawn to a hands-on understanding of how things work, and that is the thread which informs OfTwoMinds.com. I think my readership appreciates that practical working knowledge only comes from long practice and a lot of mistakes and setbacks.
Another way of defining these two complementary threads is to look at both as toolboxes. Ideas such as system analysis and evolution are tools which help illuminate the structure beneath the surface, and practical skills -- breaking down tasks and gaining mastery one step at a time -- give us tools for taking those insights into the real world.
Since I'm very average, and have no connections to wealth or power, I've relied on perseverance and enthusiasm. Maybe that carries over somehow to the blog.
10. What question didn't we ask, but should have? What's your answer?
CHS: One such question might be: What are the foundations of my general optimism about the Great Transformation ahead?
One is the process of evolution has expanded from the genome to culture and technology. All species must adapt or perish, and individuals have to adapt to changing circumstances. At a system level, there are feedback loops, positive and negative, which mean extrapolating the present into the future is not very accurate. New feedback loops can be added, and the value systems of cultures can also adapt.
Self-criticism and honesty are essential to growth and learning. The American political and financial Elites are committed to maintaining the Status Quo at all costs, even to the point we have now reached that reality is replaced by simulacra.
But other elements of the society are actively questioning the Elites and our social conditioning. They are asking what part their own actions play in supporting and enabling the status quo.
Honesty includes expressing anger, frustration, whining, and all the rest of human emotions. The idea that maintaining a veil of secrecy and stiff-upper lip "everything's fine, shut up and keep your head down" will yield positive results is wrong. That leads to discord, distrust, illness and madness.
The greatest strength of America, or any society, organization or individual, is open, honest self-criticism and questioning. We only change when we have no other choice, and to expect the status quo to adapt without fierce resistance is impractical. So rather than waste energy trying to change those structures doomed to collapse or devolution, we're better off establishing our own networks of support, cooperation and sustainability.
An honest appraisal will lead us to challenge all sorts of assumptions we have made about the nature of work, property, the economy, health care, the Central State and much else.
The choices will not always be clear-cut. I will end with a story about my friend Dexter Cate. Dexter was committed to saving dolphins from being slaughtered, and he'd found no official interest in protecting them.
So he swam out alone, at night, in a raging storm, and slashed the nets trapping hundreds of dolphins that were to be killed the next day. He was imprisoned in Japan for destroying "private property," that is, the nets.
We all value property rights, but what was more important, the destruction of private property or the lives of the dolphins? The legal system was clear; the dolphins had no standing compared to the nets. Dexter chose otherwise.
What do we really value? Our answers will inform our choices in the transformation ahead.
Thank you for such thoughtful questions, and I hope I haven't put everyone to sleep in answering them.
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