Saturday 22 December 2012

Why were we hearing about Mayans at all?

Due to technical problems, this post is appearing a few days later than planned. 

You don’t need to hear that the world didn’t end yesterday. You don’t need to hear that misrepresentations of the calendar of human-sacrifice enthusiasts a thousand years ago did not trump experts at NASA. None of us need another Facebook meme sneering at the now-disappointed believers, always easy to do when it’s someone else’s beliefs.

Scares like this, however, can be serious business; Britain’s Telegraph newspaper reported a few weeks ago that “panic buying of candles and essentials has been reported in China and Russia, along with an explosion in sales of survival shelters in America. In France believers were preparing to converge on a mountain where they believe aliens will rescue them.” China might seem a strange place for the apocalypse idea to crop up, but the Telegraph said that “In China … a wave of paranoia about the apocalypse can be traced to the 2009 Hollywood blockbuster ‘2012.’ The film … was a smash hit in China, as viewers were seduced by a plot that saw the Chinese military building arks to save humanity.”

That callous $200 million steaming pile of emotional manipulation also seemed to popularise the 2012 myth here, and I suspect in most places. AsI wrote a couple of years ago, we might be able to forgive filmmakers for creating an overpriced package of ridiculous escapism like The Core or Volcano. Unlike those films, however, and like the fundamentalist Left Behind series, the film predicted horrifying tragedies happening to the real world shortly, invoking Albert Einstein for artificial legitimacy.

The filmmakers also drops the “Rapture” name for extra points among the mega-church crowd, both in the script and in the callous poster tag “Will You Be Left Behind?” The only difference is that the Left Behind authors seem to truly believe their dubious theology, whereas the filmmakers seem to be transparently capitalizing on people’s fears to make money.

Even if only one person in a thousand takes them seriously, scares like this cost real people their lives. David Morrison, an astronomer at NASA, told the Telegraph that “at least once a week I get a message from a young person, as young as 11, who says they are ill and/or contemplating suicide because of the coming doomsday. I think it's evil for people to propagate rumours on the internet to frighten children.”

Of course, apocalypse ideas crop up every so often, and for a highly readable history of their rises and disappointments, let me again recommend the prolific John Michael Greer. His book Apocalypse Not: Everything You Know About 2012, Nostradamus and theRapture is Wrong will likely lose some sales after today, but it deserves to be read and publicised as immunisation against the next 2012. He even delves into the origins of this particular myth in the New Age circles after the “Harmonic Convergence” of the 1980s.

One area Greer could have focused on more, perhaps, is “Why Mayans?” Why not Bavarians or Vietnamese, or any other group? The answer seems to be twofold; first, it’s easier to project any beliefs or ideology you like on a now-extinct group that can’t protest. There are some Mayans still left, who have rightly objected to their pop-culture co-opting, but poor Third-Worlders do not generally have the media influence of California New Age gurus.

The other reason has to do with the exalted place Native Americans hold in popular culture. No one denies that Native Americans were subjected to genocide by various European groups over a few hundred years, and that popular media in 19th and early 20th century USA portrayed them as inferior savages. The response of the Sixties counterculture, though, was insulting in a different direction, projecting onto Native tribes whatever ancient wisdom they wanted to hear. This was done mainly through the use of Italians and other Europeans pretending to be Natives, making up New Age teachings and passing them off as authentic.

As John Miller wrote in the National Review, “Between 1960 and 2000, the number of Americans claiming Indian ancestry on their census forms jumped by a factor of six. Neither birthrates nor counting methodologies can account for this explosive growth. Instead, the phenomenon arises in large part from the increasingly idealistic place Indians occupy in the popular imagination. Much of it is based on harmless sentiment mixed into a hash of unverifiable family legends and wishful thinking among folks who hang dreamcatchers from their rearview mirrors. But for a distinct subset, it’s all about personal profit. They’re professional imposters who have built entire careers by putting the sham into shaman.”

In some cases people just claim to be Native when they are not: author and provocateur Ward Churchill, actor “Iron Eyes” Cody, and so on. In others Europeans claim special insight into Native culture: Carlos Castaneda, for example, wrote his entire Don Juan series with supposed interviews based on a reclusive Yaqui Indian no one else had met, while Lynn Andrews did the same with her Medicine Woman series, based on supposed interviews with reclusive sages in Manitoba.

Some of these teachings are useful in their own right; “Grey Owl” was an admirable man who lived in the Canadian woods, wrote beautifully and became an early advocated for protecting nature from human exploitation, whether or not he was actually an Englishman named Archie Blayney. “The Education of Little Tree” is a lovely story, even if it turned out to be fiction written by a white segregationist.

Decades of such romanticising, though, means that followers of the Sixties counterculture treat Native teachings with a special reverence – even fake ones, and they usually are. I know a number of people who sneered at Harold Camping’s numerous Rapture predictions who seemed to take the Mayan claims seriously – at least, as seriously as anyone takes anything these days, forwarding Facebook memes while filtering any convictions through layers of hip irony.

The 2012 books I have leafed through also yank science-sounding terms into the discussion whenever possible, describing a “quantum leap” forward in human “evolutionary levels.” In invoking these scientific phrases the film-makers are being completely dishonest, using them for ideas that have nothing to do with science. Like the religious cult “scientology,” they steal bits of words from actual scientific research and using them to imbue their vague hokum with a bogus legitimacy.
These things tell us how the myth was formed, but to deal with how it spread –why people in China, Russia and Ireland are all talking about the same thing – we have to look at  modern technology. 

Throughout the 20th century, science and technology were supposed to make us less superstitious – from H.G. Wells’ Things to Come to the Star Trek series, decades of science fiction posited a future where we had outgrown such primitive traits. Instead, however, it has made us more susceptible to superstition.

Rather, I want to ask why this belief caught on in every globalised corner of the world at once, and what that says about us. As I wrote this, you see, I was sitting in the pub a few kilometres from my home in rural Ireland, surrounded by my neighbours at other tables, and some of these same people or their relatives might have been gathering here fifty or a hundred years ago – in other words, several apocalypse scares ago. When enthusiasts predicted the end of the world in the 1920s or 1980s, though, I doubt anyone around here noticed – at least, I have seen no evidence of it in interviews or records.

Ireland was affected by the world wars in Europe, of course, but even into the 1970s some of my wife’s neighbours lacked electricity, more lacked television, and most people knew more about their neighbours than about celebrities. Today, though, I’m listening to my neighbours talking about the Mayan apocalypse, the USA grade-school shootings, and the end of the world. We all get hundreds of television stations, and the news channel playing on the wall plays the same USA school-shooting clip that people might be watching in Singapore and South Africa.

Men and women fell for apocalyptic scares easily enough before the fossil-fuel era, but at least the slow speed of information filtered out such time-sensitive panics as this. Today, though, when we spend most of our time staring at glowing rectangles rather than living in the real world, it becomes easy to become isolated, paranoid, or trapped in a bubble of misinformation. When we spend most of our time moving pixels on a screen for a paycheque, it’s easy to fantasise about fighting zombies or some other more meaningful life.

And when people around the world spend much of their time online, a meme can appear and spread almost instantly. Instead of a dubious notion having to infect a critical mass of people in a town before spreading to the next town, a con or conspiracy theory can appear everywhere in the world – to a teenager in Saskatchewan, an old lady in Turkmenistan and an Irish farmer – simultaneously.

As fossil fuels decline and extreme weather events increase, I expect more people to grow poor and feel helpless, but I would also expect more people to spend more time online. I would expect there to be many more scares like this one in our lifetime, and there will be nowhere to go to escape them.

Tuesday 4 December 2012

Forest hug

We're getting into the dark months now; as I've mentioned here before, we're less than a thousand miles from the Arctic Circle, and while the surrounding sea and Caribbean current keep Ireland above freezing, the winter months hover a few degrees above, wet and cold and very dark. Even the daylight hours bring only dim light, as though hesitating through several hours of twilight before plunging back into a night that consumes three quarters of the day.

This time of year Ireland's lush landscape grows denuded and stark, skeletal branches rattling in the fierce winds and everything turned grey, "like some cold glaucoma settling over the world," in the words of Cormac McCarthy's The Road. The winter is made far worse by our bizarre summer -- one of the wettest on record, when almost none of the familiar fruits or berries could be pollinated. Older people here, who grew up making jam and wine every fall, are at a loss this year.

In a few months, we'll be out of the darkness. This week, though, I will be using up my summer forest pictures.

Saturday 1 December 2012

Hayboxes and houses

Whether you grew up in Texas or Tasmania, Manitoba or Macedonia, you were probably raised in a modernised Western culture like me, with electricity and motorcars and other modern infrastructure. If so, you probably grew up blithely spending massive quantities of energy to do the simplest of tasks.

Instead of boiling water by lighting a fire and putting a kettle on the stove, for example, we might blow up the oldest mountains in the world to mine the remains of forests older than dinosaurs, set those old forests on fire to boil water, and then use the steam to turn turbines to send electricity through miles of cable to an outlet on your wall to power a kettle to boil water. The details might change depending on where you are, but most of us live this way – and so does my family, to an extent. It’s not easy to live any other way these days; one must deliberately and daily choose, on abstract grounds, a life of greater inconvenience, and slowly learn a different set of skills.  

We do this, of course, because we have so much energy at our disposal – the equivalent of 300 slaves by one common estimate, making each of us richer than medieval kings. Of course, we can’t keep doing this forever – there were only so many ancient forests to burn, and doing so has played with the knobs and dials of the world’s weather control panel. Thus, most discussions of the future focus on producing enough energy to meet our escalating needs -- escalating because each generation grows up with more comfort and convenience, and because there are more of us. 

The same is true in our personal lives; most of us fantasize about making more money, not about spending less, even though it amounts to the same thing, and even though your current spending might not be making you happy. Adverts and articles tout new and more fuel-efficient cars, not buying fewer or older cars and driving them more slowly.  A major magazine a few years back showed their concern for the future with an “eco-issue;” I showed mine by refusing to buy the magazine. Most discussions of energy, similarly, ignore the central and salient factor of how much we don't need.

Take, for example, the old technique of hay-box cooking, done by people here a few generations ago and by the British during the lean times of the Second World War. A hay box is just what it says, a box lined with hay or some other insulating material that will keep heated food hot and cooking for hours. Manufactured hay-boxes were built in the early part of the 20th century, and stores used to sell elegant and decorated models, but to make one at home all you need is a box – or in my case, two smaller boxes, one flipped upside-down and placed over the other – with blankets stuffed around the sides.

To use this method I started by making a few litres of lentil soup with vegetables from our garden, and brought it to a rolling boil. On the stove I would have to cook it for an hour or more until the lentils were soft, but here I only needed to bring it to the boil, take the pot off the stove and place it in the hay-box. I surrounded the pot with blankets in lieu of dry hay – people here make hay while the sun shines, so there hasn’t been much of either in Ireland this year – covered it over with more blankets, and went to bed. In the morning I took the cool pot of soup out of the box and found it had cooked perfectly, after using a fraction of the fuel.

Another example of using what you have comes in an even more unassuming package, the tea cozie. The Irish are among the most prolific tea-drinkers on Earth, and a “cuppa” is the standard greeting offered to family, friends and just passers-by. Boiling tea cools quickly, and if you like your tea strong – sitting in the pot a while – or want a second cup, you want to conserve the heat. The tea-cozie solves that by insulating the pot like the hay-box insulates tomorrow’s dinner, keeping it hot longer. A thermos does the same thing for a drink on the go.

The same logic applies to our houses; most of us in the modern world live in homes far larger than we need, and if many people heat their entire homes in winter while wearing summer clothes indoors. The UK-based Building Research Establishment reports that British homes in 1970 had an average temperature of 12 degrees in winter – 55 degrees – and I’m betting that in poorer and more traditional Ireland it was colder still. Yet people got by; they were more psychologically accustomed to colder temperatures, , they gathered in rooms together and allowed their body heat to raise the temperature, they remained physically active, they wore heavy clothes indoors, and they heated certain central rooms and let unused rooms provide insulation

As Kris De Decker notes in Low-Tech Magazine, “the reduction in energy use for space heating thanks to more efficient homes was less than 20 per cent from 1993 to 2005. Lowering the thermostat by 2° C (or 4°F) would thus result in energy reduction comparable to that. Turning down the thermostat from 22° to 18° C would initiate an energy savings of at least 35 per cent.”

DeDecker notes that insulating the body itself is the most efficient option, as there is so much less space to cover. Using American “clo” units, where one clo equals the thermal insulation required to keep one person comfortable at 21 degrees centigrade, he notes that briefs provide 0.05 clo, light socks 0.10 clo, a heavy shirt with long sleeves .25 clo, a sweater .30 clo, and long pants .30.
Someone wearing the ensemble described above would feel comfortable in a home heated to 21 degrees Centigrade – the level assumed for the modern USA by the standards company ASHRAE -- but in just a t-shirt would need 24 degrees. With long underwear they would only need the house to be heated to 17 degrees to feel the same comfort, which DeDecker reckons saves 50 to 70 per cent on heating costs compared to the t-shirt.

All of these are things we could change quickly in theory, but realistically, they will take time to grow used to – I hail from a hotter climate and am used to blasts of central heating in winter, and shifting away from that was slow and sometimes uncomfortable. In this, as in so many other areas, though, it helps to take the first steps in a different direction and keep going, and then one day you look behind you and realise how far you’ve travelled, and how little you needed after all.