The earth is full: scarcity and abundance thinking


‘Take care! Hot noontide sleeps upon the fields. Do not sing! Soft! The world is perfect’.

~Friedrich Nietzsche, Thus Spoke Zarathustra

It may be the gloomiest TED talk ever. In 2012, the Australian environmentalist Paul Gilding stood before a packed house at Long Beach, California, and explained how a catastrophic economic crisis is inevitable. Gilding calls it The Great Disruption. Gilding’s choice of title reflects his optimistic view that our societies can navigate this crisis and emerge renewed on the other side. If this optimism is misplaced, we’re facing The Great Collapse. The crisis, Gilding explains, is being ‘triggered by humanity passing the limits of the earth’s capacity to provide cheap resources, especially soil, climate and water’. Gilding cites the research of the Global Footprint Network, which calculates that we need 1.5 planet Earths to sustain the global economy at its current levels. With a business as usual mindset in Washington DC, and astounding economic growth in China, India, and other parts of the developing world, a full-scale ecosystemic meltdown is unavoidable. Gilding is frank about the consequences: ‘[W]hat happens when you operate a [finite] system past its limits … is that the system stops working and breaks down. This is what will happen to us’.

Gilding’s argument, while persuasive, is neither original nor new. The argument was first articulated by the Club of Rome in its paper on the limits to growth in the 1970s. Recently, Annie Leonard reiterated the thesis in The Story of Stuff: ‘[W]e live on a finite planet and you can not run a linear system on a finite planet indefinitely’. In 2013, with record heatwaves about the world and weather-related disasters shocking climate deniers out of their complacency, the implications of this idea seem to be sinking in. The GFC reminded us what happens when we live beyond our means. The Great Disruption will remind us that our economies and societies have been drawing down on planetary ecosystems for one hundred and fifty years and giving nothing back. We’ve been stacking up an ecosystemic overdraft. Sooner or later, we’ll have to pay the debt. [Read more…]

Lines of flight: Deleuze and nomadic creativity

prisoner (1)‘I am not a number – I am a free man!’ Patrick McGoohan cries in the 60s cult-TV series, The Prisoner. McGoohan plays a British spy who is held captive in a village on an island controlled by a faceless authority. The prisoner, known only as Number 6, has resigned from the secret service. It seems to be his crime. In the opening sequence, we see him burst into his spy chief’s office and passionately submit his resignation; he is subsequently drugged, kidnapped, and whisked off to the island. We never find out why he quit. 

The authorities on the island are as perplexed we we are. The prisoner is told that he will remain interned on the island until he has explained himself. But the prisoner refuses to do so. Instead, he seeks to escape. Insistently. The prisoner’s whole tenure on the island (the entirety of two seasons of the show) consists of attempts to escape and flee to the mainland.

Captured by the eerie bouncing balls that guard the island, the prisoner is hauled before Number 2 and issued a sardonic dressing down. ‘In a society, one must learn to conform’, Number 2 tells him. 

‘I am not a number – I am a free man!’ the prisoner replies. The moment he is alone, he is preparing to escape again.

deleuze-et-guattariWe can see The Prisoner as a metaphor for the sixties counterculture. According to the French philosopher Gilles Deleuze (1925-1995), the counterculture was defined by the many ways that groups and individuals sought to escape the society of normalisation and control that their parents’ generation had helped create. 

The driving impulse behind the counterculture was not just to oppose the status quo, it was to get free of it – to head for the horizon with bloodshot eyes on experimental lines of flight (fuite – this can mean leaking, fleeing, or escaping). 

Lines of flight are bolts of pent-up energy that break through the cracks in a system of control and shoot off on the diagonal. By the light of their passage, they reveal the open spaces beyond the limits of what exists. 

In a series of books written with the militant psychotherapist Felix Guattari (1930-1992), Deleuze linked human creativity to flight. It is our desire to escape the status quo that leads us to innovate. Like the prisoner, we dream of being anywhere but here. We coordinate, form alignments, combine our powers and innovate. We remake the world on creative trajectories.

Deleuze’s idea of lines of flight can help us clear up a common misconception about the sixties counterculture. The counterculture was not fundamentally oriented against mainstream society. It was oriented away from it. 

It is true that the counterculture was defined politically by the rejection of the society that existed at the time. The Free Speech movement and Students for a Democratic Society were opposed to US government policies, especially the war in Vietnam. It is also clear that, in the 1970s, the militant end of the counterculture positioned itself against the state in the hope of creating a popular movement to overthrow it. But the counterculture per se was oriented away from mainstream society. Being against was a means, not an end. 

This is evident in Woodstock generation, which was driven by the desire for another world and way of life, and inspired by the belief that this world and way of life was possible. Having a ‘countercultural’ attitude and outlook does not necessarily imply that one is hostile towards the mainstream. It signals a desire to leave the society that exists, to leave it to its own devices, and to grow creative (with new devices) with other like-minded people.

The Apple I was hacked together on a creative line of flight. So, by and large, was the internet.


One of the best expressions of countercultural line of flight is the the 1960s and ’70s back-to-land movement. Drop City, in Colorado, was the first of many hippie communities that sought to create a new kind of society​. Between 1965 and 1973, thousands of middle class kids, in flight from Mom and Dad, society, the draft, careers, and social conventions of all kinds, came to Drop City and other communes like it in search of freedom and alternative lifestyles. 

The culture got by with a minimum of rules. Everything was set up to enable free-wheeling, nomadic lifestyles, which could be recreated or escaped at a moment’s notice. Nomadism, as Deleuze and Guattari understand it, doesn’t require moving around. You can sit still and be a nomad. Nomadism is a way of being. It involves refusing to be tied down by set categories and definitions. It is driven by a desire to experiment and explore, to learn, grow, and boldly venture forth on creative lines of flight.

The hippie experiment collapsed under the weight of its contradictions. Over subsequent years and decades, the counterculture thrived. Today, the counterculture has been absorbed into the system of society – domesticated, to an extent, yet affirmed and enabled at the same time. The corporate mavericks who shake up markets with disruptive innovations create businesses on lines of flight. Each generation of teenagers is encouraged to define a new line of flight, starting with the rejection of the sounds and styles that have come before. 

Nomadism is a cultural norm. While plenty of people simply want to ‘fit in’, the best and the brightest want to break out and head for the horizon.

When we look into the future, we dream of a world that is radically different from the one we know today. 

We may be stuck in offices, trapped in traffic, tied down by debt or shacked to unhappy relationships. Inside, we are nomads. We are already in flight. The mainland awaits.

Social media as gift culture: the prismatic self

Multiple-selves-in-social-mediaThis is the third post in a series on social media gift cultures. The series draws on indigenous gift cultures to examine the psychological and motivational dynamics of social sharing online. The first post in the series, The reputation game, looks at the North American Potlatch to reflect on the enticements and rewards of sharing online. Social sharing involves a reputation game. The aim of the game is to win the favour of your tribe by presenting them with exorbitant gifts.

The second post in the series, Sharing circles and tribes, considers how tribes are formed online. Tribes emerge when participants share with select users, who return the favour by sharing with them. These sharing circles are typically based in common values and interests – hence, so are tribes. I indicate the unstable nature of sharing circles and how an affirmative attitude towards gifting helps sustain them. Imbued with the ‘spirit of the gift’, the gift becomes a token of gratitude for the sharing circle and the tribe it maintains. The more that we cultivate this spirit in our online exchanges, the more robust and fulfilling they become.

This post considers the challenges of sharing across multiple systems online. Active users of social media are often engaged across multiple sites, groups, and activities in real time. Multi-tasking online can be a source of signficant consternation. While missteps (below the threshhold of the screaming faux pas) are mostly overlooked, this doesn’t reduce the anxiety that users (particularly new users) feel when tasked with sharing across multiple channels in real time. It is easy to lose track of how one is expected to behave in different contexts.

When tech journalist Paul Miller returned to the internet after a year off, he was surprised to find how stressful it was to multi-task across services. ‘I had, like, three tabs open and I just didn’t know what was going on’, Miller complains. This is a familiar experience for users of social media, who struggle to keep up with the flow of information on multiple channels.

The solution is to find your tribe. Sharing across multiple channels is easier when we share with our tribes in mind. A thriving tribe gives back more than we contribute to it. Tribes are a living reservoir of cognitive capital and an infinite human resource.

[Read more…]

Swarms and norms: refiguring the multitude

globalizationA few years ago, I published an essay in the journal Radical Philosophy titled, ‘Refiguring the multitude: from exodus to the production of norms’ (2005). It was about swarms, though I didn’t know it at the time. The publication was a coup for me. I was a struggling contract academic, vying for attention. Radical Philosophy was an ‘up there’ journal in political philosophy circles, edgy but respectable. My paper was one of the first academic responses to Multitude (2004), Michael Hardt and Toni Negri’s sequel to their best-selling book, Empire (1999).

The essay was a bit of dog’s breakfast. But the crux of the argument resonates today. I have pasted some paragraphs below. If you are into Deleuze and social movements, this one is for you.

Re-reading ‘Refiguring the multitude’ for the first time in years, I am struck by how much of this material has become part of my mental DNA. I didn’t realise at the time, but ‘Refiguring the multitude’ was crucial to my intellectual development. Multitude certainly resonates with the high-tech world of 2013. Empire and Multitude are books you should have on your shelf, whatever part of the political spectrum you inhabit. They are books about globalization. Hardt and Negri are essentially right. Of course, they are wrong in important respects too.

The paragraphs from ‘Refiguring the multitude’ that I’ve pasted below are the crux of a line of thought that I started developing in 2002 or 2003. It was a response to the failure of the anti-globalization movement that got started in the 1990s. I was looking for a theoretical trajectory that would enable me to continue on the line of flight that I’d experienced at the height of this movement (1999-2001), this time reflecting on how swarms and social movements could contribute to creating something, in the first case, a new set of norms.

In retrospect, it is easy to see how I stepped from this argument to write Coalition of the Willing.

[Read more…]