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  • Podcast

    Sebastian Junger: Is Our Material Wealth Undermining Our Happiness & Health?

    For all modern society has gained, we may have lost what really matters
    by Adam Taggart

    Friday, November 22, 2019, 3:56 PM

One the most personally meaningful podcast interviews we’ve done over the years was Our Evolutionary Need For Community, recorded with Peabody award-winning author Sebastian Junger. Junger is well-known for his NYT-bestselling books The Perfect Storm and War, the latter of which was written after a 15-month tour of duty in the most dangerous outpost in Afghanistan’s Korengal Valley.

Based on his observations while in Afghanistan, Junger noted how much troops in combat valued the social solidarity of their units. In fact, he noted that the loss of this cohesive community, with its sense of purpose and shared responsibility, created prodigious psychological strife when these soldiers returned and tried to re-integrate into civilian life. This dynamic is not just limited to the military; any collection of humans working in tight-knit groups under stress, united in purpose, evidences similar behavior (Peace Corps volunteers, trauma care physicians, etc).

In his excellent book Tribe: On Homecoming and Belonging, Junger explored our evolutionary wiring for community, and paradoxically, how our modern aspirations for “success” and “wealth” attempt to distance ourselves from it — making us unhappier and emotionally unhealthier in the pursuit.

Since recording our initial interview with Sebastian, we’ve often shared the insights from it with the Peak Prosperity tribe at live events and in our writings. So this week we decided to reconnect with Sebastian, and hear how his thoughts and conclusions on the topic have evolved since we last talked with him.

It’s clear that he believes more than ever that the future prosperity of our society will be rooted in rediscovering how to create and foster the communal bonds our tribal ancestors lived by. And that begins by taking an honest look at the narratives, behaviors, and modern conveniences and temptations that keep us trapped in unhappy, unhealthy isolation:

We live in the largest economy in the world. We’re arguably the most powerful country in the world and one of the wealthiest. But we also have some of the highest rates of depression, and suicide, and addiction of any country in the world.

In material terms, we’re doing incredibly well. But in basic human terms, we seem to be in a huge amount of psychological and maybe even spiritual distress. Is our material wealth undermining our psychological health? It’s not a stupid question.

Of course, there are stressors that come with poverty as well. But one thing you lose with affluence is you lose close communal connections with other people. The less you have, the more you need other people to make up for the shortfall. In a poor African village, everyone is pulling their water out of the same well, literally and metaphorically. We mustn’t romanticize poverty, of course, and the stressors that are associated with that and all kinds of other ills. But it does seem to mitigate psychological harm.

One study that I cited in my book, Tribe, was a cross-cultural look at depression levels. People with the highest rates of depression were urban dwellers in North America. That was the highest income group. The lowest levels of depression were people in rural Nigeria. The poorest.

So I look at our society and I think okay, the Amish don’t drive cars. They have very low levels of depression and suicide. The car brings great benefits, but if you really wanted to make a more cohesive communal society, you might think about getting rid of the car. That’s not going to happen. But if you want to really have an honest conversation about solutions to this particular problem, I would say the car is a great stressor in terms of social cohesion.

Another is the smartphone/social media. I think the smartphone is psychologically catastrophic for people. What a misnomer: “social media”. It’s an outright lie to call it :social” when it really is profoundly antisocial. To me it’s like the lie perpetrated by the tobacco industry in the 1970s that tobacco wasn’t bad for you. It’s on that level of deceit. People in Silicon Valley who engineered this stuff, who developed the social medial tools and all the software and the hardware that support them, as parents they’re not allowing their children screen time because they know it’s so toxic.

So when people ask What can we do? I advise going to the nearest body of water, taking your smart phone out of your pocket, and seeing how many skips you can get out of it before it drops to the bottom of the lake forever. That’s something we can each do to rejoin the human community.

Click the play button below to listen to Chris’ interview with Sebastian Junger (46m:28s).

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Transcript

Chris Martenson:  Welcome everyone to this featured voices podcast. I’m your host Chris Martenson. It is November 12, 2019. Just a little over a year ago we talked with prize-winning author Sebastian Junger about his book, Tribe. That interview was both very popular with our listeners as well as one that kept rattling around in my mind especially as events have unfolded across the globe. I personally wanted to have Sebastian back on the program because first, we couldn't cover everything, but second because I've developed a lot of questions since that interview.

Now with any luck, we will be able to ask any remaining questions as well, but before we do, and as you are probably already aware, Sebastian Junger is the number one New York Times best-selling author of the books The Perfect Storm. Which is also a great movie. Fire. A Death in Belmont. War and the topic of today's subject, Tribe. Sebastian is an award-winning journalist, a special correspondent at ABC News and he’s covered major international news stories around the world up close and personal. He’s received both a National Magazine Award and Peabody Award and his documentary film about…and as a documentary filmmaker whose debut film Restrepo was nominated for an Academy Award and won the Grand Jury prize at Sundance. He’s a brilliantly captivating writer. All of his works, hey, they’re both entertaining and thought-provoking if not outright educational. Sebastian. Welcome back to the program.

Sebastian Junger: It’s a pleasure.

Chris Martenson: Well, the first time we had you on…look, I read your book Tribe and this time I listen to the audiobook and maybe it was that format and hearing you read it or perhaps it was the passage of time and events. But so many new things jumped out at me and Sebastian, right off the bat I'm just wondering, if you were to produce a second edition…I’m not suggesting you should. But if you were to produce a second edition of Tribe, what might you include? What’s gelled for you since Tribe went to the publishers?

Sebastian Junger: Well, on book tour and just talking to people and doing presentations, one of the things I found was…unsolicited by me. I got almost kind of bombarded with stories by people that kind of confirmed that theory that humans need community and then when they’re deprived of it that, there is a real psychological damage that can happen, and affluence tends to undermine the need for community. I got evidence of that from many different people in many different walks of life over and over and over again including a woman who had cancer and had spent some time in the hospital on a cancer ward and had survived. Many people didn’t but she survived, and she said, the community on that floor was so tight that she missed being sick. Pretty extraordinary.

So there are many, many things like that. I think if I were going to rewrite the book, I would incorporate some of those partly just because they’re incredibly moving. Moving testimonials about what it feels like to be human. I think in the political arena, we’ve seen…at the end of Tribe talk about the danger of partisan politics and the vilifying your political opponents. I think we’ve only seen that tendency increase in America in the last few years. I take great pains to not be political and not be partisan myself and so, I don't think I would ever identify a source for this. I don’t think I would ever name any names. Like, so who was doing this? I think I was talking about the phenomenon and how dangerous it is.

Chris Martenson: Well indeed. I also take and hue to a strictly nonpartisan approach and I will both reward and cast aspersions both sides depending on what they're up to. So I'm very data dependent on that. But it's clear to me that there are people who make it their livelihood to create divisions and fractions, because it serves some purposes of theirs. Whether they're selling a political ideal or shampoo, there's certainly a model that seems to be running that's also colliding with really unique point of history.

You wrote about part of this where in indigenous tribes, this part really caught because it stands out today in particular. That gross or really unfair wealth disparities just didn't exist and if they arose, they had ways sometimes violent of correcting those disparities. You wrote that Native Americans earned their status whereas today, a lot of people are kind of handed it either by luck of birth, connections whatever the case may be. This wealth gap grows exponentially right now as a function of official policy. What sort of fire do you think the bankers and politicians are playing with here as they reward the rich and scrape at the poor?

Sebastian Junger: Well, they’re private citizens and there's nothing wrong with them pursuing what they deem to be their best interest. It’s really up to the government to create some guardrails so that when people pursue their personal interests, they’re not eroding our national security and eroding the political and economic social state of the country. So for example, when I wrote, The Perfect Storm, some people were very critical of the fisherman saying, the fish stocks are depleted and these guys keep fishing and blah, blah, blah. I’m like, listen. Don’t blame those guys. Change the law. They’re obeying the law, so change the law. If you’re worried about fish stocks, change the law. But don’t blame the fisherman that are following the law.

So I don’t think it’s wise to leave it up to an economic entity to private corporation to sort of give up some interest for the common good. They may do it, but I don’t think you should rely on that. Then that’s where government comes in. So I think there’s…I mean, by far not…I mean, I’m definitely not an expert, so don't take my word for it. But from what I've read, there’s a very strong correlation between income disparity and all kind of social and political ills and that should be taken seriously by the government.

I mean, one of the jobs of the government is to protect the nation and that doesn't just mean from…protect the nation when the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor. It also means from all kinds of other things that could degrade our political system and our welfare. Arguably, the Russians have been attacking our democratic system and it’s up to the government to protect the nation from that. But likewise, if there is social and economic changes that in the long term are a treat to the integrity of the country, that is just as serious as Al Qaeda. It’s just as serious a threat to our nation as Al Qaeda and should be taken that way and it's up to the government to create safeguards even if they’re unpopular with the monied elite, which I’m sure they would be.

Chris Martenson: I completely agree and here's where I'm going with this line of questioning. There’s this great study of primates and they do it with Capuchin monkeys and it involves rewarding them with either grapes or cucumbers. They have two monkeys next to each other and they reward them equally for equal tasks, but then they depart and start rewarding one with cucumbers, which they’ll eat, but they're not super excited about. The other one unfairly gets grapes. Just watching the Capuchin monkey explode with rage at the injustice, and the audience laughs when they see this because we recognize our own sense and need for justice.

That sense of fairness in order to be a coherent social tribe, whether we’re looking at that as a unit of a hundred and fifty or in nation. So then jump over, Plutarch even said it 2,000 years ago said, the oldest and most fatal ailment of all republics is a gap between the rich and poor. So it creates some of that dynamic. Now the question I have is, imagine if you will that there are central bankers who are throwing money into the stock market and driving that higher because that serves certain policy aims. But only 10 percent of the people in the country actually own the stocks.

So they're getting grapes and everybody else is maybe noticing that well, in my case my healthcare premium went up 22 1/2 percent this year on top of things from before. So what I'm detecting in myself personally, but now projected when I see what's happening in Hong Kong in the yellow vest. In Peru and Chile right now. It feels like at least partially this is people reacting to what they perceive as something unfair in the system. I’m wondering about your reflections on the role of fairness in the tribal setting and how that's maybe translating into what we’re seeing today.

Sebastian Junger: Well, the problem with that modern society is that it's so complex. I mean, just look at the tax code. I mean, you know a lot of people need professional accountants to do their taxes because they can’t even understand…a smart person can’t even understand the tax code. So we live in a very, very complex society, so course people without resources have this sort of take the word of the authorities that they're being treated fairly. Whereas people with resources can figure out how to game the system. I mean, that's true of any sort of complex system, I think.

So if you want to hire a great accountant and put your money offshore and not pay taxes, you could get away with that and that's where I think you encounter this sort of awful fact that monied elites have a disproportionate influence on lawmakers who create laws that favor the monied elite and it goes in a circle. I mean, that’s even true in this country. It's definitely true in parts of the developing world where there’s systemic corruption and money just go in a circle in the highest levels of society. So eventually, or course what you get is rebellion in the streets.

I think in a small-scale society, A: it's not a capitalistic society. People are completely interdependent with each other for resources, and food, and shelter and all those other essential things. You could spot a cheat very, very easily or spot somebody who’s gaming the system very, very easily. Because most human communities for most of our evolution as a species were 30, 40 people, 50 people, a hundred people whatever. I mean, the size of a platoon. I mean, you can totally keep track of people…individual’s actions in a group that size and make them accountable for it.

So the trick is, how do you run a complex society, it's so complex that nobody in it understands all the different aspects of it. I mean, you need specialists whose focus are individual tranches of the society and they only understand those things. How do you bring all this together and create their policy that protects the poor and protect the middle class without encumbering individual initiative so much that it's not worth pursuing the startup company? It’s not worth pursuing the invention and whatever all that sort of great human initiative that leads to such amazing breakthroughs. If you disincentivize people from accumulating capital and serving themselves, then erode that part of the human experience.

So it's very important that you have a balance. I spent time in Eastern Europe right after the Berlin fell and I’m very close to some people that grow up under communism. That was the great flaw. Communism is the big supposedly ideal collective that really disincentivized people from working hard and creating outstanding things. There is a reason that iPad was invented in America and not in Bulgaria. Whatever. I mean, they’re very, very clear reasons for why capitalism in the west produce these incredible inventions that have changed and often helped humanity enormously.

Chris Martenson: Yeah, I think Ray Dalio put it very well recently He said, socialism doesn't know how to create wealth and capitalism doesn’t know how to share it. So we go between the extremes. If you're over on the communistic extreme side of socialism, you find yourself fairly impoverished. But if you go too far to the capital side, you find yourself in effect at the same structure as a developing nation. All the resource is concentrated in a very few tight hands. So it feels to me like there's a moment coming up here where people are asking for a rebalancing of some kind and it feels rooted in some basic notions of fairness. I'm starting to wonder if those aren’t just…well, just hardwired in us as part of our human blueprint DNA wiring instructions in some way, right?

Sebastian Junger: Yeah, I mean, I think the concepts of fairness are very, very important to humans and apparently other primates as you cited in that video. I mean, there are two big threats to a human community. One threat is from outside enemies. So for example, 5,000 years ago invaders from the eastern step…the Russian step on chariots invaded the Iberian Peninsula and within a generation or two, killed all of the men. Literally all of the men in the Iberian Peninsula, which is Spain and Portugal. Today Spaniards now have the DNA of those invading males and not of the males that were originally from the Iberian Peninsula. The females of course where not killed.

So if you can't defend yourself against an outside group like that, you’re in enormous danger. That's one great threat to the welfare of a community. The other great threat is the community splitting because of that moral conflict. Often those moral conflicts are the results of unfairness. So unfairness within the society can be as dangerous as an enemy outside the society and typically, they’ve done a lot of genetic studies of this. Liberalism and conservatism are not just political ways of thinking in modern America. They those says of seeing the world go way, way back and they’re genetically encoded into us.

So there are genetic conservatives whose primary fear is threat from the outside. Conservatives are oriented toward an outside threat in a very basic sense. Genetic liberals are oriented towards an internal threat. An abuse of power. Unfairness. That kind of thing. The genetics for these political viewpoints are divided roughly 50-50 in the population. So essentially what you have is, in any human community about half the people they’re worried about outside threats and half the people are worried about internal problems. In a kind of stasis. I mean, you sort of need both just like you need both men and women in the society.

So the trick is to sort of balance those very, very legitimate concerns. But they’re sort of antithetical to each other. So like the _____ [00:15:47] sort of moral hierarchies that are good at protecting the society from an outside threat are terrible when it comes to things like that within the society. So that's where you need government. That's where you need wise government and you need the two opposing parties to acknowledge that each one needs the other in order to correctly…in order to protected and run the country in a proper way.

Chris Martenson: Well, I think that's a very, very important insight and course often it’s presented as if this way is right, that way is wrong and vice versa. You had I think a really wonderful story maybe not for the miners involved, but you talked about a mining disaster where there was two types of leadership that came out that seemed to be tracking what you're telling me here. I wonder if you could…

Sebastian Junger: Absolutely. Yeah. Yeah. So there was a by disaster in the 1950s. I wrote the book a few years ago and…couple of numbers. But 1950s in Canada in the Maritime provinces. There was what’s called a bump, like a methane gas explosion, coal dust exploded that collapsed the passageways and trapped a couple dozen men two and half-miles down this shaft. So the guys that were trapped way at the bottom, they didn't know if their egress was blocked by 50 feet of rubble or a mile of rubble. They had no way of knowing. But they could find out. They could find out by grabbing pickaxes and starting to dig.

Trying to dig their way out. They dug, and dug, and dug. They dug for days and they ran out of…they had almost no food, they had almost no water and then they ran out of battery…battery power in their lamp and then it was complete darkness and they had to stop. They clearly were going to die unless people dug down to reach them and got them in time. If you just imagine how terrifying that would be. You’re in absolute darkness entombed two miles down in the earth. No knowing if you're going to be saved or even if they’ll even ever recover your bodies. Your loved ones are at the surface and I men, just imagine the psychological stress of that.

So in the first phase when they started digging, there were natural leaders who stepped forward who were very aggressive, very sort of implacable like we’re going to dig now. I don't care how you feel. I don't care if you’re thirsty. I don't care if you’re scared. Here’s a shovel. Start digging. So they were a sort of hyper- aggressive, in some ways hyper male if you want to put it that way and sort of law and order. This is how it is. You’re going to follow my orders. Essentially, a kind of conservative viewpoint about what needs to be done. And it didn’t work.

Then what happened was a different kind of leader emerged. When the game became one of waiting in the darkness and wrestling with your fears, a different kind of leader emerged. Those first leaders sort of dropped out and then you got guy…it was all men down there. You’ve got guys who were much more empathic, and they would go from person to person saying, hey, man. How you doing? You okay? You can have a little bit of my water. We’re going to get out here. All those sort of traditionally sort of female caretaking roles were done by men, but it was a different form, an equally crucial form of leadership and it was managing people's terror in the darkness. Both were necessary. They arose unbidden.

I mean, these were not like people designated to be leaders. They just stepped into those roles. They are very different kinds of leadership. The point is that, society really needs both. If you have only one or only the other…I mean, god forbid that the Democrats run this country unimpeded by conservative concerns or vice versa that conservatives run this country unimpeded by liberal conservatives. I mean, God forbid either of those things happen because it would be to a disaster. But you really need like in the coal mine, like in any small human society, you need a balance of both of those outlooks to both protect the society from outside threat and to make sure it's fair enough that there aren’t fatal divisions between members of the group.

Chris Martenson: Just fascinating and I'm old enough to recognize now the fractal nature of this. I think I could say the same things about any partnership, any marriage, any relationship. You need to have both of those pieces there and if either one of them really dominates the other, it's not nearly as vibrant or possibly as durable as it might otherwise be.

Sebastian Junger: Oh, absolutely. I see it. My wife and I, we have a two-and-a-half-year-old child, a daughter. We’re both enlightened sensitive people, but we definitely have different approaches and our daughter needs both. I’m definitely the one pushing the envelope on oh, she can go down the big slide at the playground. No problem. My wife is like, oh god. I don't know. That looks a little scary and somewhere in the middle is where the child wants to be. You want to push the envelope a bit, but you also want to be careful.

So you to see that over and over again in sort of classically male and female roles that it is like either by itself wouldn’t work that well, but when you integrate them, you come down somewhere in the middle. I should say, those classically male and female roles can be filled by people of either sex. I mean, down in the coal mine, it was men. I'm sure if it was two dozen women trapped in a coal mine, there would be “male” type leaders who were actually women who would emerge. I mean, I’m sure it goes both ways. But in society, often it does sort of break down by in sort of stereotypical ways by gender.

Chris Martenson: Yeah, it feels to me like a little bit what they do in permaculture rather than saying is this a weed? Is it a good plant? Is it a bad plant? You ask first, what's the role of this? Evolution has given us a variety of roles that have proven enduring and so they serve a role and have some sort of point to them. In Tribe, you wrote that humans evolved over hundreds of thousands if not millions years and the way that was arranged is, we evolved to exist _____ [00:22:21] operate as units of a tribe. We were working. We were living, playing. We were dying side-by-side.

In life today, I would say it’s not just divergent from tribal living, but in many cases it’s directly opposite. Can be isolating, disconnected, meaningless, purposeless. All these things that leave people feeling a little adrift. I think we’re seeing some that in maybe some of these protests. I'm really curious about how…is there parts…are the parts of society that can be reformed or are there parts we should just really be rejecting maybe? Maybe the smartphone or other things, wherever you would diagnose this. But I'm wondering, as you look through this lens of the tribe, are there parts of our society that really, we ought to be taking a much, much closer look at and seeing if we can remedy?

Sebastian Junger: Well, we live in the largest economy in the world. We’re arguably, the most powerful country in the world and one of the wealthiest. We have some of the highest rates of depression, and suicide, and addiction of any country in the world. So in sort of basic human terms, we seem to be in a huge amount of psychological and maybe even spiritual distress. In material terms, we’re doing incredibly well. So you have to sort of figure out, is our material…well, in some ways, undermining our psychological health. It’s not a stupid question.

There are stressors that come with poverty as well. The one thing you get…the one thing you lose with affluence is you lose close communal connections with other people and the less you have, the more you need other people to make up for the short shortfall. In a poor African village, everyone is pulling their water out of the same well literally and metaphorically. We must not romanticize poverty of course and the stressors that are associated with that and all kinds of other ills. But it does seem to mitigate psychological harm.

So one study that I site in my book, Tribe was a sort of cross-cultural look at depression levels. People with the highest rates of depression were urban dwellers in North America. That was the highest income group. The lowest levels of depression ere people in rural Nigeria. The poorest. So I look at our society and I think okay, the Amish do not drive cars. They have very low levels of depression and suicide. The car brings great benefits, but if you really wanted to make a more cohesive communal society, you might think about getting rid of the car.

I mean, that’s not going to happen. But if you want to really have an honest conversation about solutions to this particular problem, I would say the car is a great stressor in terms of social cohesion. The other and this is way easier to do is the smartphone. I think the smartphone is psychologically catastrophic for people and I don't have one. Our daughter has zero screen time. We try not to check our email or do any of that stuff. I mean, I email on my laptop obviously. We really try not to do any of that stuff in front of our daughter and it works. Like she's just not interested in screens. It's sort of miraculous.
We’re not…we’re modeling good behavior for her, but she’s following it.

I think, when you see a table full of people…I mean, the misnomer of social media, I mean, to just outright lie to call social media, social media when it really is profoundly antisocial. To me it’s just really, really horrible. It's like the lie perpetrated by the tobacco industry in the 1970s that tobacco isn’t bad for you. It’s on that level of deceit. I read an article in the New York Times that people in Silicon Valley and these are the people that engineered this stuff, who developed the social medial tools and all the software and the hardware that support it. In Silicon Valley, many of those parents are not allowing their children screen times…screen time, because they know it’s so toxic. So when people say, what can we do? I’m like, go to the nearest body water, take your smart phone out of your pocket and see how many skips you can get out of it before it drops to the bottom of the lake forever. That's what you do to rejoin the human community on some level.

Chris Martenson: Oh, that's fantastic advice. I can hear already in my mind some people listening…maybe myself. I hear myself going, yeah, you know I understand some people might have trouble with that, but not me. That really got change for me through when I was talking with somebody who worked for one of the big online game companies. So whether you're playing Candy Crush or you’re doing Black Ops II or whatever your game is, if you want to become a coder for one of those companies, one of the first things they do is they put you through dopamine boot camp. They help you understand the wiring. What's the pacing? The frequency.

The amplitude of the reward structures to create an addictive process that's no different than cocaine in terms of its actual addictiveness. All of this is perfectly legal, and they use it and they create massive misery. There are now camps where young boys, men in their 20s and 30s to go and figure out how to regain normal stuff like how to be humans again. It's that serious and yet it seems to just sort of go by unnoticed. Oh, well you know, that’s just part of life. I think it’s great to sort of step back and go, is this really additive or is its attractive.

Sebastian Junger: Yeah, well. I mean, there’s the dopamine addiction, but there’s also…there’s anxiety. The software is designed to promote anxiety it people. When you’re anxious, you will keep checking…I mean, anxiety for example, if you go on a vacation and you can't get rid of the thought in your mind you left the stove and you go back and check and make sure. It’s a normal human protective response to a fear and you could produce anxiety in social media. You can keep people checking their stupid phone over, and over, and over again.

It becomes a compulsive habit and that's what they’re after and they do it through a combination of dopamine release and producing circumstances that lead to anxiety. So you could see in the data it's incredible. Yeah, I think when I…in the 80s or whenever the…1 out of 10 teenagers was anxious and not it’s like 8 out of 10. I’m making these up. I can’t remember exactly what they are. It’s on that order of magnitude of difference. Just like basic anxiety. Of course, anxiety lead to all kind of other psychological ills.

Chris Martenson: As well as physical illness as well. Because anxiety typically comes with a cortisol response. Your adrenals are dumping and that's like having your foot a little bit on the gas pedal on your engine all the time and of course, your body is trying to shut all the down, so it has a foot on the brake. Anybody who’s car buff knows, if you push the gas pedal and the brake together long enough you blow something up. And often times we call those autoimmune diseases, Crohn's, irritable bowels. All sorts of things like that are now coincident with these people who are in that heightened state of perpetual anxiety. This is being created as you’re mentioning on purpose. I understand the business case for it, but the social case can't be made in my mind. Very difficult.

Sebastian Junger: Yeah, and the thing is, you’re going to get a lot of resistance if the government ban the smartphone. That’s not going to happen. And smartphone s are very good for a lot of things. No one is arguing that. But I can imagine…I mean, why not start teaching children at a very young age about the dangers of smartphone use. I mean, _____ [00:30:22] the dangers of social isolation. The dangers of lacking community in one’s life. You could start teaching three-year-old about that and they will learn it. America when I grew up probably half the country smoked. I know about smoking. I’ve smoked off and on since I was in my 30s. So I know how the addiction words and I know what is nice about it and what’s awful about it. I’m familiar with it.

Now the percentage of smokers is…I don’t know what it is. It’s 10 percent of the country maybe. I mean, we really changed that is a norm and I think we can change social media and obsessive smartphone use as a norm also. I mean, maybe one day walking down the street looking at your phone will be thought of as uncool. Maybe one day I'll be thought of as cool because I have a flip phone. _____ [00:31:13] flip phone, maybe my day will come. I mean, you don't know, but that could that could. I mean, the public perception of that kind of the behavior might shift like it does with smoking a cigarette. Even in New York City, smoking a cigarette, you’re aware of people glazing at you in a somewhat critical way. Like it’s palpable. Maybe that will happen with smartphone use.

Chris Martenson: I love this. Because this is really in the myth of progress. Each new technology brings two things, pros and cons. I’m sure when iron was invented that really changed a lot of things. Now you’ve got swords that didn't break. That enable all sorts of things. I’m thinking you mentioned the fishermen out east maybe in Gloucester. So GPS comes along and prior to that, these guys would sail out what, six, hours hours by dead reckoning. Get out to the banks. Drop a net and have at it.

But now when GPS comes along, they dropped the net off 6 inches to the left to where they were two weeks ago and the next think you know, the fisheries are collapsing. So the argument here is to say, the technology is amazing. I love GPS. Wouldn't dare _____ [00:32:16] a lot of cities without it. And yet, when it was first dropped into fishing it was amazing. A lot of people to get all of the place. The culture of fishing hadn't yet figured out how to wrestle with that technology and it had some really bad impacts while they started to figure that out. Smartphones same thing.

Sebastian Junger: Right. I mean, look. It took after the invention of the machine gun it took a generation for militaries to reorient their approach to warfare so that they weren’t losing 20,000 men in a day. They had to figure that out.

Chris Martenson: Yeah, exactly. So you mentioned before maybe getting rid of cars as sort of a way to begin to get back towards a more tribal or let’s relational sort of existence with each other. So big question around that, which you launched into here. Big question for me, because hey, Sebastian. I'm currently inundated with people who are really…they’re just hungry to go back to community. Whatever that means. Which I think they're talking about maybe more tribal or I’m going to use this word very carefully. A need-based model.

Because we all want community and I want to be a good neighbor to you and we live next door and I want to get to know you, but if it doesn't work out, nothing happens if we decide not to talk to each other for the next five years. But in the need-based model, tribal, I needed my whole community. They needed me. We all had roles. So I have a line of questioning here, which is really about what things would you recommend or have seen or you mentioned the Amish as an example. Or advised for people who are desiring to nudge if not shove themselves out consumer model back into more relational if not need-based model?

Sebastian Junger: Hold on one second. I got a guy at my front door. Just one moment. Hold on a second. Sorry, we had a buzzer problem and they finally showed up right in the middle of the interview to fix it.

Chris Martenson: That's why we record these things. Do you want me to reask that question or do you got it?

Sebastian Junger: Yeah, reask that question. Yeah, thank you.

Chris Martenson: Alright, so Sebastian, I have a really big question here, because I'm currently inundated with people who are hungry to go back to community by which I mean, maybe more tribal and I’m going to use this term carefully, it's a need-based model. Rather than want base, this is a big thing we’ve been talking about as a group because if I want to be good neighbors with you and you want to be good neighbors with me that's fine. But if somehow, we come into a disagreement and don't talk to each other, nothing happens except we have a little tension and we don’t talk to each other. So what I'd like to know is, anything you’ve seen in other communities or you’ve run across or you would recommend or advice for people who now have this urge to nudge or if not shove themselves out of this consumer dystopia and isolated model and back into a more deeply relational if not somehow we need-based model of community? How do we get started on something like that?

Sebastian Junger: Yeah, I mean, so first of all like the idea of banning the car, I was speaking very theoretically like if there were no cars, the communities would regain some vibrancy. But I’m suggesting we do that. I don’t think it’s feasible. But you as sort of a mental experiment, I think that would probably do it. So what I find is that people have a real longing to feel like they belong to something and they say the phrase, I'm looking. I haven't found my tribe yet. Which means you’re not going to…I mean, if you’re looking for tribe, your tribe is around you. Your tribe is your community.

You might say that there are people with sort of similar interests. Like say your sports fans or whatever. That’s different from your community and sometimes they word tribe and community get conflated. They’re actually somewhat different things. So I think the safe way to talk about it is, when you look out the window, the people that you…the houses that you see and the people that you see, that’s your community. And those are the people you need to connect with. Even if you might have more in common with people that live across town just because you’re part of a kite flying club or something or whatever.

But it’s the people around you in the neighborhood that are your community. Communities are really different, and I don’t know how to…I can't give you a sort of one-size-fits-all like how to create and bond in a community. But you have to…I think a crisis will immediately spur sort of community commitment by people. So you have to figure out how to create that commitment without a crisis and I don't quite know how to do that. I think it’s a real problem. I think people are reluctant to do it, when they don’t need to. Hold on one more second. They just had to test it. So I honestly don't know what the solution is and I'm not sure there really is a very good one.

It may be that we have these incredible blessings from begin in a modern society and the cost…and we just have to pay the cost. There is going to be and elevated suicide rate. Like people died in highway accidents all the time and that's what we get from being able to drive around in cars. So maybe that's just part of the cost-of-living in this society. I don't know. What’s certainly within all of our control is reaching out to community members and not having a significant portion of our life occur on a screen in a smartphone in this sort of like abstract world that actually isn’t real.

Chris Martenson: I lived through several experiences where our power went out for extended times. Once after a hurricane. I was in North Carolina and everybody wanders out of their houses a little dazed and then the next thing you know all the freezers get emptied and barbecued before they go bad. If I went back there 20 years later, people would still talk about, oh, you remember Hugo in ’89? Like that would be the story. Because they had this enforced thing where we had to come out, we had to deal with stuff. Where are we get water? How are we feeding ourselves? Wait. I’ve got all this food that’s about to go bad. There were things to negotiate and that's of course the touch point that all the intervening years would've been almost like a blank compared to that.

Sebastian Junger: Right. Right. Right. That characterizes our evolutionary past. I mean, that way of interacting. I mean, our evolutionary past must have been one ongoing low-grade crisis for every group of humans trying to survive. So that would be the norm and that would be what life was in that kind of community interaction. In modern society, I mean, this is wonderful and it's awful at the same time. Modern society people almost never are forced to rely on their neighbors in that kind of way. What’s interesting is, when they are forced to, usually people look back with enormous fondness and nostalgia on those difficult days. It's really, really interesting.

Chris Martenson: It is. I’ve not run across information recently that that to hark back to the earlier part of our conversation you mentioned depression. I've known some people. I know this woman and her son was really struggling and she came across him in the act of committing suicide and all is well now. But her and a number of other stories came up where they said, listen. There’s something really odd about this. The people have all investigated this as far as they can. But this depression is untreatable. Because usually depression is treatable. It’s situational or its chemical. You talk about it or you take a pill to you’re rebalance, and you get off and get back to life. But this stuff, untreatable that's part one.

Part two is that up to 50 percent of people by the age of 25 now are reporting in somewhere on that spectrum. Whereas before, it was unheard of until you were like 40 something. So you have that. Then I saw this characterization where the psychologist or saying, because it’s untreatable. It’s resistant. It’s actually demoralization. That happens when your cognitive map no longer aligns with reality. That could be a personal sense. I’ve been fed this idea about the American dream. Two kids, college, blah, blah, blah. I pay into the system; the system pays me back we’re good. That's all breaking down.

Or it could be more existential where you see the kids today going, geez. You’re telling me the climate is wrecked? That's a demoralizing sort of a moment, because then what we doing exactly? I'm wondering, in your experience so far from this book, how do we cope with things like that and what are the ways that we begin to wrestle with something as existential is thinking, hey. We might be a wrecking the spaceship that we call earth.

Sebastian Junger: Well, we’re the…one of the first generations of humans to face the prospect that we might destroy the entire planet and species. I mean, for hundreds of thousands of years, humans lived like any other species on the planet and didn’t impact the environment to destroy themselves globally. Starting with the invention of nuclear weapons, it was possible for the human race to completely eradicate itself. That kind of existential threat, I don’t think the human mind is sort of wired to accommodate that very comfortably. Now there’s a more slow-motion threat of climate change.

I think don’t the species really is prepared to live with the shadow of those threats hanging over it very comfortably. And in addition, the technology that produced the ability to destroy the species or the planet is paired with a society that is so complex and alienated that people don't even have community. So not only are they facing an existential threat to the species and the planet, they’re doing it without a sense of community and the proximity of others is enormously comforting to people. Even on the sinking ship. I mean, even in the face of annihilation, the proximity of others, people draw incredible comfort from that.

So in a weird way, we have the worst of everything. Even though we live in this amazing society, but that's the sort of psychological disconnect. We live in an extraordinary society, but that society is actually for the first time in human history might completely destroy the conditions that are necessary for life. So what do you do with that? So a friend of mine…a very wise friend of mine, so we were talking about social media and all that stuff. He said, you know what? Young people, their behavior isn’t what's creating the coming dystopia. They might be doing that because they know the dystopia is coming and they’re distracting themselves, because they know what’s coming. He said, you can just turn it around. I was like, wow. You’re right. Who knows which it is.

Chris Martenson: Yeah, cause or effect in this story. As Christian Murtey said, it is no measure of health to be well adjusted to a profoundly sick society. That's really the punchline to this demoralization piece, because once I’ve introduced people to that who know somebody or are currently suffering from that aspect of things, it's actually relieving. Because instead of saying there's something wrong with you. We just can't figure out how to fix it. The story becomes, there's nothing wrong with you. You're actually reading the situation perfectly accurately. That's a complete shift of the story. Then that provides the relief and then when they find out they're not alone, and that's the bonding that’s starting to happen. Because I think it's perfectly reasonable for a thoughtful intelligent young person to gather the data, look at it and say, something is really wrong in this story and I'm not bonding with carrying on the story as it's being handed to me. We have to do things differently. That requires a bit of struggling and on all sorts of levels. I think that's reasonable.

Sebastian Junger: Right. Yeah. I mean, what I’ve heard from vets is that…when I sort of in my book point out, look. You had a very close experience with other people in a platoon whether you’re in combat or not. Then you come back to America, your struggle may not have anything to do a trauma. I mean, the vast majority of US military is not traumatized by things. They’re not in combat. It might be that you were realizing that our society is pretty darn hard to live in actually. You might be realizing that, because you experienced the alternative for 15 months. The idea that they’re not…that they don’t have the problem, that society has the problem and they’re reacting in a healthy way to a problematic society, that idea was for a lot of veterans who talked to me about it was an incredible relief to sort of see things in that way.

Chris Martenson: Oh, fantastic. I think it's really important and then of course, your work here in the book Tribe begins to just open up the conversation. Let’s widen the Overton window and say, can we at least talk about that maybe this…we don't think…big foam finger number one on it. We have the best culture in the world. No. There are things here that maybe we could improve upon. I think for me, I don't know how to fix any of this at the systemic level, but the importance of your work is to allow individuals to begin asking the important questions such as, what is the impact of this smartphone on my life and do I want that? How should I press myself maybe to spend more time engaging with my neighbor, so that I can have a deeper woven set of ropes with my community around me? And things like that. All things that I think my great-grandfather would just say, of course you dummy. But these are things I think we have to relearn and so really, thank you so much for writing the book and beginning that conversation. It’s been really fruitful amongst my tribe.

Sebastian Junger: Well, thank you very much. I appreciate it. I really enjoyed the conversation.

Chris Martenson: And before we go, I'm just wondering, what's next on your plate? What do people have to look forward to and what are you working on?

Sebastian Junger: I’ve just signed a contract to write a book called, Freedom. How can I say this simply? Only in humans can a smaller entity, a smaller person defeat a larger person in physical combat. Only in humans can a smaller military force defeat a larger military force. A small company can defeat a larger company. Only in…there’s no other species where the smaller entity can win. Size is a complete determinate of outcome in every other species except for humans. What I'm writing about is the fact that, that phenomenon that is unique to humans is one of the things that gives us access to freedom. Political freedom, economic freedom, existential freedom.

Chris Martenson: Oh, fantastic. I'm looking forward to that. I'm sure everybody else is who’s listening to this. We’ve been talking with Sebastian Junger and about the book, Tribe. If you haven't read it, you really should. It's just fantastic and we only covered a few of the really many wonderful things that are in that book. So get that. It's thoughtful. You’ll learn something and its part of the conversation about what comes next. Sebastian, thank you so much for your time today.

Sebastian Junger: Thank you. My pleasure.

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12 Comments

  • Sat, Nov 23, 2019 - 7:33am

    #1

    David Huang

    Status Bronze Member (Offline)

    Joined: Jan 20 2010

    Posts: 71

    5+

    Excellent podcast

    Excellent podcast ranging over a variety of important topics!  Thank you for this one.  I’m glad you brought Sebastian Junger back on.

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  • Sat, Nov 23, 2019 - 10:52am

    #2
    phoenixl

    phoenixl

    Status Member (Offline)

    Joined: Nov 01 2015

    Posts: 14

    3+

    former circles and university students

    Reading this underscores my longtime ache for the circle of friends I had back in the ’70s: compassionate, funny, and any of them would drop what they were doing to come help you with anything. Then everyone moved on to new places, jobs, suburbs, and each sunk into themselves as they no longer had those deep connections with the new people they met. I’ve moved many times through many states, and although I always meet some nice people, our suburban layouts and over 40 hour workweeks vitiate against building community. Even in my Land Use course, I talk about the psychological separation that suburbs create, with everyone driving into their own garages and not getting out of the car until they garage door is down. Hard to chat with the neighbors when everyone is doing the same thing, right?

    I also agree with the author about cell phones. I have been teaching at the university level since the ’90s, and I have seen students go from being able to introduce themselves on the first day of class to someone they are sitting next to, to now never attempting to get to know the person on either side of them, but all just staring at their cell phones until I start class (where they are forced to put away cell phones, computers, ear buds, etc.) The addiction I see is flabbergasting, and it is bizarre to see students stay lonely all semester in my classes. Anxiety is way up and climbing through the years, with more and more students saying anxiety keeps them from making it to the test, or immobilizes them so they don’t come to school for weeks. As a result, I tell the few people I know who have young children to not use cell phones around their kids and to keep the phones away from their kids, so those children can grow up with parents modeling communicative behavior instead of isolating themselves in a virtual world. This was a great podcast, as it really brought out what people need more than money.

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  • Sat, Nov 23, 2019 - 3:40pm

    #3

    Chris Martenson

    Status Platinum Member (Offline)

    Joined: Jun 07 2007

    Posts: 4796

    6+

    The Need for Community

    Reading this underscores my longtime ache for the circle of friends I had back in the ’70s: compassionate, funny, and any of them would drop what they were doing to come help you with anything.

    I truly believe that we’re living through the dark ages of technology – when it can seemingly provide anything and everything, but actually it’s robbing us blind of the very things we need and desire most.

    It’s going to be especially difficult to retrain a generation of people who grew up without learning the basics – how to make an egg, how to change a tire, and how to disagree with someone productively.

    The next community Evie and I are seeking to either join or form, will be dedicated to the pursuits of many passions, willing to push past the usual masks and shallow interactions, and dedicated to the idea of regeneration.

    In Ben Falk’s book on permaculture, he nailed a set of definitions for me that were so good they have shifted my mental landscape a bit.

    Resilience he said, is about what is.  It’s about the things you have to work with and use to rebuild and react.

    Regeneration is about what’s possible.  It takes a ken eye to see something that isn’t already there, but know that it could be.  It’s Singing Frogs Farm, or Polyface Farm starting with depleted, threadbare soils but knowing (and seeing) what was possible.

    I want to be in a community of people committed to what’s possible.  I don’t want to be in a community that’s all about doing things as they’ve always been done.  No HOAs for sure(!), but not even local cultures that say “but this is how we do things…”  if those things limit what’s possible.

    We know, from history, that what’s possible is simply mind-boggling.  Walls that cover 1,500 miles, pyramids and stone works that cannot really be grasped in their skill, feats of navigation that seem impossible.

    Now we humans face another really daunting set of challenges.  How to wind down from a chemical fueled rave, a massive orgy of burning through 400 million years of ancient sunlight in about 200 years?  Nobody knows.

    How to return to alignment with natural rhythms and limits, when nobody has had to do that for too many generations so the knowledge is all but lost.

    How to live in beauty when my entire culture covets strip malls, wallows in celebrity worship, or happily puts in slightly cheaper concrete installations that will all have to be replaced at some all-too-soon and awkward moment in the future?

    I don’t have the big answers to the even larger questions, but I am ready to live in and around people who are ready to live in alignment with what’s possible.

     

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  • Sat, Nov 23, 2019 - 10:35pm

    #4
    MKI

    MKI

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    Joined: Jan 12 2009

    Posts: 103

    2+

    To choose community is to redefine it

    Yes tech exacerbates loneliness but it’s not the root of our community problem. Junger nails it:

    People say…I haven’t found my tribe yet. Which means you’re not going to…I mean, if you’re looking for tribe, your tribe is around you…I think the safe way to talk about it is, when you look out the window…the houses that you see and the people that you see, that’s your community. And those are the people you need to connect with.…I can’t give you a sort of one-size-fits-all like how to create and bond in a community. But you have to…

    We cannot “choose” community, or it becomes something else. Humans have universal evolutionary traits, e.g. what “makes us human” and is the glue for every culture in recorded history: 1) war, 2) religion, 3) trade, 4) arts, 5) a division of labor between the sexes. It’s hubris to think we can eliminate or outsource these traits and still be a lasting tribe.

    Even more traumatic to modern tribal dreams is the loss of extended family & job mobility (isolation); <2.1 children/woman (extinction); & massive immigration (invasion). Institutionalization of the elderly helps to ignore/deny the reality of death & religion, but only for the young so it’s a hollow victory.

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  • Sun, Nov 24, 2019 - 8:32am

    #5

    sand_puppy

    Status Platinum Member (Offline)

    Joined: Apr 13 2011

    Posts: 2001

    3+

    Destroying Community with My Righteousness

    It is much easier to feel a fraternal bond with someone who shares our important viewpoints.  Climate change, Trump, 9/11, vaccines, GWOT.    I am  for “Issue A”, while my neighbor is against.

    We BOTH feel both correct and righteous about our position and that having our position WIN feels imperative.  We perceive the victory of Issue A as a part of the great archetypal battle of GOOD versus EVIL.

    Our role is that of an Archangel fighting for Good.

    We do not just disagree on Issue A, but far more.   We feel the imperative to destroy the advocates of this “false truth” for righteousness sake.    As if they are the devil’s minion horde threatening the Kingdom of Righteousness which I defend.  (Deliberately being dramatic to paint a vivid picture.)

    Pictured above:  Me, advocating for my position on a crucial topic.  🙂

    For me, letting my viewpoint and its importance fade back a bit has helped.  Opening to the humanity and common ground of those who disagree.

    Seeking to understand another, rather than convince.

    “Listening carefully with an open heart.”

    “What do you need?  What do you fear and hope for?”

    “I support you in meeting your needs.”

     

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  • Mon, Nov 25, 2019 - 8:12am

    #6
    Jitiy

    Jitiy

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    Joined: Mar 26 2019

    Posts: 3

    4+

    prayer

    The answer to all of this is simple, and it has been present across human cultures and civilizations since antiquity, and it’s communal and private prayer and meditation. The most beneficial prayer & mediation for me, outside the offering of the holy Sacrifice of the Mass (http://usccb.org/prayer-and-worship/the-mass/index.cfm), is the Rosary (https://www.rosarycenter.org/homepage-2/rosary/how-to-pray-the-rosary/). Recently, I have also added further meditation (https://tergar.org/) to the mix. Very helpful, and no drugs  or psychiatrists or costs of any kind required.

    God’s Peace to all of you! 🙂

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  • Tue, Nov 26, 2019 - 5:56am

    #7
    macro2682

    macro2682

    Status Gold Member (Offline)

    Joined: Sep 03 2009

    Posts: 331

    Share this

    Can this podcast be unlocked from the pay site so I can share with others?

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  • Wed, Nov 27, 2019 - 9:45am

    #8
    grandefille

    grandefille

    Status Member (Offline)

    Joined: Oct 11 2010

    Posts: 14

    3+

    Thoughtful deliberation, NOT cars the key to Amish community

    I’m just now listening to this excellent podcast.  It definitely makes me want to read the book!  I think the lack of automobiles isn’t critical to the cohesiveness of Amish community; it’s their ATTITUDE.  There are many Amish communities in Michigan, where I live.  A decade ago (give or take) the keynote speaker at a small farm conference was an Amish gentleman.  He began his talk thusly:  ” how many of you believe that television is bad for our society, please raise your hands (75% or so agreed).  Now, how many of you are willing to give up television completely?  (very few hands).  To be Amish is to be willing to deny yourself a pleasure or convenience for the good of your community.”

    Julie

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  • Wed, Nov 27, 2019 - 11:04am

    #9

    newsbuoy

    Status Bronze Member (Offline)

    Joined: Dec 10 2013

    Posts: 204

    Finding Community

    https://www.latimes.com/world-nation/story/2019-11-27/matt-shea-spokane-washington-white-nationalism

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  • Wed, Nov 27, 2019 - 4:53pm

    Reply to #8
    MKI

    MKI

    Status Member (Offline)

    Joined: Jan 12 2009

    Posts: 103

    3+

    Deny "yourself" for community.

    To be Amish is to be willing to deny yourself a pleasure or convenience for the good of your community.

    Julie, this is true. But it’s more than that. Mennonites give up freedom and individuality as the price of admission, with strict obedience to a church authority (generally a bishop). This goes way beyond clothing, cars, phones, or media, and even to issues like no birth control/abortion (which has likely been key to their growth rate). Pleasure & convenience, although more visible, seem trivial in comparison.

    I never take the “community!” lament from modern people seriously. One can have personal freedom or a tight community, never both. I thought Junger did a fair job of accepting this reality in his talk by redefining “community” as our whatever our current situation is, wisely knowing modern people will forever remain adrift due to the inability to enforce values. One sees this a lot with modern people being proud of being “spiritual” but “not-religious”.

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  • Wed, Nov 27, 2019 - 5:35pm

    Reply to #5

    Mots

    Status Bronze Member (Offline)

    Joined: Jun 18 2012

    Posts: 92

    Destroying Community with My Righteousness: Fraternal Bonds and Prayer

    SP (and jitiy), I hear you, I understand and agree with you regarding the situational facts as they exist in many so-called communities in the “developed” leviathan world where huge masses of people self sort at the local level into communities based on something other than basic survival in a local resource niche.   “Fraternal Bonds” and “Prayer” may dominate such communities.  But I think that “community” as existed for thousands of years before the matrix, and which we can consider for the future, may be outside the need to treat each other differently based on fraternal bonds and common prayer systems.

    Things like praying , having the same politics, personal disposition, fraternal bonds and history, viewpoints etc. are not a basis of community in my opinion.  In the sparsely populated agrarian boondocks, deep in a country that is depopulating or underpopulated and that can ignore the emperor/shogun/federal govt, the matrix, whether it is the electronic smart phone based or priest or famous person/politics based matrix that clusters small groups inside a larger leviathan does not rule.  The small community is based on reality and what people can DO for each other.  Not prayer, or politics.

    When we suddenly need to dig a big grave because a popular pet goat just died, or we summon neighbors because the cherry tree now has ripe cherries, or the plum tree has plums that need to picked now or will quickly rot, someone has an unusually big harvest of a crop that will spoil quickly and needs help, needs to plant a big crop, the robot cultivator just broke at the worst time, the internet link broke, or the disparate people who live near each other meet for a public disaster drill on the top of the local hill, no one gives a rat’s as* about anyone else’s politics, religion, family bonds or favorite mania.
    Community was (pre industrial revolution) and will be (post exponential growth) defined by how people living physically close in their unique niche harvest their unique local resources by relying on each person’s skill and willingness to contribute to harvesting the local resources.  In my opinion real diversity is needed and appreciated when dealing with reality.  Matrix or leviathan thoughts, religion thoughts, prejudices and biases are trivial.
    I am very optimistic about this.  People in a locavore (self produced/self consumed) resilient community appreciate each other for how they can help out with managing the physical reality that they share.  They don’t have time to be bigoted or prejudiced over cups of coffee (or internet keyboard chit-chat crapping) contemplating how they are special or different.

     

     

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  • Wed, Nov 27, 2019 - 7:23pm

    #10

    newsbuoy

    Status Bronze Member (Offline)

    Joined: Dec 10 2013

    Posts: 204

    mother OTHERS

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