Skull Cults: The Only Sound Foundation for a Modern Economic Geography

We live in an age of unparalleled human sacrifice. The UN World Health Organization estimates that 20 million people a year will die of poverty. They don’t nicely bundle the data up to show that, you have to dig through and say “well, the HIV rates in Africa are X times higher than in developed countries” and “well, rich babies don’t die of diarrhoea” and “women in Sweden don’t die of indoor air pollution from cooking on three stone fires” and so on, but you look at the data and run the numbers and sure-enough the categories of dying in which poverty is a critical factor sum to about a third of all human death.

While we were a poor species, death at that scale was not a sacrifice, it was a fact of life that humans invented agriculture, bred far past their basic dietary requirements, and wound up a stunted and malnourished lot compared to their hunter-gatherer ancestors.  But then everybody shared much the same lot, and hardship was produced not by individual human level action for the most part, but by our ecosystem niche – where we stood relative to nature itself, as a species, rather than our standing within the species as individuals, families, tribes and castes.

But after you invent a cheap vaccine for polio, every polio death is a sacrifice, perhaps to Mammon, the demon-god of greed. Once we had a vaccine for smallpox, every smallpox death was a sacrifice, perhaps to Sitala. Larry Brilliant tells the story of his guru Neem Karoli Baba sending Larry to the World Health Organization “to finish smallpox, which is god’s gift to humanity” and how he went to the WHO over and over again, until they gave him a job, and he wound up overseeing the smallpox eradication programme in India, and over a period of decades, the prediction came true. WHO killed smallpox, and Larry Brilliant managed the assassination of the disease.

We have the technical capacity to eradicate most infectious disease. We have the technical capacity to feed all the people. We have the technical capacity to provide housing for everybody. The vast majority of the brute physical suffering of humanity is now caused by our priorities and our decisions, not by our ignorance of the laws of nature, and our inability to solve problems.

In short, once we had the capacity to stop this, it became our responsibility to either do it, or to be responsible for choosing not to. We’ve collectively chosen the second path, to be responsible for that death toll, and now for the mass extinctions and ecocide which mark out modern age. This was a mistake, but it’s beyond my ken how it was made, or how to fix it.

I was raised in a Hindu skull cult. I didn’t know it when I was young, when I started to meditate without any real cultural context. Something in the genes, something in the karma. In my early 20s, when I found my guru, I did not think it odd that in the first six months of training the correct framing for performing a human sacrifice (“the person who is to die must know precisely where they are going, they must be able to see through the veil – an adept! and they must go willingly, gratefully even, my son!”) was impressed upon me by my teacher, a Jew of the holocaust generation, half of who’s family had gone in the Holocaust. Death, death, death was always there – facing one’s own death, learning how to take responsibility for other people’s lives if they were under your care, learning how to correctly understand the real price of one’s future incarnations in action in the present. We learned that the fear of death is the central obstacle of all human thinking, and that thinking clearly about death opens almost all other doors. It’s the magic knife that cuts all cords: “given that I cannot prevent my own death, except perhaps by becoming an Immortal (if those even exist) how am I to live?”

After a while, I realized a core truth of the Nath Sampradaya as I understand it: “you can’t save anybody.” Slowly, slowly as I began to understand the impermanence of everybody’s life, not just my own, I began to understand that adding some pleasure and time to people’s lives before they die was a worthy goal, and that as I’d been born unusually gifted, having a fast mind and inhuman durability, perhaps it was time to give things back. Responsibility came with it. I accepted.

I can’t tell you how it feels to see the world as a torrent of bright sparks rushing towards darkness, but that’s the gift of my vision.

I wanted to make a fortress, a citadel for humans, a future secure – for a time – against that darkness. Each life’s end may be the start of another, but if we are going to return to this planet after our deaths, we may well find it a toxified shadow of its former self. Staring out at Africa and India and South America and China, I fear for my future incarnations: I would have to be incredibly lucky to have a better birth than this one, even given the extraordinary hardships that I faced as a child. I saw all manner of suffering, but I did not see my brothers and sisters die of pneumonia and dysentry. There was no cholera in rural Scotland, no wild animals, only beasts of various kinds.

If I am coming back here, how do I try and make sure that the world I am to return into is not a hell?

This is a deep question. You have to be fairly far along to start thinking of plotting your future incarnations. But I spent 14 years of my life with spiritual practice as my main activity, on a foundation of a fundamentally disciplined mind and with the luck (karma) of finding excellent teachers. I did what hardcore spiritual Hindus are supposed to do – I put self-realization first, above all things, for as long as it took, regardless of the personal consequences. I put the work first, and (predictably) paid the price: everything laid waste, again and again, as the karma manifested and illusionary security was shattered again and again and again, leading to deeper truths. So the necessary preconditions met, the path completed, I looked into my future incarnations.

There is no safety.

And yet the flame of life persists. So I strove to make a container for it.

First thing that came was the house, the hexayurt.


A pretty simple hack on top of Buckminster Fuller’s geodesic dome. Over time we figured out more and more variations with the same magical property – zero waste from standard industrial materials because every facet of the building is a whole or half sheet of the standard 1.2m x 2.4m – leading to (so far) the crescendo – Edmund Harriss’s Hexayurt Quaddome.


We’ve joked, over the years, that if the hippies had these, they’d already have won. Easy to build, cheap, leak-free and a convenient range of sizes without having to learn new construction geometries every time. Scalable, modular and interactiveodular. This started to look like material power, a possibility of making real changes. A world with such a building technology in it is markedly different from a world without the technical capability to turn, with minimal tooling, “what you have” into “what you need.” I felt I’d made a small dent.

The design spread. By 2012, we had test units up in Haiti and Sri Lanka, and more than 750 units at Burning Man. Burning Man has about 50,000 residents, so we are close to 5% of burners in hexayurts. Everybody has seen it, everybody knows the familiar shape, the steely hexagon shining in the hard desert sun.

The result has been a transformation of possibilities, of potentials. We can do something, something radically new – a straight, fast line from the industrial production, the factories which throw out materials as fast and as cheaply as possible, to the teeming homeless, the millions without shelter, or too poor (like me) to afford a mortgage in any imaginable future. You build the same basic family of designs in the materials that suit your environment, climate and wallet. Fancy structural insulated panels, or cheap plywood, paint and newspapers for insulation, it’s all the same basic design. We break through, break out of the paradigm where industry is the enemy, and set the great wheels of production to manufacturing the materiel that we require to live well on this planet, not as exploiters, but as aspects of nature – an ape too numerous for caves, and too pink-and-fragile for the rocky outcrops favoured by baboons. Homo Digitalis.

In my mind, the hexayurt proves the technical feasibility of a minimal home for every human on the planet. I suspect the cost of the small ones, in full scale mass production, will be less than $100 for a building which will last for lifetimes. Something we could all afford, all seven, nine, ten billion of us. A hundred dollars a generation for housing.. We’ve had a few close shaves with patents – I chose to go completely Free/Libre, no copyright, no patent for the project’s designs, and there’s always the fear of a ringfence patent, something done by an evil greedy person to impede our progress, but so far the threat of gurkha assassins (!) has been enough to deter most of the exploiters. “Stand between our work and the poor, and we will see you in Hell!” has been the party line.

We’re bluffing, of course … Of course.

Then there was the question of what to do after housing. I can’t actually do everything – one person, working alone, can make many impossible things possible. But to make possible things actual is big, complex, requires teams and time, and each thing is often as hard as it can be. So I sit and spin things across the abyss, reeling them in from not-being to being. This is also a yoga, to make things which did not, exist. It is Art, the 5th chakra’s highest expression.

The next expression was the mandala of the root chakra, called Simple Critical Infrastructure Maps. Colloquially “the dartboard of death” which forms a simple map, simple enough to teach to a bright 11 year old, describing the primitive forces which threaten their life (too hot, too cold, hunger, thirst, illness and injury) and the simple technologies and social processes which can protect them comprehensively from these fates.


SCIM spreads slowly, but slowly spreads. The model shows up here and there, in books, in government planning manuals, in survivalist forums, in Transition Towns. The meme shapes how people see. The core idea is so simple, but as one draws out the diagrams, follows the chains of cause-and-effect which give one physical security, so it becomes clear that at the end of our supply chain, all the way out there in the seventh zone, “The World,” we see people exploited, suffering and killed for our wellbeing and safety. An accurate map of what sustains us show that we feed on blood.

You see it most clearly in considerations of food and food supply, the dreadful gulf between the living conditions of the people who produce our coffee (do the children of “fairtrade” coffee growers enjoy the same lifespan as our children? Do they expect to attend university?) not to say the living conditions of the animals that produce our meat, or milk, if we are not vegan. “How did the person who made this food live?” is a dramatic, violent question. Cashew nuts? Beef from South America? Sugar, always sugar, cane plantations in the hot sun. Who made your food, the molecules from which your body is formed? Those people are our unwitting prey, blood washed off the grain by the blessing, the transubstantiation of the Free Market. I’m typing this message to you on a computer made by probably-slave labour in China, people who can’t form a union because, theoretically, their whole country is run by One Big Union. It sucks, but how else are you to read?

It turns out that an accurate map of our resilience (or fragility) is also an accurate map of our choice of treatment – oppression (or liberation) of our fellow passengers on this precious Spaceship Earth. Simple Critical Infrastrcture Maps is a burning glass, an Eye. It shows, very literally, where the bodies are buried. The simple idea, of mapping our fragility and our resilience turns into a death-centric economic geography, one where we map wealth by infant morality and average lifespan, not by dollars and cents. This is a breakthrough, although it takes some time to compute the repercussions – suddenly parts of Scotland are revealed to be a third world country, their people dropping dead in their 50s from a meaningless lifetime of fags and special, a cultural wasteland.

The government uses that work, at least the resilience features, but I can’t tell you about the government. I don’t know the government. I can tell you about people. The old man who believed, and still does, or the guitarist with a fetish for translation, or she of the biting wit and cynical insight, people who believed that the best thing they could do with their lives was to defend the gains in liberty and wellbeing fought for by previous generations. For the State? Perhaps. But For the People? Certainly: nobody goes into government service believing themselves to be a colonialist oppressor. But when discussions turn to trade, and the inevitable liberation which will come as the internet and solar panels plough into the developing world (well, the Tradional World or the Sustainable World as I’d rather term it) like a care package from Captain Kirk and Mr. Spock, then it becomes possible to say “you know, much of what we’re seeking to defend was stolen, and it will not be possible, in the long run, to keep control of it.” And slowly, over circumspect discussion over years, a new model of the world forms, one in which the West (and the North, the Colonial Powers) must slowly release the hold on the Big Stick or face a century of war, perhaps culminating in a biological weapon holocaust as, somewhere in the developing world, in some slum or village or refugee camp, a junior doctor with a grievance and a gene printer in 2030 says BASTA! (enough) and brings smallpox (or something even worse) back to avenge the injustices their people feel, at all costs, even diverting the fate of the whole human world.

One organism. One bitstring in a common machine of the near future, nucleotide by nucleotide assembled, woven together on a geneprinter into an apocalypse. Beware the future. Beware the wrath of the desperate poor, in their global gulag, lashing out at God’s creations as a whole. To bring down the pillars of hell by desolation and war might seem to some to serve only Justice. Beware the desperation of the poor in a high tech age.

So in working with the governments, I try and get them to accept the inevitable, to see our mistakes, and to understand the limits of military force. Because the truth has always been valuable to soliders, at times people listen to me – not often officially, and certainly not uncritically, but an argument which can be broken results in an army which can be broken, if you build upon it, and so the conversation with people you would likely consider evil continues. They learn where they are wrong, over time, and consider that gain the national interest. I consider it steps towards a just peace, to remove ignorance and recover wisdom. It’s a struggle, at times. Colonialism is dead, in the long run, and so change is the only option. And as I listen to the stories, I come to realize just how many total weirdos there are in the Land of the Spooks. Jack Parsons was not the first or the last sorcerer to do something useful for humanity with the State as an amplifier. There is a secret thread.

Evolution imposes a balance of self-interest and global interest on all of us, and it’s those microbalances which dominate the upper level of statecraft, where the concentration of karma can rip a man’s arm off as easily as blinking. Government is a dangerous game, but until there is no need for a State (and, really, who would keep a leash on so much of the evil in the world without one?) we live in the cleft stick – easily able to see a more evolved People who have no need of coercive government, but defended from Antient Regimes like China who would, and let us be quite clear about this, likely gobble us all up given a couple of centuries, were we to try for the Divine Anarchy a generation too early. Until we are better than the State, it must exist.

In improving the State, do I delay the day of its dissolution, or ensure that the pregnancy of a better world goes smoothly to term, rather than being aborted in our society’s defeat before our transformation occurs? A moral dilemma that haunts me, but my course is set, at least for today, and the past. I hope for further clarity on this, given time.

To put this in perspective, Gandhi said “I do not favour a Charter of Human Rights, but a Charter of Human Duties.” We will have our Spiritual Anarchy only if we are responsible enough to keep it, and that generation is not born yet, as far as I can see. Global nonviolent noncooperation could work to solve all of our problems, if we could hold the line. But I certainly do not appear to have the strength, the moral fortitude, to be able to live at one planet’s worth of ecological consumption, harming nobody unnecessarily, regardless of the consequences. I’m just not strong enough. Worse, I can’t see a way of doing it which doesn’t consign many of the people I may yet be able to save to death, simply by virtue of me being outside emptying a composting toilet, rather than inside, lost in meditation or at the keyboard, finding solutions to the problems of the world. I try to turn the slick hyperefficiency of the late capitalist lifestyle into global change, rather than opting out myself. The hypocrisy of this decision may be killing me.

The least evil possible State does not sound like much, but I believe it’s worth fighting for. “I do not fear the State, I fear the State will collapse before we have a meaningful alternative” as I’ve said many times. When I went to Greece, I saw an old order, the peasant decency of the common people reasserting itself as the State withdrew, and the barking dogs of the Golden Dawn (what an ironic name for a fascist party) attempting to drag them back towards another future (Futurism!), another way of being in the 21st century: unified under the boot of ugly fascists with crap aesthetics and no new ideas. Thank god the fascism of the Golden Dawn only scrapes the surface of thuggery, rather than having been informed by thinkers I disagree with, but respect as one respects primal, atavistic, ferocious forces of nature. Long may the occult and political wings of that tendency remain on different continents, worlds apart, two halves of a critical mass…

So this brings us to you. TOPY was around me when I was a college student, too young in my years, too timid, and too blind to see. Jon-the-Origami with his fuzzy shaved head and harem pants, gateway to another world if I’d been hip enough to hang. Other faces over the years, C. in New York, and then finally a cup of coffee with Gen & Jaye, a privilege indeed – staring a very peculiar enlightenment right in the face, horrified by the questions posed by their aesthetics and their existence (and, indeed, the answers). I’ve never been that uncompromising, that daring, that bold. We may have drunk from very similar currents in Nepal, but I recognize just how far it’s possible to go in Gen. Worthy of awe.

I don’t know where OTTT is going, but I know that we’re at the end of a cycle of dreams, as capitalism goes the way of communism, a long, black, messy death of the worst kind that may yet take a good few of us with it in the next 20 years of decline and violence.

I’d like to see what’s been learned in these 30 years or so since this show started, and inherited from previous times, these entire lifetimes spent at the magical coalface, in community and alone, made ready for those who lose their moorings in the avalanche of change. People need resources, a guide for when their old lives stop working, and they must evolve or die or worse, become enslaved. All I could manage was a book about the future, me and a hundred friends, working together to dismantle all certainties. We called that work The Future We Deserve and it is an awesome thing, really a gem. It ties together a hundred pieces by nearly that many different authors, each writing about what’s close and personal to them, what’s right in their faces, about the world to come. One man discusses feet, a children’s tour of a shoe museum, puckered-up grimaces as they pass the heels. A woman discusses whether, in the future, there will be “children” at all, or whether those privileged-and-unproductive people will actually rejoin society and even the workforce, broken out of their Victorian prams. Overall, and at the deepest level, dissensus about what is important, what is real, and most of all, what is to come. The production technology is notable too: assembled on a wiki, each piece written in full view of other authors, the book evolved and then fast-congealed into print through PediaPress, who take wikis and turn out books. It’s a fast, light, cheap collaborative technology that really changed our experience of working together. Without that technology platform, the book could never have been written – it’s a text of a modern era, mass collaboration and version control.

But it’s a book about ideas, about relationships with the future. It’s only very tangentially a book about people, about values, and about magick. Magick contained it, magic grew it, magic inspired it – many possible futures, how do we pick one? It itself is magic, in that it systematically dismantles the idea of single coherent narrative as a possibility, which is a great service indeed. But it is not a book about magic, and it’s not a book anybody is going to walk away with a magical insight from.

If there is to be another generation of the Free, we are going to need magic. We’re going to need modes of transmission, initiation and community support which are as foreign and alien to the past of these traditions as The Future We Deserve is to the stodgy traditional futures book. We also need to face the ageing out and eventual death of the 60’s generation, who were my teachers and probably yours. We can’t make more of them, and my cohort, the Second Summer of Love brits who came of age in the 1990s are the last living generation to have taken their critical imprints during a time of world peace. And we’re lightweights compared to the Old Hippies, who fuelled 1968 on their dreams.

I’ve avoided teaching for years, having been told by my own gurus that I was, basically, too much of an ass to do a really good job of it and that people who wanted the Real Thing ought to go to the more traditional Indian sources. I’ve lived with that albatross since 2001, when I really came online, six months before 9/11. Pushed me into environmentalism, pushed me into engineering, pushed me into government – all much needed things, but not necessarily the best use (and who’s to say) of one of the more successful blendings of East and West recently seen (I’m half-Scottish, half-Indian and hold lineage transmissions in both the Nepalese tantric tradtion, and (accidentally!) Thelema.) But as I look at the world around me, and I talk to people in their 20s trying to make sense of it all, I begin to realize that – while I might still be an ass – I’m substantially less out of sync with the real situation that the vast majority of the Indian tradition. They live in gilded cages, surrounded by adoring followers, suggesting that the ancient ways are best. But the ancient ways were before the time of ecocide, before the time when the race had the power to destroy itself, even to destroy all life. The old ways, the Caste Dharmas, are supposed to map out a complete set of interlocking human lifestyles which add up to a healthy and a sane society.

But globally we’re so far outside of the flight envelope – the safe terrain – of our species, of our ecosystem niche, of our planet, that we’re unable to maintain the basic structures of the Dharma. None of the castes are directly responsible for taking direct action on species level issues, other than the Brahmins, and their responsibility is strictly curtailed and confined to the spiritual level. No direct action, no political mass movements, and everybody else is confined by circumscribed responsibilities. Gandhi was a tantric (hence all the shenanigans of “testing his celibacy” with nude teenage girls) and so violated the caste dharmas incumbent upon him to lead. He stepped outside of the system to try and save it, and that’s why nobody in India really followed up on his work after he died: he was beyond the pale, an outsider.

So I’ve found the traditional Hindu ways of doing things unfit for the modern age. Because the caste system lacks a place to put the weight of responding of global ecocide, of nuclear annhilation or nanobombs or whatever the high tech risk landscape is, because everybody’s traditional job is to maintain their society, their role in society, rather than face what’s happening the world as a whole, we face a crisis. We can’t get the Hindu big guns oriented towards the world’s real problems – they’re stuck in traditional roles, as hamstrung as the pope would be if he was discussing population growth. That’s why you see (literally) enormous powers like Amritanandamayi Devi, a full avatar by gods, flailing away so ineffectively. She’s trapped by her role in Hindu society, which is out of step with modernity to the point of ineffectiveness. India has worse child mortality stats than Africa in a lot of places, for gods’ sakes.

To save our culture (at least some of us) must abandon it.

I tried, over the years, to straighten out various places where people misunderstood tantra. A quiet word here or there, occasionally some yelling. I tried to make a Western-compatible instantiation of the Nath Sampradaya, which retained the interior life of the tradition, but reduced greatly its dependence on traditional Hindu taboos and expectations. What I discovered, over and over again, was how much traditional Hindus had underestimated the differences between the Western reality and traditional Indian ways.

So it may be that, indeed, I’m not fit for the traditional Hindu guru-disciple relationship with me in the guru’s seat. I could well understand that. But I’m also acutely aware of how limited the resources are in this culture at this time for people who want a way out, a way up or a way through and, I’m perfectly capable of teaching outside of that cultural context. I am, after all, half-white, and I was raised in the West as a native English speaker (well, to the extent a Scot can be). So it may be that the next part of my adventures is to admit that, at root, I was trained to teach, and what I’ve been doing this whole time is failing to be Buckminster Fuller: not talking about the inner process, the spiritual insight, the path itself, but only the products. As Neem Karoli Baba is said to have said, “Americans are so materialistic they brought their guru to them in the form of a substance” (LSD). I shipped a new kind of housing, and a new political model (infrastructure-centric politics.) But am I really getting anything done? Maybe not. Too soon to tell.

I put great store in the artifacts, in the engineering, as a way of putting the vision out into the culture in a usable form, rather than trying to teach the internal magical and spiritual processes that gave rise to it. There was some hope that the message could be carried in the form of things, in the form of physical objects as Buckminster Fuller attempted. I hoped that I could change the story of the world by changing the props available to tell that story with: new props, a new story? I hoped I could avoid teaching, avoid facing my (probable) limitations there, and get the job done strictly in the world of artifacts – the spirituality manifest into the work of an engineer, a karma yoga approach. But now I am faced with a simple fact, after many years of trying to be only an engineer, and I am resigned to the fact I must change course: without another generation of wizards, it’s not going to matter at all that we’ve got cheap housing.

There isn’t going to be anybody left with the vision to use it.


Vinay Gupta is one of the world’s leading thinkers on infrastructure theory, state failure solutions, and managing global system risks including poverty/development and the environmental crisis.He has worked at both the theoretical level, building models and mapping tools like Simple Critical Infrastructure Maps (used by US DOD) and at the completely practical level, where he is best known as the designer of the hexayurt, an award-winning replacement for the disaster relief tent which provides shelter at 20% the cost of a tent.

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