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The Barcode moment, Part 1

Paul Kingsnorth, the Dark Mountain Project
It was in religious education classes at school (classes which always seemed to be headed by evangelical Christians, in my school at least) that I was first introduced to Satanic Barcode Theory. If you’ve no idea what I’m talking about, it works like this. First, take a quote from the Book of Revelation:

‘And he [‘the Beast’] causeth all, both small and great, rich and poor, free and bond, to receive a mark in their right hand, or in their foreheads: And that no man might buy or sell, save he that had the mark, or the name of the beast, or the number of his name. Here is wisdom. Let him that hath understanding count the number of the beast: for it is the number of a man; and his number is six hundred threescore and six.’

That’s the Christian Bible, informing you that a time will come when no-one will be able to ‘buy or sell’ without the ‘mark of the Beast’, apparently tattooed on his or her head or hand. That number is 666.

Next, take a look at this (borrowed from here):

This is a barcode. Every barcode, as you can see above, has three ‘guard bars’ on it, and each of these guard bars is the equivalent of the number 6 on the barcode, thus:

Every barcode, in other words, has the number 666 running through it like words through a stick of rock. So, the barcode, without which it is pretty tough these days to ‘buy or sell’ anything, is the mark of the Beast, according to the Bible and my old RE teacher. Satan is capitalism. Or trade, or digitisation of commerce, or supermarkets or multinationals, or something. There are a few flaws in this theory, of course, not least of which is that no-one has barcodes tattooed on their head or hand. But this, apparently, was a detail; my teacher was pretty convinced that, within a few decades, some version of the barcode would end up embedded in or imprinted on human bodies, to allow us all to transact our lives away with minimal fuss.

When I was 15, this conspiracy theory was exciting. I wasn’t religious, and wasn’t in the habit of listening much to RE teachers, but this lesson grabbed me. It satisfied the Manichean part of my nature. The world was, in this telling, black and white: a straight battle between good and evil. And once people started tattooing barcodes on their skin it was going to be damn clear which was which. At that point, those of us who were good would be able to see what was coming, and we would have to cut loose: run to the hills, form communes, get guns, prepare. It would be frightening, but also thrilling – and, most importantly of all, morally simple. There was no complexity here. You had the mark, or you didn’t. And when the moment came, I’d never let them mark me.

You’re quite susceptible to this kind of worldview when you’re fifteen, you’ve read The Lord of The Rings twice and you watch Star Wars every Christmas. Then you grow up and you realise, with some regret, that life is more morally complex than this. You realise that the barcode moment – the moment when the grey areas fall away and you are forced to choose, and you can take a stand with clarity – will never come.

And then you see this:

This is Project Glass, pioneered by the increasingly evil Google. Project Glass aims to – well, you can see for yourself what it aims to do. It will allow you to stream the internet directly into your eyes, providing you, literally, with a new lens through which to see the world: one manufactured by a big corporation. One which defines and explains that world to you, according to your own consumer criteria, and which will doubtless make every effort to sell bits of it to you as well. As a breathless review of this infant technology by a geek magazine explains:

The Google goggles can give weather information when you look out the window, show you a text message and allow you to reply with voice dictation and more. One section of the video shows the glasses informing the user that the underground system is suspended before they enter the station and goes on to give turn by turn walking directions to the destination … We don’t know how far away from getting hold of a pair of these we are but we hope it’s sooner rather than later.

I bet you do, you ridiculous nerds. Google has been regaling us with possibilities. Wearing these, you’ll be able to look at a tree and be informed what species it is; look at a cloud and get a flashing message in the sky giving you its meteorological name; look at a product and get a price. The whole world will be explained. You’ll be an excited, well-informed robot-person, all day every day, and there’ll be no need at all for even minimal interaction with your surroundings or with other living creatures.

(1 May, 2012)
Parts 2 and 3 of Paul’s essay are located here and here. -KS

Learning To Love A Wounded World

Dianne Monroe, Speaking Truth to Power
In his book Eaarth, Bill McKibben explains that the effects of man-made global warming are not a thing of the future, but are already here now. Human activity for the past centuries has already changed the Earth we thought we knew. How can we learn to love this damaged Earth that human activity (both knowingly and unknowingly) has created? How do we wrap our brains and hearts around something this huge? And how do we do this in a way that offers healing, renewal, genuine hope and a path forward?

These are the questions swirling in my heart, as I stand ankle deep in a stream in San Antonio, Texas. The stream flows from a spring called “The Blue Hole”, headwaters of the San Antonio River that flows to the Gulf of Mexico. It is June 2010, and the largest oil spill in history is still pouring thousands of barrels of oil a day into the Gulf. Around me are others, gathered in ceremony to express our grief for the wounded waters of the Gulf – and our aquifer, of which the Blue Hole is a part, itself endangered by over use, over development and drought.

Someone has brought a box of Kleenex. It is passed freely among us as each of us speaks our sorrow and grief for wounded waters of the Gulf and our aquifer. This gathering is part of the first Radical Joy for Hard Times, a worldwide community of people committed to finding and making beauty in wounded places, founded by Trebbe Johnson, a writer and Wilderness Guide. One by one we stand in the stream and offer our acts a beauty – a poem, a song, heartfelt words – to the spring that is part of our aquifer and to the stream, which will carry them to the Gulf. Handmade “boats” fashioned from leaves and moss are placed in the water to carry our acts of beauty to the Gulf.

At about the same time Annie Bloom and Jade Sherer, Guides with Bill Plotkin’s Animas Valley Institute were grieving the Gulf oil spill, asking themselves and each other how to bring the idea of finding beauty in a broken world more fully into their work. From this, their program, Turning Toward a Breaking World was created.

For Jade is was “a moment of realizing in a very tangible way, just how many people in the world are turning away from the pain inherent in the truth of these times, versus turning toward it all. This requires a willingness to feel everything…. the horror and the beauty of what is here…. the fear and the Love.”

Both Radical Joy for Hard Times and Turning Toward a Breaking World draw from the work of Eco-philosopher, Joanna Macy, who began working with this theme decades ago. Her Work that Reconnects is a path-breaking approach to opening our feelings of sorrow and despair, and the amazing things that can flow from having the courage to do this.

“(By) acknowledging the emotions of losses we are experiencing, continuing to experience, we find a way to move the energy, shift the energy,” Annie Bloom explains.

Why should we turn toward a breaking world or spend time with wounded and damaged places? Why open ourselves to pain, sorrow, despair and plethora of other difficult feelings? Isn’t it better – or at least more pleasant – to look at the good side of things?
(15 May, 2012)

It’s all right

Charlotte Du Caan, Transition Norwich blog
“How come all your songs are about water?” the anthropologist asked the Hopi elder, as he sang to his corn on the mesa. “Because water is rare and precious in our land,” he replied. “How come all your songs are about love?”

This is a post about a song. It’s a song I’ve been singing all my life. You could say all our lives are a song. Or a harmony, or a rhythm. Sometimes the song is a lullaby, a threnody, a torch song, a protest song, or a requiem. It’s something we sing on our own, or accompanied by other people, a capella, andante, allegro, con moto, ma non troppo. Sometimes the song we sing goes at a different pace, or is in a different key than the sounds amplified by the machines that surround us, which makes it hard to hold the note, to keep the beat on our own. Sometimes we long for people we can sing it with, and sometimes if we are lucky and the band is playing, we find them.

Little darling it’s been a long and lonely winter . . .

I heard the song when I was eight years old, and sang it loudly as I went up the ski lift on the snowy meadow in the Austrian Alps. Behind me was Hermann, our instructor, whom I loved completely with the heart of a child. It was a glorious day. I was away from school, away from home, with my friends and the mountains sparkling all around me. I was in a new country and I felt free for the first time in my young life, as if I had stepped out of a black and white photograph and into a moving rainbow-coloured universe.

I didn’t know the words (for the song had not yet been written down) but I knew the feeling. And you could say in those fifty-something years since, I have been faithful to that moment. I learned to sing this song in the heartless institutions of the world, in the corridors of power, in sad suburban houses and crummy hotels. I have sung it the bookshops of London and Bristol and Edinburgh, in an American gaol and in a Kent garden on May Day, in an orphanage chapel in Mexico, on the underground station in Santiago de Chile – in two,three and four part harmony (with a little help from my friends). When I first joined Transition I sang this song at the Heart and Soul group in Norwich, I sang it at Mark’s 50th birthday last week – with Mark.

It seems like years since it’s been here

Music is many things. And like everyone else in this culture I could trace my passage through life and all its tempestuous relationships through certain songs and symphonies. I spent my youth carrying a cello around, playing in scratch orchestras, singing in school choirs, queuing for hours for cheap seats at the Royal Opera House and the Festival Hall. I listened to Radio Caroline as it rocked in the North Sea outside my school dormitory window. I danced to the beat in the Meat Market in New York, in the Cafe de Paris in London, at a hundred parties in warehouses and mansions and slums. I danced to Aurelia’s drum and Mark’s chant on the rooftops in Oaxaca and made Julianne smile. You broke my heart open, she said, like Spring. I interviewed the country singer, Garth Brookes in snowy South Bend, Indiana, and he told me: the struggle is everything.

the ice is slowly melting

Maybe it was the 24 hour non-stop salsa bus ride to the Ecuadorian coast in 1990 that did it. But at some point, the music stopped. Mozart is driving me crazy, I said to my musician friends. All those bloody notes! They looked at me horrified. But it was true. Mozart was giving me a stomach ache. I felt as if I was stuck in a claustrophobic room and couldn’t get out. Pretty soon I couldn’t bear Beethoven either, or those gloomy Romantic composers or swoopy sopranos. I felt stuck in History, in a record that was going round and round.

And then it happened with Joan Baez. It’s not that I was a big Joan Baez fan, but I was listening, wrapped up in a song she wrote about Dylan called Diamonds and Rust and I realised my feet were not on the ground. The song was taking me somewhere vague and nostalgic, somewhere out of time and out of place, and then abandoning me. I wanted to stay in that song, in that sad and poignant feeling, but it wasn’t real. It was a path that led nowhere (which, in many ways, is what the song itself is about). I felt as though I’d been tricked. And pretty soon after that I realised that’s where most music takes you, out of yourself, off-planet, never quite delivering you to the place you hope it will. And then leaving you in silence, longing for more.

the smiles returning to their faces

So what has any of this personal stuff got to do with Transition? There is a really positive side to music; it can lift you up, make you get up and shimmy (I still really love to dance), it can break the ice, make you smile. But there is a treacherous side to it too, and culturally at this point we would be wise to realise what those dangers might be. In spite of the brilliant, right-on lyrics that John has been writing about in the last three days, music is also mass distraction, and escape from reality (most assuredly from the hard facts of peak oil and climate change) and has been highly manipulated by the advertising and entertainment industries. It can make us believe we have freedom in our grasp and are connected to the whole world, when in fact we are as trapped as caged birds, stuck in our interior worlds, listening to i-pods. Lost in a trance, in the world of fairie…
(17 May, 2012)