• Scaling the horror, and stepping through

    by  • February 16, 2011 • Everything Else • 8 Comments

    At times I don’t know who I’m writing for – a few brave readers, and possibly posterity. If we really wind up with very large scale deployments of the technologies I’ve developed – the hexayurt most likely, but possibly CheapID or the more general “State in a Box”/”Simple Critical Infrastructure Maps” models of how to govern in crisis, if some of that goes, perhaps I’m writing for the people who at that time will want to know who build these things and gave them away for free, and why.

    Although I don’t self-consciously censor my childhood, sometimes I’ll mention some detail to a close friend, somebody I’ve known for years, and realize that I haven’t told them who I am. It’s a shock. Words like “survivor” don’t really do it justice. I’m not going to ruin your day with details, but both of my parents were mentally ill, my father severely, and to say that they fell short in duty of care does the situation no justice. By the time I was 10 years old I’d seen several people’s lives in danger from violence, including my own, and the kind of trauma which typically consigns people to marginal lives in and out of mental hospitals, off and on harsh medication, for the rest of their lives.

    I am tough. I started out with an unwillingness to die, a ferocious intelligence and adaptability, which was strained to the utmost by my environment and “caregivers.” I dragged myself through therapy with meditation, went far beyond western psychotherapeutic models, and deep into the terrain of the mysteries of the east looking for my answers and some sense of wholeness.

    I never found it. My life went from being broken because my childhood was a war zone to being broken in western terms because I gave up my right to enjoy the world on its own terms when I joined a lineage which privileged clear, unsentimental understanding of the world above all other modes of experience. It’s very seldom I sit down with a person to talk about the affairs of the day and don’t leave with the feeling that what I see in the world overwhelms them with hopelessness, and all I’m doing is counting the dead and connecting cause and effect.

    I’m not even a pessimist. I just don’t see the quiet people who die nameless in gutters as being any less real than I am or you are. I know they’re real, not in the emotionally overwhelming sense of tears of sorrow, but in the sense of looking at the numbers and imagining these people feel about their lives as I do about mine, and knowing that their subjectivity is much like my own or yours. My body and my mind are different to yours, but I suspect we share exactly the same sense inside of “I am.”

    I am reaching the end of a phase. I went on a quest to understand poverty, to understand why the people were dying of lack, and came back with a five point plan.

    * stop smoking
    * biosand water filters, or better, for all (around $20 per household per year)
    * rocket stoves, or better, for all (as little as $6 per household, fixed cost)
    * sulabh toilet, or better, for all (around $40 per household, fixed cost)
    * farming education where appropriate (see One Acre Fund), $100 per household, paid back in the first year from improved crop output.

    I believe these five measures together, perhaps with a few bonus items like solar lamps and cell phones would more or less end poverty, the state of dying young because you do not have the things you need to live. Yes, health care and dentistry need answers, and there are teams working on these aspects of the problem, but in the very simplest terms, every single human being living on their own resources rather than grid water, power etc. needs to filter their water, cook on wood, have a toilet that works, or they and their children will die decades early.

    It’s not very complicated: water, cooking, toilets. Simple technologies. But to see why this matters, you need to see the people on the other side of the cultural divide, the rich vs. poor bridge, and know that they live in their lives much as you live in yours, with hopes and fears and dreams. All this recent talk of governance, of #thebigdeal and so on is really just by way of asking why isn’t this done, why hasn’t anybody come to help these people?

    Why not?

    Let me show you something a little closer to home: the child sexual abuse statistics. Now there is huge variance in estimates of those numbers depending on methodology, but the “1 in 10″ number comes up as a common middle ground between the “you’ve got to be kidding me” 30% figures, and the “oh really?” 1% figures. We don’t know very much about it, because people don’t talk much, and it’s hard to do surveys. We don’t map effectively, don’t know if there are cultural hot spots, don’t know if there are sinister networks except when some child porn ring gets busted and a couple of hundred people are discovered to have been abusing their kids and trading files online. Researchers in the field often conclude that all but a few percent of mental illness is actually damage caused by child sexual abuse showing up in later life as the inability to cope with the world and emotional brokenness. Again, the number varies, 70 to 90% is the common range of those estimates, but ask yourself this: do we really, as a culture, acknowledge that millions of our kids will be abused? Are we really geared up to detect these abuses, and nail the people doing the abuse? No. We sweep it all under the rug, and the price way pay is a tenth of our population, damaged or crippled when they were children, limping forwards or in and out of expensive psychiatric care. How large is the gap between the proven damage to society from child sexual abuse, and the hysterical persecution of recreational drug users? This is on your doorstep: the people you know who can never get their lives together, who’s emotions seem strained and contaminated… a lot of those people were abused as kids, and they’re not just crazy, they’re wounded in a way nobody is willing to acknowledge or discuss.

    The first time this truth surfaced in a big way was Freud. Freud’s first paper, “On the Aetiology of Hysteria” boldly claimed that hysteria (a catch-all term for mental illness at the time) was caused by sexual abuse, and recall-and-”processing” of those experiences resulted in a cure. You really have to read Freud’s paper – it reads like modern work on post-traumatic stress disorder. Although we can argue about Freud’s crude technique possibly contaminating the data, from what we now know about the prevalence and impact of child sexual abuse it seems likely that Freud had got to the core of the issue. It was a position he could not hold.

    The social backlash was so large that Freud recanted, and reclassified what his patients had told him as fantasy rather than reality. The summary, nearly all mental illness is a result of childhood sexual abuse is not seen as offering hope of cure to those who are mentally ill, but stigmatizing anybody with mental illness (“no, no, it’s an organic brain disorder.”) You have to ask yourself, what is the nature of the rug that we-and-society push this kind of stuff under? There’s a vast, locked container in the psyche where all the unpleasant truth has been pushed, and that place is hell.

    Most mental illness is caused by child abuse. We’re killing tens of thousands of species a year. We’re wrecking the atmosphere. 30% of people who die every year die from poverty. All these truths go into the same mental bucket, the away place leaving us unable to take rational action to minimize the damage we are doing to each-other and to the world in our blindness and ignorance.

    That’s your problem, right there: the away place and the gap between knowledge and action that it produces. That’s what’s wrong with the world.

    What well over 20 years of meditation practice buys is being able to look at all of this and not flinch: the poverty, the genocides of the past and present, the insanity of environmental policy, the barbarism of how we take care of the sick – or ignore them – and the horrors that a substantial number of adults visit upon their children with minimal state intervention to stop the trouble.

    Back in the day we did not know how the world worked outside of our villages and rumors, and occasional kings with an intelligence service, map makers, and a vested interest in knowing. Now instead of being protected from the truth by the limits of our knowledge, most of us are protected by willful ignorance, by being too weak to see what is going on out there and not break, and so turning away.

    My friends, we are turning away too much, turning away from the critical data which would guide us to stop playing along with the charades of our culture while we destroy the world.

    You know this stuff is all lies: money, climate, oil, invasions, all of it. Dropping smart bombs on somebody else’s children in a re-enactment of a war over imaginary sky faeries 900 years ago. The nuclear stock piles. All of it. All lies and distractions, pulling us away from certain basic truths about ourselves and about the world we live in.

    Just stop, for a tenth of a second, and think: “does a single thing I’m doing make any fucking sense in the world that I rationally, intellectually know we live in?”

    And when you stop to ask that question, the answer is a resounding “NO!”

    I don’t know how we’re going to get from here to lives where we can actually say “yes, I can live this way without burying my head in the sands, constantly distracting myself from the consequences of my actions by self-interest and media and casual stimulants.” I don’t know how you sober up a world, sit people down and say “does this make any sense to you? Perhaps we could try this a different way!” I don’t know to avoid disturbing people by asking them these basic questions.

    Break the spell of government. Break the spell of religion. Break the spell of culture. Break the spell of money. Break the spell of compulsory anything and ask yourself a simple question: does this make any sense?

    You don’t have to be enlightened to understand something is very wrong. You know it. I know it. I can’t lead anybody anywhere. I can’t solve this problem by being an ideologue, or a religious teacher. The few people I’ve taken down that path have had their lives changed out of all recognition, and they have not thanked me.

    But I can ask you to ask yourself one question: “does this make any fucking sense?”

    If not, I want you to change your mind about what is real and what is unreal, and what is relevant and important. Purge the dictators and propaganda from your own head, see clearly and rationally.

    The world has enough for everybody’s needs, but nobody’s greed said Gandhi. I want you to think about how we implement the changes necessary to save the world in our own lives without asking for anybody’s permission, without expecting the government to change or help us, and without making it anybody else’s responsibility to change.

    I want to live a 1.0 planet lifestyle, and I don’t want to harm anybody merely by existing. Can we work together, you and I, to make this technically feasible and politically safe for anyone who chooses it?

    Answers on a post card. I don’t know what else to do.

    flattr this!


    Vinay Gupta is a consultant on disaster relief and risk management.


    8 Responses to Scaling the horror, and stepping through

    1. Alice Y.
      February 16, 2011 at 8:20 am

      Well, I think so. There is tech. Joanna Macy’s stuff for example is a great accessible framework for helping people access their distress in a containable form and put it to work illuminating our deep connection with the other people and the more than human world, so we can find actions.
      The practical projects – I think open source hardware specs are a good way to go but they need a lot of work yet. I want to see say twenty households in the developed world living with the (water filter, loo, stove) kit day in day out. That requires a deep engagement with the design specs if we are to treat health and safety as a sensible issue, which comes into political safety. Multiple option kits could be ready to download with materials specs for different climates and bioregions and suggestions about how to source them. Ideas are great but details make things possible.
      Even then there still may be cultural problems in implementation – Water Aid and so on work in a community-centred way for a reason. It’s great to get serious about solving the problems and that requires following through on the solutions. You’ve got good ideas, there are people who would use your help in moving forward, what is missing? Build the systems, live with them to amass data; your video shorts could be worldwide in weeks. Really useful tech walks.

    2. February 16, 2011 at 4:51 pm

      I’m optimistic about your ability to write about change in ways that people can actually hear and use in action.

      Thank you for demonstrating unflinching awareness and for asking good questions.

    3. February 16, 2011 at 6:49 pm

      “I want to live a 1.0 planet lifestyle, and I don’t want to harm anybody merely by existing. Can we work together, you and I, to make this technically feasible and politically safe for anyone who chooses it?”

      So that’s two parallel things.

      One is living 1.0 lifestyles, and I think there’s bound to be a number of such lifestyles. How’s that done by people who are inside a society, most likely a city, most likely living with others? Is it room-swadeshi, like gmoke suggests? An #infrapak that keeps you separate from the rest of the neighbourhood?

      Then there’s the issue of helping to make it possible for many others. That’s work in tech, which is mostly doable, and mostly solved in the theoretical and lab levels, but which may need crisis to become “pandemic”. We can wish for crisis of the mind, but will they happen without crisis of the bodies?

      Camping sites could use the hexayurt and the infrapak. What if going back to town proves to be uncomfortable?

      Now, about the “politically safe” part, I guess it needs to become even more real (for the blind-man’s fingers who breathes the new thing and can’t escape its presence) before the real battle (the one against the solution, and against being part of the solution) begins?

      A real village, a hexayurt settlement close enough to an important city, with music in the streets, is needed by Summer 2011.

    4. Anónima
      February 16, 2011 at 11:17 pm

      [Vinay Gupta] I want you to think about how we implement the changes necessary to save the world in our own lives without asking for anybody’s permission,

      [Anónima] I’ve being trying for some time…

      [Vinay Gupta] without expecting the government to change or help us, and without making it anybody else’s responsibility to change.

      [Anónima] That was a big Christmas discussion with a friend from my University times( now a happy with himself senior executive in a bank)

      He thought smiling to the persons around us was enough. I wasn’t as polite as I should have while I explained to him that some problems need more to be solved than his smile to nearby persons.

      But the point is I don’t think we can do it without some kind of organization. So I don’t want to make it somebody else’s responsability but I think I need other people to share the responsability.

      And I also think that it can’t be done without changing the government, because getting organized to make significant changes in things is getting involved in governing those things. So either we manage to do the things we want and then we have changed the Government because _we become the government_ (which is not exactly waiting for the government to help us). Or the established Government felts threatened and doesn’t want to change and give us a chance to do what we want, and then we have to overthrough it some how.

      So most of my thinking was around how to best get organized to make significant changes in a political system with 2 main parties protected by the electoral laws…

      Another friend from those same University times, but who has being working in a NGO as a green activist all his life, has decided to make a new political party. But I also disagree with his position: in Spain at least I think that is quite useless given the electoral system laws that work hard against small parties.

      Well, I’ll keep thinking for sure, but I can´t guarantee you’ll get a postcard with any useful answer, I’m afraid you’ll only get a smile on it because it’s nice to find people that at least are worried :-)

    5. February 16, 2011 at 11:53 pm

      The moral imperative (if that’s what it is) works for some. Feeling “others beyond our Dunbar number are human” is superhuman.

      Also, looking at so much reality is hard. Most people can only do some of it for brief periods. I find it difficult to imagine a whole civilization doing just that at uneasy times. Or maybe that’s when it is done. No experience, really.

      Which is why personally I’ve more or less decided I’ll stop half-way through my “looking at hard realities” process, and try and push some doable things.

      Partly because contemplation is also not enough. And partly because I don’t want to burn into that kind of fire.

      It’s difficult enough, for those who like a challenge, to try and do what we can to live on 1.0 footprint and help as many others as we can to do the same.

      Actually, not because it’s difficult to do, but because in doing so we need to fight against, or work with, lots of other stuff.

      One sweet spot is http://www.appropedia.org (distributed infrastructure) and businesses around it, for people who already live in poverty, for campers, for preppers, for those escaping violence of all sorts (uneasy families included), etc.

      We need to become able to walk away from this mess. In huge numbers. In a friendly way. Soon.

    6. Alice Y.
      February 17, 2011 at 10:41 am
    7. Lucy W
      February 17, 2011 at 11:42 am

      There is a path through this. It’s facing the pain, of the sexual and emotional damage we may have experienced, and of the full and certain realisation that our whole culture has been based on distraction and avoidance of our inner feelings. The kicker is that deep pain drives behaviours that perpetuate this cycle of abuse and denial as adults. Even worse, the palliative cocoons we are encouraged to create have prevented us from seeing the poverty and misery that so many needlessly live and die early in. I can echo the comments above – and hope that the simple ideas and technologies that you (and others) promote will change this, and fast. In short, keep going.

      “The few people I’ve taken down that path have had their lives changed out of all recognition, and they have not thanked me” They may not thank you to your face, Vinay, but I am certain they, like me, appreciate being literally brought to their senses and given a head start on the wake up call that’s coming.

    8. Amy J
      February 17, 2011 at 10:13 pm

      There’s some kind of comfort in living with blinkers to the worst of things? Some people really can’t look at it seems to me, just too disturbing to them. Something deep in them shuts down, overwhelmed. I feel there may be some kind of value in just being able to look at the very real suffering of the world, being able to be with it. Least that is what I tell myself!

      The five point plan is practical and would be very useful rolled out in large scale. I’ve been enjoying your writing,and I’ll flatter myself and others to say your few brave readers will bring your good ideas to other places, like pollen on the legs of bees.

    Leave a Reply

    Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *