I came across this post from Dave Pollard via Twitter the other day, and found it so provocative that I am compelled to crosspost. (I emailed Dave and he gave me his permission.) After I retweeted it, a few people wrote back saying it was overly pessimistic and doom-and-gloomy, but after looking through some of Dave’s other posts, he seems to actually be quite optimistic that the power of local community and resilience can “save the world.” Some other posts of his work checking out – A Framework for Personal Action, How to Save the World Reading List, and a really neat list of 65 Essential Abilities for a Relocalized World. Anyway, the below piece just made me go “hmmm,” so I wanted to share. The original can be found here.
Some things I’ve noticed lately:
- The NYT, and the few other mainstream media that still have a shred of credibility remaining, have recently been filled with Op Eds and editorials urging various powers (corporations, Obama administration, Supreme Court) to do (or not do) things. But these urgings have an increasing tone of hopeless wishful thinking, since to the informed reader it is almost absurd to believe that what they are urging will actually transpire, given that these powers have been doing precisely the opposite for years now and show no inclination to change.
- The progressive alternative media have become tedious reading lately. When Bush was in power, they were all about the need to overthrow that psychopath and undo all the damage he had done. Now it’s all whining about how terrible things are still. There is no action agenda, just a growing sense of hopelessness, anger, and despair. Will the anomie and disenchantment of the young build into anger, and a ’60s-style outpouring of generational outrage ? Will there be a new party of the left working to take over the Democratic party like the tea party of the right is striving to take over the Republicans? As the US continues to go bankrupt and its citizens give up on the ability of its federal government to work even at a rudimentary level, is there a tipping point here signalling the Soviet-style collapse of the US (Dmitri Orlov seems to think so), and if so will power devolve to communities, and how quickly?
- I have always believed, based on my study of history, that change happens only when (per Pollard’s Law) there is no alternative to change left, or when it’s easy to change, or when it’s fun. Times of great change seem to occur either at tipping points (when some seemingly-minor event is just enough to start an avalanche of people dramatically changing behaviours or beliefs, who weren’t ready to change before), or after “black swan” events (unexpected, unpredictable events with catastrophic consequences). But lately we’ve seen at least three “black swan” events (Katrina, the BP Oil Disaster, and the Japan Tsunami/Reactor leaks) that, rather than shifting the collective will, beliefs or actions, have caused us to retrench, and resist making any change that might avoid recurrence of such events.
- A lot of the political discussions of the day seems to presume that our civilization’s problem is one of power imbalance and collective political and social will (or lack thereof). Their premise seems to be that with the right people in power and the right re-balancing of power (political/legal, economic, police/military, and ideological/media, all could be right with the world. These arguments seem oblivious to the reality that, in our complex modern world, no one is in control. Not the government. Not vested interests of the left or right in the US. Not the global corpocracy. No one.
Put these things together — a tone of hopelessness in the mainstream progressive media, a largely useless outpouring of outrage in the indymedia, a giving up of citizens on the viability of centralized representative governments, reactionary responses to black swan events instead of constructive ones, the ratcheting up of existing systems to prolong the period before tipping points, and a naivete about the powerlessness of even the most powerful in modern complex systems — and what do we have?
In his book Beginning Again, David Ehrenfeld describes our civilization as a ragged flywheel, over-built, patched and rusty, spinning faster and faster and beginning to rattle and moan. He describes its coming apart in chilling terms:
There goes a chunk — the sick and aged along with the huge apparatus of doctors, social workers, hospitals, nursing homes, drug companies, and manufacturers of sophisticated medical equipment, which service their clients at enormous cost but don’t help them very much.
There go the college students along with the VPs, provosts, deans and professors who have nor prepared them for life in a changing world after formal schooling is over. There go the high school and elementary school students, along with the parents, administrators and frustrated teachers who have turned the majority of schools into costly, stagnant and violent babysitting services.
There go the lawyers and their hapless clients in a dust cloud of the ten billion codes, rules and regulations that were produced to organize and control an increasingly intricate, unorganizable and uncontrollable society.
There go the economists with their worthless pretentious predictions and systems, along with the unemployed, the impoverished and the displaced who reaped the consequences of theories and schemes with faulty premises and indecent objectives. There go the engineers, designers and technologists, along with the people stuck with the deadly buildings, roads, power plants, dams and machinery that are the experts’ monuments.
There go the advertising hucksters with their consumer goods, and there go the consumers, consumed with their consumption. And there go the media pundits and pollsters, along with all those unfortunates who wasted precious time listening to them explain why the flywheel could never come apart, or tell how to patch it even while increasing its crazy rate of spin.
The most terrifying thing about this disintegration for a society that believes in prediction and control will be the randomness of its violent consequences. The chaotic violence will include not only desperate ruthless struggles over the wealth that remains, but the last great violation of nature. What will make it worse is that, at least at the beginning, it will take place under a cloud of denial and cynical reassurances.
That, I think, is what is happening here.
The corollary to Pollard’s Law is: Things happen for a reason. If you want to change things, first understand what that reason is.
So what is the reason that, despite millions of people being aware that the “flywheel” of our civilization is starting to come apart, and wanting to change it, we seem unable to do so?
I believe the reason that all human civilizations have crumbled is that the qualities of our species that produce civilizations are precisely the qualities that make them unsustainable. We have those qualities because they — notably our exceptional intelligence and exceptional ferocity — have been an evolutionary success story. Intelligent species that are not ferocious (perhaps including Bonobos and Neanderthals) have been unable to adapt to the niches that humans have. They were, I think, not up to the violence towards the rest of nature, and towards each other, that was needed to survive in places they were not biologically equipped to live.
We admire and reward both ambitiousness and ferocity, so it should be no surprise that the most ambitious and fiercest of us have dominated the gene pool. We admire winners. Our myths, in literature and film, are overwhelmingly about people with the determination and ferocity to overcome incredible adversity, to defeat those more powerful, to tame wild lands. That ferocity, I believe, is fed by our inherent assertiveness. Women love, and have children with, men who are assertive, powerful, “successful” at having and doing more, so the propensity is reinforced and carried on.
At the same time, our ambitiousness is driven by our intelligence, our realization of what is possible. We aspire to be more than we are and have more than we have. We want to build, to create, to “develop”. When we imagine something, we want to realize it.
When there were only a few intelligent (and hence ambitious), assertive (and hence fierce) members of our species, there was room in Earth’s laboratory for their excesses. But as they “succeeded”, they grew in numbers and impact, overcoming natural balances and constraints, and finally created a civilization embodying this ambition and ferocity — the industrial growth civilization that has, since its beginning, been catapulting us towards the sixth great extinction on our planet, and the first “caused” by a living creature. Our world is now exhausted, overcrowded with humans and our decaying artifacts, and taxed to the point we are all suffering from stress-related physical and mental illnesses.
As we begin to realize this, our tendency is to think that the way out of the excesses and crises of industrial growth is, not surprisingly, more of the same. If our intelligence and ingenuity have gotten us into this mess, perhaps technology and innovation can get us out of it? If ferocity and assertiveness have created the problem, perhaps great collective determination, hard work under some brilliant and inspiring leader, and if necessary violent subjugation of those not doing their share, is the answer? And both progressives and reactionaries see centralization — globalizing and making even more “efficient” what we are already doing — as the means to make things better, though for progressives it is globalizing and centralizing “rights” and social services, while for reactionaries it is globalizing and centralizing the military and industry.
Einstein famously said that you cannot solve a problem with the same kind of thinking that gave rise to it. But that is the kind of thinking that the vast majority of people have, thanks to natural selection, and there are no levers of power that will allow a small minority with some different kind of thinking to prevail over the majority, not for long anyway, and not enough — there is, after all, no one in control of our industrial growth civilization, no switch that anyone can flip to stop it.
Most people find the above analysis terribly defeatist and pessimistic. Since I read John Gray’s Straw Dogs, however, I have found this realization liberating. “We cannot save the world”, Gray says, “and happily it doesn’t need saving… Homo rapiens is only one of very many species, and not obviously worth preserving. Later or sooner, it will become extinct. When it is gone Earth will recover. Long after the last traces of the human animal have disappeared, many of the species it is bent on destroying will still be around, along with others that have yet to spring up. The Earth will forget mankind. The play of life will go on.”
So what, if anything, should we do, now that our creaking and unsustainable industrial civilization is beginning to fly apart?
I think it depends on what you’re good at, and what you have passion for. There is a need for rear-guard actions to mitigate what Ehrenfeld calls the “desperate ruthless struggles over the wealth that remains” and “the last great violation of nature.” There is a need for reskilling ourselves and our children and grandchildren with the essential capacities needed to make it through the difficult transition to a post-collapse world. There is a need for models, at the community level, of more sustainable and resilient ways to live and make a living.
I don’t have the ferocity (or energy or courage) for the rear-guard actions, the good fight that activists have always fought and will continue to do so until the end. I am open to supporting them, however, with my imagination and my writing ability, if they think that would be of use. I am working slowly to learn or relearn some essential capacities so that I will be less helpless as our civilization faces the crises ahead. And while I’m not sure I have the patience (or collaborative ability) to help build real-world models of more resilient local community, I am exploring ways to combine my gifts for writing and imagining possibilities in some unique ways (games, visions, simulations?) that might help others cope better, or see their way through these crises better. As I wrote recently, I think the key to resilience will be our ability, in the moment, to imagine ways around the crises we cannot prevent, predict or plan for, and I think I can help with that, at least at the local level.
There’s something happening here, and it’s the beginning of the end. The signs are everywhere. There is no reason to celebrate (it is going to be a hard ride, and there will be no Rapture, no collective consciousness rising, no deus ex machina invention, or other form of salvation). And there is no reason to despair. We were unable to change, so now change is being imposed on us.
Sproing. There goes a chunk.
This would be a big ringing question mark for the day, right;
social Rohrschach-ing of the non-plus-ultra proto-eschaton.
Well, I spun some threads together here that are my start at it:
Much more to say in time, if time; now off to spin a May Day spire in sun and fun~!
Spot on! The insights here seem to be shared by a number of vibrant thinkers and doers for a new era.
These include @johnrobb’s (Resilient Communities), @sebpaquet (Emergent Cities), @chartercities (Paul Romer’s projects for free cities), @paragkhanna (on a post-superpower, Hanseatic era of city states) @devinbalkind (free and open source-based intentional communities), @patrissimo (seasteading), and @thousandnations (a Cambrian explosion of experiments in governance).
Let a new era of “nation-building” begin!
monika hardy said:
There is a need for models, at the community level, of more sustainable and resilient ways to live and make a living.
i totally agree Venessa. i think that’s where it’s going to happen. which is odd. 3 years ago i learned of the web. connections around the world changed my life. they made me realize i could be me. it wasn’t ridiculous to just be me.
yet today.. after taking this new found thrill to my students, experimenting with them, listening to them, i’m thinking the web is wanting us to focus on our local community. i’m thinking the web is letting us go global in order to enhance our lives locally.
for me, as my connections on the web let me be me, i started noticing more around me. i’ve become much more mindful of life and more involved in my town.
so this is what we’re (hs students) thinking, after 3 years of experimenting with redefining school – would love your insight on it:
Not much needs to change as far as happenings. Let’s change who’s together in a room, in the field, the art hall, the engineering hall, etc. Making that change per choice.
There’s so much research on mindfulness and ownership of learning. We know better. Either by research or gut feeling, we realize our current focus is more on things that matter for only a small percentage. Nothing is for everyone yet we keep perfecting standardization. If we get 1-1 web access yet still push a curriculum, we’re missing that ownership potential.
Facilitating the curriculum inside each learner is possible. Human connection unleashes that space. We can revitalize our communities by matching up 1-1 mentors per passion. Authentic no-child-left-behind is about equity, where all learners are interdependently free.
School could be real life – literally. Imagine if a community becomes it’s own school. Existing high school buildings are meet ups and resource centers. That would lead to walking more, noticing more, doing more. (everyone in the town a learner)
Ellen Langer suggests that focus on outcomes can encourage mindlessness.
I’d guess 75% of our energy/time/money in ed goes toward outcomes.
Mindfulness can take us to a culture of trust. We’d have no need to spend ourselves on policy. Policy seems to evidence distrust, in any case, it certainly breeds it.
Let’s facilitate spaces where true ownership perpetuates hunger, with wholehearted participants in life, no distinction of what part is school.
This is wonderful. We have to make an honest assessment of what could happen to the ‘flywheel’, and make preparations for it. But then we can’t be content with that ‘inevitable’ outcome.
As with any moment in history, we must take responsibility, individually and collectively, for the outcome of the species. This moment, however, makes the pressure of responsibility more apparent than any other moment.
If Pollard’s law is true, I say we make the necessary changes fun, before we have no other choice. Dave seems to be making some great contributions to creating a positive outcome. Very cool.
May collaboration prevail!
Jean Russell said:
I second/third/forth – make change fun. Let’s take what we are learning about how brains work in neuroscience and behavioral economics and use that practical knowledge to alter our expectations and our ways of presenting information. Then let’s learn from gaming and make it FUN FUN FUN.
I was feeling pretty grim for several years… and then I decided that even if the ship is sinking, I am not going down bemoaning it or making small my ambitions. I am going down (or not!) by unleashing every mite of energy and intention I have and can recruit to shifting our collective course. What if we tell the story of these days as the last sputtering of a end of an age and the first buds of a new one? It was seeded several decades ago and some of those seeds have taken root and emerge now to give rise to seeds of their own. Can you see it?
>>make change fun…. let’s learn from gaming
I’d love your comments/thoughts on a possible online game to help existing and new intentional communities grow —
Also related —
At some point, as and when conditions worsen, user profiles with these elements might help self-organizing groups review promising locations, and map possible “crowdmoves” to thrivable communities.
What do you think?
monika hardy said:
Mark – have you read Jane McGonigal’s Reality is Broken? great insight there into taking the best of a good game to stir up wholehearted participation in a community. bringing together unlikely connections.
Robert Steele said:
Did the title get erased? Am reposting and want to see what “framing” you think best. Very provocative. I’m not giving up on a 2012 awakening, but the evidence is truly daunting.
Venessa Miemis said:
the title is There’s Something Happening Here. check out dave pollard’s blog. great stuff.
How true. How much no one is in control was painfully obvious once again yesterday, watching Japanese politicians in parliament grilling the TEPCO execs, the nuclear safety commission, some bureaucrats and each other over why Fukushima had happened, why published warnings had been ignored, why there was a corporate and political culture of cover-up.
I am not fluent enough in Japanese to catch the finer points, but just reading faces and voice it struck me how helpless the debate seemed.
With our global connectedness the place turns mutually inspiring towards self-organizing, and that works well on a local scale. Recommended read: Wave Riders by Harrison Owen.
kare Anderson said:
Some of the models I’ve enjoyed learning from include Code for America and PlaceMaking… people using their best talents + strongest passions together on the specific aspect of enabling “local” to thrive
yall know TOdd?
he had the most wonderful ‘ledgerism’ brainstorms (archive accessible) but has turned into somewhat of a hardnosed realist .. apart from holding up protest sign on overpasses at appointed regular hours, like the peaceispossible blogspotter 50m south of him.
i think he gave up on believing that encryptian could be kept out … ehrr, wrenched from the mil .. distributed networks hin nichtributed debtworths her ..
this one is less ambiguous … got anything to match, add to, refute or
confirm Todd’s little prediction here?
>Did you see my post on this subject at
Hi Tom, yes! I’m glad for the posts that you produce. Bill Totten
reposts them to the A-List, which is where I usually see them since I
am not much of an internet surfer these days.
I would like to comment on your main thesis “The aggregate debt
burden is destined to ultimately become unbearable, and no amount of
government or central bank intervention can save this flawed system
(such is the nature of exponential growth). The fiscal crisis that is
now confronting national governments around the world signals the
If you expand your definition of “this system” to include the
successor entities as well as the collapsing entities, then there is
no “collapse” in the near or medium term future. The companies,
governments, banks, currencies, etc. that are going to collapse are
analogous to individual members of a species. The overall system of
booms and busts and wars seems likely to continue.
“… How that will play out is difficult to assess, but it behoove us
to use our available resources to enhance the resilience of our
communities and build new systems that can be relied on to provide
the things we need in order to thrive and build a world that works for all. ”
I wish you had thrown us a couple of predictions, such as whether the
European monetary union will be partitioned into a strong currency
(for the germanys and frances), and a weak one (for portugals and
greeces), or break up entirely. Or whether the dollar will be
abandoned in a panic, or merely continue its slide for many
years. It seems more likely to me that the dollar will continue its
devaluation at an accelerated pace, thereby reducing actual debt and
interest burden in the system. I predict three years of back to
back inflation in the U.S. between 15% and 30%. That will do the
trick. Will the world stop accepting dollars in payment for oil and
imports? No. They will just keep raising prices, and Americans will
wake up to find that they cannot import so much as in the past. This is OK.
In other words things will just continue to suck, and perhaps suck
worse for a while. Even if companies or nations go bankrupt, or
entire currencies are laughed out of the market, and empires
collapse, “the system” continues. It is just a big huge unruly mad
scramble of assholes and elbows. The WHIPs (the wealthy healthy
intelligent or powerful) fighting for pieces of the pie. They’ll
throw communism at us for awhile, then capitalism, then fascism in
various blends but it is always the same, and over centuries it seems
to get a little better, but we are clearly in a period of
retrenchment, headed for another world war if something isn’t done
about it. One thing I will assure you: if they jerk the money out
of circulation, or shut down the clearing and settlement as they
threatened in 2008, the Internet will sprout with alternative
currencies and settlement systems *very* quickly. Some backed by
Gold/Silver or commodities. Some backed by the BRIC’s currencies–
the successor entities. The banks and financial companies of the
US/UK are not useful or necessary whatsoever, not even
domestically. The Bush administration should have let them collapse.
Everything would have been BETTER without them.
some people. .. have rather contorted ideas about what a good lay is:
it’s a ball not a wheel but otherwise your story fits this ‘illlostratorevver’:
FlyingTowBall – extreme UK Dragman taking 7 years to maim (wash n perm, drag n turbo) and then blow up a CBX 1000ccHonda 6 cylinder
.. the first minute should convey the idea
wow, first time ever i post a youtobber .. i mean, first time it shows up … fly tube fly
it’s more of the same after the third minute .. and they went 12, not 7 years.
a similar tinkershop received a correctional comment (first 3 ever there – robtool25) that indicates how i see the way forward, unfortunately i haven’t been able to get rid of it, though they will find bad things to pin on me even .. and especially if, when and especially no sooner than circumstances threaten to help me manage that.
Silence Do Good Gauge said:
I wrote an essay called Democracy Rule to invoke dialog discussing a better way for civil discourse. Response to this essay includes: naive, fantasy, and unrealistic. In a recent conversation an individual suggested the all powerful rulers would prohibit such an experiment.
In a response of disagreement I suggested no all powerful ruler would prohibit an experiment such as Democracy Rule. I told him it was him, the neighbors, fellow citizens, and myself to blame for an apathy to discuss such an idea.
Here are some more thoughts
Many seem to think the political argument revolves around the Republican or the Democratic party. The fault nor the solution is with the two party system. The solution resides in the pragmatic and generous spirit of a populace armed with the tools and the media to reflect their point of view in a respectful and intelligent light.
The problem is not our governance, it is that the vast majority of the citizens don’t know how to play the game. Ideologies serving a minuscule point of view have figured out how to pool their resources to gain favor in the system. There is no single ideology representative of the populace. Until the whole starts intelligently collaborating towards a common good expect to continue interpreting the system as irrational.
George Pór said:
> There’s Something Happening Here…
For sure. Always. Just what that something is, or maybe more precisely, what is that which we perceive of it, is as much a reflection of our moods as anything else. Optimist and pessimist assessment can be equally energizing, as Venessa’s blogposts demonstrates.
How far that energy will carry us into prototyping the future in need of us? Will it take us beyond writing a sensible comment to it as we/I try to do? What would be needed if we wanted to find better ways to amplify each other’s work on accelerating the transition to a new civilization?
We can bet on the collapse of what is, or on the self-organizing collective consciousness and intelligence of the multitudes maturing into the wiser social system of the future, replacing the status quo. Our strategy and action may not be that different regardless what we are betting on, or it may.
In either case, we can increase the likelihood of becoming more relevant to what is happening here, if we manage to ground our assessment of what is in coupling our passion f0r the Big Shift with a collaborative, systemic analysis of what needs to happen next.
In the revolutions of the 19th and 20th century, such analyses were done by political parties. Today, facing the overpowering complexity of the world problematique, they are as clueless as governments or markets. The evolution of the third force, the commons, has not yet reached the stage of a global constitutive assembly that could muster the requisite variety of collective intelligence.
So what now? I’m not sure. What I’m pretty certain is that direction for epic action will not come from any single individual, group, or movement. My own bet is on gamifying the Big Shift, creating the incentives for the massive alteration of individual and social practices, and making the game viral. I fully trust such games are possible, given the great work of the http://gamesforchange.org/ community and the deep and wide pool of talents available in the multitudes working for change.
I’m actually working on “New Civ Now!” (temporary title) game design and hope to release an alpha version into crowdfunding, this summer. If the idea of helping with co-creating it strikes a resonant chord, drop me a line.
Thank you, Venessa, for your passion that keeps inspiring us!
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Kurt Laitner said:
Residents of the edge must plan for two scenarios. One, that we can succeed in creating and propagating a new model before the old one collapses with the new model becoming the only viable option, (or in wildest optimism expect the old guard to accept their model is broken and migrate to a new one without violence or destruction). And the other that we can learn to survive the collapse, personally and locally salvaging whatever we can of our civilization, as rebuilding it will be much harder this time around as all the low hanging fruit has been picked. The internet could eventually be turned off in either scenario, so let’s make use of it while we can (and I will miss you all). I give the two even odds right now, and they are two sides of the same coin, so plan for both utopia and neo-feudalism.
While I get the inherent logic of the argument that humans are not biologically necessary for this planet to continue, I cannot be detached enough to think that this is actually a good thing. I would like human beings to survive, though in balance with their surroundings. This will require a major attitude adjustment (and likely a population adjustment), and perhaps that the violent and ferocious are removed, marginalized, or destroyed (all highly speculative). The dictatorship of the most aggressive has not worked very well. Thankfully the human system is quite robust with other models of behavior to support survival if conditions change before the world is fully optimized to the aggressive model.
Venessa Miemis said:
and the meek shall inherit the earth?
Kurt Laitner said:
quite a bit of wisdom to be found in old books, whether you buy the whole package or not – I prefer to think the sensible will inherit, but neither is guaranteed – hard to change a violent system with peace (see middle east) and humans are biologically wired to form tribes, act from fear.. many reasons to be pessimistic if you want to be.
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I personally don’t like this post! It is a fallacy to put all humans in the same basket and blame everyone on earth for destroying our species and our planet. I am actually tired of hearing how bad we are and that we are too many on this planet… Do YOU feel that this is a good description of who YOU are? I don’t!
I believe human behavior is shaped within institutions and that institutions are self-structuring patterns conditioned by physical conditions – access to resources, flow of information, etc.
The world is NOT collapsing. What is collapsing is the old order, and that means that we’ll probably suffer a bit as the economy comes crashing down. The old order, dominated by power relations, by hierarchical organizations, is in crisis for more than one reason. Power got overly concentrated and the power system relies on non-sustainable levers of power, financial and economical. But a new world is emerging, based on very different forms of organization, of governance… New institutions are created in parallel with the old ones. New and old institutions are like communicating vessels, people and resources migrate from one to the other.
Instead of sitting down waiting for dooms day, GET UP! and help us build these new institutions faster, so that these new vessels can contain the massive flow of those who will open their eyes later, realizing that their boat is sinking.
We are going through a Constructive Revolution, a metamorphoses. That’s it.
I am struggling to launch an open enterprise, an open and decentralized value network, an alternative to the corporation. What is your role in all this? Let’s roll up our sleeves my friends.
George Por said:
Congratulations Tibi for the courage of your comment and what you try to accomplish with the Multitudes website. I strongly resonate with and support both. Focusing on human behavior as the root cause of the “demise of our world” or, of the solution to it, is an easy intellectual cop out from facing the systemic complexity of the crisis of the old order and the constructive social revolution it takes to replace it.
Not that change in behavior and consciousness doesn’t play a significant role in emergence. It is just not the omnipotent determinant of everything, as those would makes us believe who keep repeating the mantra “change yourself and the world will change.”
I have particularly appreciated this insight of yours:
> New institutions are created in parallel with the old ones. New and old institutions are like communicating vessels, people and resources migrate from one to the other.
If we want to reduce the unnecessary suffering due to the fear of change, I see nothing more important than building the new culture, the new, commons-based systems of health care, education, governance and all other social systems, and syphoning resources from the old into the vessels.