On Democracy, Meaning, & Feeling Insane.

(or, When in doubt, plant beans.)

In British Columbia—where we live the Small and Delicious Life—it has been just twelve hours since the election was called for the expand-business-as-usual B.C. Liberal Party. For a little excitement, the leader of the party lost her riding, and so a byelection is likely in the near future.

After the election was called by media and the leader of the opposition had conceded defeat, the Premier gave her victory speech. And, just five days after atmospheric carbon passed 400 ppm,Scientists and politicians have decided the ‘Risk Worth Taking’ level of CO2 is 350 ppm, but it is quite likely the level should be 300 or 250 ppm, if we want to enjoy a climate similar to one in which human civilization evolved. she cheered the expansion of Liquified Natural Gas, and promised great economic growth.

The pro-labourOn my list of things to write is why labour is officially part of the problem. opposition, the New Democratic Party, also promised growth. The second paragraph of their election platform reads:

We will focus on the fundamentals that promote private sector growth, entrepreneurial innovation, and a thriving small business sector…

So, in the interest of clarity, here are some of my assumptions:

Look at a picture of Earth from space. You can see it has edges; it is finite, therefore nothing can grow forever. Try to think of anything that has grown forever,if you can come up anything, please comment below there is nothing. Every tree has or will fall down. Every human stops growing and dies. Tortoises that live centuries eventually die. Philosophies and religions wither. Empires collapse. Without fail, everything stops growing.

So, to hinge every promise of betterment on an impossibility seems like a bit of a waste of time. Maybe we could start talking about what betterment without growth could look like.

And regarding climate change, I am convinced there is a scientific consensus. The strange weather events we are seeing with increasing frequency match the predictions of climate scientists. The warming and melting we are seeing exceed the predictions of climate scientists. Almost universally, climate scientists have erred on the side of caution and things are getting worse faster than predicted. This is going to be very unpleasant.Bye bye, Delta! See you later, Richmond! So long, Modern Agriculture!

So, the Liberals are going to lead us to an impossibility, and spice with disaster. The NDP would like to increase the social justice of the impossibility of growth, and, since growth has never been decoupled from fossil energy,Nor do I expect a decoupling. All the renewables are built with fossil energy, and require materials that are depleting just as fast as oil. also spice it with disaster.

In effect, the NDP is fighting for better working conditions for the belowdecks crew of the Titanic. And I don’t think that is terribly meaningful.

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I want to talk about Democracy a little, before I return to Meaning. Or maybe I am not talking about Democracy—I don’t know, I never studied Political Science. But I do know that people are right bent out of shape about low voter turnout and how other people fight and die for the rights we have and how great Democracy is.

Democracy may be great, but our political system is not. The fight is largely between two different flavours of ice cream—crème caramel need not apply. Having chosen your ice cream there is not much for you to do for the next four years. You can write letters, but not many people do. You can protest in the streets, but not many people do.For my take on why people do not, I would ask you to watch my video, The Top Ten Myths of Behaviour Change, and then follow it up with reading Compassionate Systems. Or, you can rely on the opposition to hold them to account.

I have a particular spot in my spleen for “holding them to account”. If you hold someone to account, you would expect them to experience the consequences of their actions. So, largely, this means the opposition will try to smear dirt on the government to the degree they lose the next election—after four years. That is not exactly Draconian punishment. And, of course, since voters must bundle their hopes and dreams on dozens of issues up into one vote, there is just as good a chance the government will be re-elected and no accounts will be held. This is a reasonable take on last night’s election—voters in B.C. sure do not want pipelines of dirty Alberta crude besmirching our pristine coast—but we sure do love jobs and a growing economy!

So, there is no real way for my hopes and dreams to be included in our political system. Does that mean I would like referendums on everything?Only on Stockwell Day. No. If you have taken the 45 minutes for the video and essay I linked in the side notes, you will understand why. And if you haven’t taken the 45 minutes, I don’t blame you, but you are demonstrating the realities of life that make widespread referendums a bad idea.

So, our system does not include people in a way that feels meaningful in their lives. A lack of meaning is profoundly demotivating, as has been articulated by Dan Pink and Dan Ariely. So, it is not that The Kids Don’t Care, it is just that our political system is not really worth caring about.

Because some people demand a positive vision, here it is. The next step I would like to see towards a Meaningful Politics is Proportional Representation augmented with regular Citizen’s Assemblies.Yes, I remember the recommendation of B.C.’s first Citizen’s Assembly, that B.C. adopt Proportional Representation, was defeated at referendum. Thanks for asking.

My mother has long advocated for Government by Lottery, and I am pretty much with her; I have no confidence in the Political Equestrian Class. I would much rather be ruled by my randomly selected neighbour, because I think they would take the task very seriously, and so Citizen’s Assemblies  seem like a great process. We cannot all learn everything there is to know about every important issue, so delegating groups of people like us to make various decisions seems a lot better than Technocracy.

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So, the bright side…the bright side is an NDP victory could have gotten all Obama, where everybody breathes a sigh of relief, and before you know it, six years have passed and Guantanamo is still operating. The Liberals are clear—we should burn, sell and pipe any and all fossil fuels as long as we get a fat cheque. We know what we are in for.

And so I think the Liberals may actually be good for my mental health. One of the benefits of the Small and Delicious Life is reduced cognitive dissonance. I found that living in a world that did not make sense was very difficult, I felt crazy a lot of the time. The conclusions I draw do not match up with what society seems to think, and that seems like a pretty functional description of insanity. Now that I spend more time gardening, I spend more time in a world that makes sense.

But, Obama’s Siren song pulls at me too. It would be so nice to just be normal. It would have been great to just sit back and let the NDP create some Green Jobs in the Growing Green Economy.

Sadly, fossil-fueled-growth is exactly what we should expect. Loss is twice as painful as gain, and so, in uncertain times, in a world beaten by storms, with failing banks, bankrupt cities and countries, and record bonuses for bankers, you can easily understand why voters would want jobs, why the story of growth is so much more comforting than the fear of the unknown. The whole world is turning to strict governments who will make us take our medicine. I expect to see more of this, not less.

And so, I will write my letters, don’t you worry. I will march. I will sign petitions—perhaps even more of them than before. But these things will really just be empty gestures—I am not interested in the working conditions on the Titanic, or even a discussion about building iceberg detectors. I want to ask where we are sailing to and why we are setting sail at all.

And, when in doubt plant beans, for every bean you grow is a bean the world didn’t have before. This year, my tomato seedlings are the most beautiful I have ever grown, with thick strong stems and broad leaves. The peas are looking for something to do chin-ups on and the bees have stuffed two boxes full of eggs and larvae. Almost two years have passed since we moved here, and we are gardening community as well. I think that has meaning. I vote Beans.


  1. […] I might sum up Western Democracy as the process by which we use one vote, cast sporadically, to elect someone who is largely as uninformed as we are, in the hopes they will represent our complex and often self-contradictory views. If they do not, we have no recourse except the laughable “holding them to account” in the next election cycle—at which time we may find we make exactly the same choice we did last time because our concern for abortion rights still outweighs our desire for intact ecosystems. Get Out the Vote campaigns change nothing more than the number of people casting that sporadic, lonely, unenforceable vote. […]

  2. Ruben, I am so incredibly happy to have found you and your blog! Finally, a fellow Canadian who seems to have adopted what I credit as the John Michael Greer worldview ( I think I read somewhere on here that you’re a fan of his?)
    I almost fell out of my chair when I read “My mother has long advocated for Government by Lottery, and I am pretty much with her”. I LOVE it when someone proves that I’m not the only one with an idea that seems totally great to myself buy insane to everyone else, and you’re telling me that there are not just two, but three of us? Keep writing good sir, I sincerely hope to make your acquaintance one day.

    • I am so glad you like it, Drew. Sign up for my newsletter—one of these days I may send another one out!

      I am indeed a big fan of John Michael Greer. His is probably the only blog that I not only never miss reading, but also read the comments most of the time. His book The Long Descent is one of my most recommended, though his newer Mystery Teachings From the Living Earth is getting up there.

      And we are far from the only person who believes in government by lottery, I was surprised to find a couple of Wikipedia pages on Sortition and Demarchy.

      In fact just this morning, my wife was ranting about Kinder Morgan trying to make the argument that oil spills are good for the economy, and I responded, “Yet another problem we wouldn’t have if we had government by lottery!” Surely no government, selected at random from our neighbours, would have so many sociopathic idiots drawn that a company could make a statement like that without having their corporate charter revoked.



    • Hi Lindsay,

      My teacher, mentor and friend, Duane Elverum, says a conversation about ideas is like carrying two rocks in your pocket – as they rub together, each is polished. So thank you for the opportunity to polish my ideas.

      I am familiar with the “Don’t change your lightbulbs, change your laws.” argument. I argue extensively for system change in my other writings (as linked in the side notes, especially Compassionate Systems). And I would be curious to hear your thoughts on my proposal for changing “the game”, Citizen’s Assemblies within Proportional Representation.

      However, recently I have been asking people to consider if what they are doing doesn’t work, it may be because it just doesn’t work. If so, no amount of tweaking, innovating, or streamlining will make it work. It just doesn’t work.

      And so I would agree wholeheartedly with the article’s statement that we cannot shop our way out of this. That has been the focus of nearly a decade of my life’s work. That is the focus of half of the comments I make online. And what is the antithesis of shopping? Making. I find hipsters to be very conflicted, but I think that is because we both do the same thing for different reasons. The different reasons mean I am unwilling to buy particular blue jeans or wear giant Ray Bans, but we meet at gardening and curing meat. We meet at making.

      I like to compare an escalator and an elevator. When an elevator breaks down, you have trapped the passengers in now-useless infrastructure. But when an escalator breaks down, you still have stairs. Now, my judgement is “the game” is broken, it doesn’t work and we can’t make it work. You can’t tear down the Master’s House with the Master’s Tools (I think this makes more sense if you think of power structures, not hammers).

      Furthermore, in a sustainable future world, we all will be doing all the small, personal steps. We won’t fly often, we will walk and ride almost exclusively, we will eat seasonally and many more of us will work in agriculture, we will turn off the lights when we leave a room, we will wear sweaters when we are cold, we will own much less stuff which we will fix and care for. I know we will be doing all this stuff in a sustainable world because if we don’t we won’t live in a sustainable world. So rather than take yet one more excuse for inaction, that personal steps don’t matter, just change your lightbulbs AND your laws.

      Now, as I said, I think the political game is broken. Over decades of activism, we have less personal freedom and privacy, fewer species and less habitat, and a planet that is growing tired of us. I think activism as it is currently structured is broken. I don’t know what the new model is, but I think it is smaller scale, and I think there is a fair chance the disruptive innovation that will surprise us all is going to be a much more DIY lifestyle. Like an escalator, small steps break into something useful. They aren’t enough by themselves, but they are necessary. And growing your own food breaks into…fresh, delicious, healthy, environmental food.

      Thanks again,


    • Thank you for the link to your post. “The NDP is by far the most sympathetic player of the old game. But what we need is an entirely new game. ”

      I agree with you; I think they just don’t get it.


  3. you remind me of George Bernard Shaw’s Black Girl in Search of God… (oh yes… refreshingly pre-PC), bestowed ‘pon me by my first love, no doubt in response to some long-forgotten conversation or philosophy on seeking & not finding, but rather: grow a garden and lo… ye shall find…

    i have increasingly felt a growing cycnicism toward the effort of democracy (which i’ll only dare admit virtually while slightly toasted in Seattle), and despite voting faithfully in each election. one, because, apparently, it facilitates the “tyranny of the majority”, and two, because the system just seems rigged against the sane (that’s not even taking into account robocalls). who needs to be a conspiracy theorist when mainstream papers are telling us that the big banks have colluded to fix rates, and probably have since the dawn of time? meanwhile, i have to walk by bus shelter ads that chastise me / the-demographic-that-goes-to-spin-class (cuz i don’t but hell, it COULD be me) for preferring spin class over voting. i’ll spare your time and attention the unpacking of the assumptions that went into THAT ad, and the reasons why it’s the worst way to “encourage” voting ever… if that was even the intention. wait, what was the intention??

    anyway, all that’s just an inchoate way of saying yeah, grow beans – some years they’ll grow well and others they’ll wither depending on the climate; but in the process we’ll still grow new stories. if they get told often enough, negotiated and reinvented often enough, maybe we’ll create a whole new world?

    • That does look like an interesting book—and a comparison to Shaw? I’ll take it! I found this quote:

      “It is said that every people has the Government it deserves. It is more to the point that every Government has the electorate it deserves; for the orators of the front bench can edify or debauch an ignorant electorate at will. Thus our democracy moves in a vicious circle of reciprocal worthiness and unworthiness.”

  4. Oh. Also I see your comment on new stories. I wrote a long academic paper in the fall on how to create new stories for a new world. Perhaps I should summarize that for a blog post someday!

    • I would be interested in that. I am most interested in some science-y stuff about how or whether stories allow us to behave differently. Wasn’t it Thomas King that said we are made of stories? But a storyteller loving stories is not the science I need for bureaucracy….

      So, when I look at history, I see lots of examples of change that seem like they were only made possible by inventing a new story. But what if it is some other factor that is responsible, not story? If you have anything in your bibliography, please send it along.



  5. Thanks so much for putting into words exactly how I feel about the election. I was all set to write another long post today about it all but have decided no….. I am going to post this afternoon about things I am making and growing instead. So Much Better.

    • Thanks for the link, BZ.

      It is interesting for me, with regards to my work on Behaviour Change. My gut feeling is that we need new narratives, new stories. King had a great new story, “All People are Created Equal.” I think we need new stories about Growth and about Wealth (where does wealth come from, therefore do you deserve it, therefore let’s share it a lot more equally).

      But my fear is that I am just telling myself a story—that story is important. I can’t find any science on this, so if you run across any studies on new narratives and change, please send them to me.


  6. Ruben,
    Growing community is one of the few things that pays back like gardening. Glad to hear that the simpler life is working out. If you are anywhere near Revy give us a call, it would be great to have a pint again.

    • Thanks Mike. It would be nice to raise a glass again, especially Nelson Brewing—organic, packaged in reusable containers and delicious.



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