Wednesday, January 10, 2007

This Faith in Progress

Every culture has some distant place in space or time where it parks its dreams of a perfect world, and ours is no exception. Devout Christians in the Middle Ages imagined a heaven somewhere off beyond the outermost sphere of the sky, where angels and blessed souls sang in perfect harmony in the presence of God, far from the discords of life in the lowly world of matter. Centuries before, the ancient Greeks sang of a Golden Age somewhere in the distant past when fields sprouted crops without human labor and the world was at peace under the rule of the old wise god Kronos. We have our heaven and our Golden Age, too, but unlike most other cultures we put ours in the future, and tell ourselves that we’re moving closer to Paradise with every day that passes. Other cultures put their faith in gods or stars or cosmic cycles; we put ours in progress.

It’s not going too far, I think, to call belief in progress the dominant religion of the modern world. For most people nowadays, what matters about our past is that it’s a story of progress, a vast upward sweep from the brutal squalor of a primitive past to the Promethean splendor of a science-fiction future out among the stars. In the modern imagination, the present is by definition bigger and better than the past, just as the future will by definition be bigger and better than the present. For believers in progress, to call something “new” is to define it as “better,” while what’s old is by definition inadequate.

The intensity of our faith in progress can be measured by the way we play down the achievements of past peoples in order to make ourselves look better and smarter—for example, popular history books still insist that most of Columbus’ contemporaries believed the world was flat, even though this fable has been disproved countless times. The future is still more subject to distortion in the name of the myth. Even those people who believe that the story of progress will shortly come to an apocalyptic finale insist that our civilization’s end will have brighter fireworks and louder explosions than any before it.

To use the word “myth” for our belief in progress, though, is to court misunderstanding, since most people nowadays think that a myth is a story about the world that isn’t true. Other cultures had myths, the modern claim goes, but we don’t; we have facts. You can even find books insisting that the modern world suffers from “amythia,” a pathological lack of myths. Our word “myth,” though, comes from muthos, a Greek word that originally just meant “story.” Early on it came to be used for the most important stories, the ones people tell to explain who they are, where they come from, where they are going, and what powers guide them on their way and give the journey meaning. The Greek myths did this for the ancient Greeks, Christian theology did this for the Middle Ages, and faith in progress does it for us. The fact that a handful of countries have experienced quite a bit of progress in the last few centuries doesn’t prevent progress from filling a mythic role. Far from it, the myth of progress—like all myths—only has power over the human mind because believers can point to examples where it actually worked.

Every myth encodes its own values and its own agenda, and the myth of progress is no exception. To believe in progress, in the modern sense of the world, is to believe that history has a predetermined direction that leads to us. Pay attention to the way that people use historical periods as a way of classifying other people’s cultures as inferior—for example, saying that hunting and gathering peoples in the Third World are still in the Stone Age, or that the Muslim world is still in the Middle Ages, while only the industrial countries are actually in the 21st century. Of course this is nonsense, but it’s nonsense with a purpose. Admitting that hunter-gatherers and Muslims are just as much part of the 21st century as the industrial societies, as of course they are, strips the industrial world of its claim to be the logical culmination of history. You could as reasonably say that the hunter-gatherers of the Kalahari desert are the culmination of history—and there’s some point to the claim, as their way of life is a good deal more durable than ours.

To believe in progress, then, is to believe that whatever trajectory our civilization happens to have followed is the right one, since it is clearly more advanced and therefore better than the paths taken by less progressive societies, and that for the same reason we ought to do even more of whatever we’ve been doing. Faith in progress thus provides powerful justifications for the status quo, whatever that happens to be, and it allows any attempt to choose a different trajectory for our civilization to be dismissed as “going backwards,” which to believers in progress is the one unforgivable sin.

The myth of progress also implies that whatever industrial civilization happens to be good at doing is the most important thing human beings can do, and whatever we aren’t good at doesn’t count. This belief remains fixed in place even as the details change. In the 19th century, for example, many believers in progress pointed to the western world’s literature, philosophy, music, and art as evidence that it was more advanced and therefore better than anyone else. 20th century literature, philosophy, music and art all slipped well below 19th century standards, but 20th century science and technology passed the previous century’s mark, so inevitably people today point to our science and technology as proof that we are more advanced and therefore better than anyone else. Like most faiths, in other words, belief in progress chooses its own evidence and provides its own justifications.

All this has an important role in driving the predicament of industrial society, because the dead end of dependence on rapidly depleting fossil fuels can’t be escaped by going further ahead on the path we’ve been following. Almost without exception, the technological progress of the last century will have to shift into reverse as its foundation—cheap abundant petroleum—goes away, and most of the social and cultural phenomena that grew out of petroleum-based technology will go away as well. I’ve argued elsewhere that the downside of the Hubbert peak will force a return to 19th-century technology, and the slower exhaustion of coal and other nonrenewable fuels will complete the process of reversion, returning the western world to something like the technology and society it had before the industrial revolution began in the first place.

What will happen to the faith in progress in an age of obvious technological regress, whencars and computers and footsteps on the Moon all belong to the departed glories of the past? No doubt some diehards will claim that whatever the cultures of the deindustrial age happen to be good at is what counts, and therefore further evidence of progress. We’ve already seen the first wave of that among green-tech proponents who argue that their technologies are more advanced and more progressive than alternatives. Still, I doubt many people will keep the faith. The religion of progress has maintained its hold for the last three centuries because it has delivered on its promises, filling our lives with technological marvels wondrous enough to distract us from the cost to our world, our communities, and ourselves.

When the parade of wonders stops, then, the impact on deindustrializing cultures may be immense. If, as I’ve suggested, progress is the unrecognized religion of the industrial world, the failure of its priests to produce miracles as expected could plunge many people into a crisis of faith with no easy way out. Peoples of the past, stripped of faith in their traditional religions in one way or another, have responded in many different ways: some have launched revitalization movements to renew the old faith, some have embraced newly minted visions of destiny or traditions imported from abroad, and some have simply huddled down into themselves and died. Which of these reactions turns out to be most common may have drastic effects on the way the history of the deindustrial age works out.


Dawnpiper said...
the slower exhaustion of coal and other nonrenewable fuels will complete the process of reversion

Duke Energy, the primary power utility in our region, is proposing two new coal-fired power plants - I hadn't realized how much of our energy still comes from coal!

1/11/07, 9:42 AM

Dawnpiper said...
A nice, thought-provoking piece.

To believe in progress, in the modern sense of the world, is to believe that history has a predetermined direction that leads to us.

I think I understand why you say that, but I believe there are a great many who feel progress is simply what the word means, "moving forward". It isn't a destiny as much as a journey. But, as you correctly point out, it is a journey where we've gotten terribly lost on a side road and we will soon be forced to turn around to go back the way we came. I just hope we don't get a case of road rage along the way and end up dead.

1/11/07, 6:34 PM

John Michael Greer said...
Dawnpiper, yes -- the rush to coal is already beginning. I'll be doing a piece on that, and its likely implications in terms of global warming. The short form is that if you live someplace less than 350 feet above sea level, move to higher ground.

Frank, of course you're right that the faith in progress comes in many shades. Still, notice what happens when you suggest to people that Australian aborigines, say, are just as much on the cutting edge of progress as we are -- they're just progressing down a different road. Most people in the industrial world will reject that statement, because to them, progress means their kind of progress -- the progress that led up to them, and leads onward from them into a future that's even more of the same. That's the myth of progress in action.

1/11/07, 11:23 PM

norlight0 said...
This discussion of the collective faith in progress is an interesting one. It reflects a linear view of time and history. Beneath all this are the great cycles of nature, movement of the earth around the sun, the seasons, life and death, etc. In the deindustrial future it would seem that the cyclical nature of things would re-assert itself again. Also, while a faith in progress is dominant now, it is by no means monolithic. Within it, there are potential seeds of transformation and adjustment. In the Christian realm, there may be less emphasis on creating a material kingdom on earth. Phrases like The Sermon on the Mound (Blessed are the poor, the meek, etc.) The kingdom of god is within you. It is easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of god. All these could be the basis for a nonviolent, accepting rsponse to the challenges of peak oil.

JMG, I like the comments about the bushmen and the Muslims. I have often thought the same about the Amish. They are living in the same century as we are. In fact, I have read that Amish culture is a mature culture in the sense that they have made their social and cultural development a conscious process. Modern technologies are avoided not because they are bad, but because they were perceived to undermine a preferred way of life.

In a more general sense, there are a variety of practices and beliefs that are the cultural equivalent of recessive genes whose "surival" value may become self-evident in the months and years ahead.

One of the posts that disappeared talked about the macro and micro or personal aspects of the myth of progress. On the personal level this myth of progress manifests itself in how we define success. If we buy into the myth of progress annual salary increases, our networth, the size of our house all tell us who we are and how well we are doing. If we are able to figure out what is "enough" for us, our ideas of success may revolve around other benchmarks; what kind of spouse and parent we are, how we contribute to the community, etc. The onset of deindustrialization will be a real values clarification experience for millions of people. The more we can decouple our values and goals from the myths of progress and success, the easier our adjustment will be.

1/12/07, 5:55 AM

Rick said...
Hunting first appeared as an aspect of the early Tool Age -- aka: 'Stone (using) Age'. It is deceptive to portray or hint or presume that the Tool Age culture is something our species was born with. There was a long preceding period when humans gathered, but did not hunt, did not kill. We had not yet developed the use of tools, technology, weapons. Without weapons hunting is impossible for humans. Without the tool of fire flesh is inedible: too tough and pathological organisms make it too dangerous. The flesh eating, tool using culture appeared latter, it did not exist during our pristine beginning, it was a violent turning away. We and the Earth suffer the consequences of this shift to bloodthirsty 'progress' to this day.

1/12/07, 10:30 AM

Adrynian said...
Even a rock or a stick can be a tool, and some of our primate cousins actually hunt in packs, so I question your assertion, rick. Spears with sharpened stone tips are just a better hunting tool than a rock or a club. Your comment about needing fire to eat flesh is interesting, however, but I'm not convinced of its accuracy; it's entirely possible that we did in fact eat flesh and just suffered the potential parasitism as a result. I don't know enough to say either way.

On another note, one thing I wonder about as connected to our obsession with progress is an observed psychological effect in humans: our tendency to focus on trends. Unfortunately, there is no way to determine causality between it and the culture of progress, so we're left with something of a chicken an egg problem. But what I'm talking about is how, for example, if you propose a scenario to people (these experiments are usually done with first year psychology students, due to the nature of research funding and subject availability, etc.) where you offer them a choice between two equivalent jobs/contracts that both last 3 years: 1) the first year they're paid $12k, the second $13k, the third $14k; 2) the first year they're paid $16k, the second $15k, the third $14k. In the majority of the cases, people will choose the first job, even though it pays fewer total dollars; the explanation is that people prefer to be in situations that are "improving" over time.

There's also the explanation that people get used to a particular level of consumption; whatever it is, above a certain minimum for survival, tends to become their baseline and if it improves, the new level fairly quickly adjusts to be their new baseline. Unfortunately, if it decreases, it takes longer for the new level to become their baseline, so people don't like to be in trends that are getting worse over time. (There's another psyc fact: the amount of happiness lost from losing something is twice the amount of happiness gained from acquiring it in the first place.) So regardless of the tendency to adjust to higher levels of consumption, people prefer to be able to look at the overall trend and see "improvement" over time.

Of course, none of this bodes well for our ability to cope mentally and emotionally with the coming decline in economic activity and consumption... at least in the short term. Over the long term, people die off and the next generation has already started from a lower base level of consumption, so the trend doesn't *feel* quite as drastic in their own personal experience as it would if it was a single generation living through the whole thing. And, as in a game of telephone, we only have a garbled and much translated understanding of what the previous generations' experiences and daily reality were really like, so the full force of the decline is lost in the mists of time and myth.

1/13/07, 4:29 PM

Rick said...
As far as I know, no other species of primate or any other non-human animal uses sticks or stones or any other natural or unnatural objects as weapons to hunt and kill -- unless you want to stretch that definition to include using twigs to 'hunt and kill' termites, not quite the same challenge as taking down a deer. Although we were talking about humans. Even bonobos [endangered by human activities] and chimps are not the same beings as our pre Stone Age, pre-weapon using, ancestors. The natural diets of different species -- differ. Inter-species analogies cannot be assumed, they must be proven.

The dentition of 'modern' humans does not differ significantly from our pre-weapon era ancestors. So, for the experiment, just go ahead -- try taking a bite out of the raw uncooked hide and flesh of a deer. (Assuming you are willing to take the risk of debilitating parasitic tapeworms etc. and lethal pathogens. Yes, there's a reason rotting flesh smells bad to us, but sweet to hyenas.) Oh, and you have to chase down, catch and kill it first using nothing but your natural body, no sticks or stones or pitfalls, we're talking about pre-technology, pre-weapons era emulation here, -- sure, you can use your 30 mile per hour legs, your fangs, and your claws -- if you have them. Call your friends too, form a pack if you please, you can all chase it around all day long, if it amuses you, but I wouldn't bet the farm on catching it. Even if you were an extraordinary human specimen, and could somehow manage it, do you think your average Aunt Sadie could, for regular everyday survival?

Obviously, carnivorous capabilities are not natural human physical attributes -- and never were. We were around for a long period of time before we developed weapons; Our species was neither born with -- or from -- them. And our physiology, our metabolism, didn't change overnight when we started eating flesh.

Weapons/Flesh consumption marks the break we made with our natural eco-niche and the beginning of so called cultural/technological 'progress'. Humans are not natural carnivores -- the proof is the fact that we get sick when we eat flesh: obesity, diabetes, heart attacks, cancer and a myriad of other key illnesses are suffered in far greater proportion by those who eat animals. Natural carnivores have much more concentrated stomach acids, short fast smooth intestinal systems, and acid saliva to immediately neutralize pathogens.

But we are so advanced in our 'progress' that we are also very good at hiding rather obvious truths from ourselves. Even mass global carnage, global environmental devastation... to feed our habit, doesn't seem to bother us very much. In fact, like other addictions, the typical meat eater's defensive reaction is denial and aggression if the bloody scenario is even mentioned. Please don't help me prove my point, I know you can kill me with that thing.

1/13/07, 7:19 PM

John Michael Greer said...
Norlight, you're jumping well ahead of me! "Values clarification" is exactly the name of the game over the next few decades, as the myth of progress gives way to the reality of decline, and the question of the day focuses increasingly on what we can save.

Rick, based on my study of the subject, the evidence from prehistory doesn't support your vegetarian version of neoprimitivism, which -- like other neoprimitivist ideologies is basically another rehash of the Christian myth of Eden and the Fall. It's the flip side of the myth of progress, and to my mind, no more useful. But I don't see much likelihood of a meeting of minds on this issue, so we might as well drop it here.

The ironic thing is that science fiction writer Edgar Pangborn predicted that ideology quite a few decades ago. Abraham Brown, the messiah of the future religion that plays a central role in "Davy" and Pangborn's other future history novels, preaches the same fusion of vegetarianism and anti-technology. (The story in question is "The Children's Crusade," in his collection "Still I Persist In Wondering.) Pangborn's going to get a post or two of his own here -- his future is scarily close to the one I expect, complete with worldwide flooding due to global warming.

1/13/07, 11:59 PM

Adrynian said...
rick, tone down your diatribe a little, please. I was trying to be respectful and I expect the same from you. For the record, I'm a vegetarian, so I wasn't being skeptical out of a defensive reaction over my "habit."

Now, my understanding of the human prehistorical diet, limited as I admit it to be, is that humans evolved as predominantly omnivores; I also read somewhere (I know, that's an excellent citing of sources... sorry, I will go look for something quotable) that we might have even been scavengers, which would actually support your claim that we're not really hunters, but not your claim that we never ate meat. I don't know the truth of this either way, however, but I'm quite certain that we've evolved as omnivores, for which I will offer evidence in a moment. And that doesn't necessarily mean hunting deer, either, since there are various ground and tree animals that we could have potentially hunted, even including our own primate cousins, as much as it saddens me to imagine it. (In fact, when I was writing my previous post, I was actually thinking about another of our primate cousins that DOES hunt, in a pack, other smaller primates... can't remember which one, as it was on a tv show I saw a couple years ago... I just remember the footage of how they chased the smaller primate into a place where others were waiting for it and then they surrounded it and killed it. There were about 3-5 hunters in all.)

For proof of our omnivorous past, I offer up every single homo sapien's set of teeth (if you've ever taken an intro. biology course, you may have even done this before): if you have one, go outside an look at your horse/cow's teeth (they're all a kind of molar, right to the front of their mouth, basically for grinding plant matter); next, take a look at your cat's teeth (plenty of sharp canine and canine-equivalent teeth and instead of molars at the back for grinding, they have more sharp cutting-type teeth); now, look at your own teeth in a mirror (for example, top row, third from the center to either side, you should find a couple of canines, which only exist in animals for ripping and tearing flesh; behind that, you'll find molars for grinding... you see, omnivores have teeth for eating both plants AND animals). Your claims that only carnivores have the capacity to eat meat are simply spurious.

As far as parasites are concerned, it is entirely conceivable that we ate the meat and suffered the parasitism. Many animals in the wild have at least some kind of parasite in them and it has only really been with the development of various kinds of sanitation and medicine (and here I would include herbal medicine for those of you about to jump me over this) that we've been able to largely overcome much (though not all, hence antibiotics and vaccinations) parasitism. There are plenty of cases of animals self-medicating with one or another plant as an attempt to fight off parasites, neutralize plant toxins & rebalance body chemistry, etc. and I actually expect prehistorical humans to be a prime instance of this, given our large brains and general curiousity about the world.

1/14/07, 2:57 PM

Adam said...
I want to say hello. I thoroughly enjoy the blog and all of the excellent comments. This is my first comment, but I had to jump in because of my anthropological background (sorry to belabor a side point, JMG).

It is most likely the case that homo sapiens never had a non-tool using period. Tool use did not originate with homo sapiens. The earliest(as far as we have discovered) crafted tools were basic stone choppers created by homo habilis about 1.6-1.8 million years ago. The other members of our genetic line improved upon these basic designs. Homo erectus was clearly a tool maker and fire user (ample archaeological evidence), as were the Neandertals (not our ancestors, but in our genetic line and contemporaries). So the evidence points to humans just taking what was already there and improving its efficiency tremendously. Homo sapiens did not "invent" tools or the use of fire to cook with.

1/15/07, 6:53 AM

John Michael Greer said...
Adam, that was what I understood from my own studies -- tool-using is older than our species. Thanks for the confirmation! For that matter, chimpanzees use tools, though not as systematically as hominids do, and eat meat in the wild (usually from small animals they can catch with their hands and simple tools).

All this isn't as irrelevant to the current predicament of industrial society as it looks, because ideas like Rick's -- or for that matter any other simplistic one-size-fits-all answer to that predicament -- are likely to be enormously popular as we start skidding down the far side of Hubbert's peak. I'll be talking about this in my next post.

1/15/07, 10:27 AM

nwlorax said...
As much as I agree with your reasoning in this series, I fell compelled to offer a few criticisms. If progress is defined in terms of energy expenditure per output product or process, we have had enormous increases in efficiency in lots of areas.

Using simple math and numbers from ~1947 I can demonstrate that personal computers cannot exist.

If there were only ten million personal computers in the world, each of them would require 120 kilovolt/amps of power to operate, resulting in an energy cost of 1.2 billion kilovolt/amps.

We can therefore conclude that computers will never be found in homes because we can't generate enough electricity, not to mention producing enough mercury slosh tubes for the logic gates in the system.

At a processor speed of one subtraction or addition calculation per 525 milliseconds, I can further argue that it is not possible to design graphics processing machines that can operate in real time.

We know that all of the above are false--the average home computer uses about 300 watts, 20 in sleep mode and qualifies as a supercomputer by the standards of the 1980's. We have built circuits with an expected operational life in excess of a hundred years, and have been doing so since the 1960's at JPL. They are radiation and vibration proof, having survived passages through Jupiter's magnetic field during solar storms.

The leap from using whatever implements came to hand (or none at all) by australopithecines to the H. erectus hand axe in a mere 2 million or so years was a real technological advance. The hand axe is an elegant tool for skinning and butchering game (and possibly for even bringing them down by using the axe as a thrown weapon) and it wasn't bettered for an awfully long time. But it was improved on---taking out a mastadon with an atl atl is certainly safer and more efficient than jumping on its back and hoping for a lucky shot.

The crux of the matter it seems, is how mythologies are monetized and whether or not the realization of these myths can be sustained.

To get binary about it, most Western societies seem to have production economies geared towards fulfilling one of two fantasy goals--either realizing an atavistic lifestyle (running for the hills in a Jeep 4x4 with a shotgun and living in the woods for a weekend) or achieving the sort of world that Fritz Lang foresaw for the wealthy in his masterwork "Metropolis".

Can your line of reasoning allow for a third, 4th or even fifth option to a return to a pre-10th century technological base and lifestyle? Is it possible to have neither the worlds of neither Metropolis nor Mad Max as a model for societies?

1/15/07, 6:17 PM

John Michael Greer said...
Er, Gordon, I'm baffled by your comment about reversion to a pre-10th century technology, unless this is a typo for 20th century. It's precisely the high-energy technologies of the 20th century we stand to lose, which puts us back to c. 1900.

Your point about computers is valid but limited -- you've chosen the specific technology that has made the most drastic improvements in efficiency. Compare, say, 1947 automotive technology to its 2007 equivalent and comparable gains don't exist. Also, while computers need much less energy to operate than they did in 1947, it takes a helluva lot of energy to manufacture one of today's computers -- not to mention exotic raw materials and extremely demanding technologies. That, not the operating cost, is the Achilles' heel of today's e-technology.

But all this deserves a post of its own -- and will get it in the next week or two.

1/16/07, 1:05 PM

nwlorax said...
Er, Gordon, I'm baffled by your comment about reversion to a pre-10th century technology, unless this is a typo for 20th century. It's precisely the high-energy technologies of the 20th century we stand to lose, which puts us back to c. 1900.


No, I said that correctly. The model that you are following does not allow for most 19th century technologies. No coal means no railroads, no Bessemer process steel, no steam engines, no coal tar compounds for medicine or chemistry, no aluminum recycling or aluminum at all, and no mass transit or any of the other characteristics that differentiate the 18th century from the 19th. What's left is a substitution of human labor for machinery, and that problem was historically solved with serfdom or slavery.

The other thing it would seem to mandate would be either a reduction in population that would be far smaller than the base that the Negative Population Growth folks (who propose 1-1.5 billion or so people) propose. So, how low do we set the bar?

Using a slave labor economy, the Americas supported somewhere between 5-90 million people, depending on whose estimates of pre-Contact population you follow.

Without slaves? We don't know, we don't have any examples that I've ever heard of to draw from. Feudal Japan had the eta (still has them too), India has and had the Untouchables, etc. and further examples are depressingly easy to find.

The only economies that have never relied on serfdom, slavery or renewable carbon based energy input are gatherer/hunter groups without permanant bases.

I apologize if any of this has sounded harsh---that is NOT my intention here!
(Or it could be the sight of an oxygen tank just out of the corner of my eye beckoning to me)

It is simply that I've heard this sort of analysis lots of times in my childhood, and learned personally from competent world class authorities that---

Removing tetraethyl lead from gasoline would mandate the collapse of the economy and lead to the starvation of millions of inner city children, as motorists would be forced to turn to diesel rather than gasoline, and the increased consumption of diesel would mean that almost no heating oil or fertilizer could be produced. This from the American Association of Petroleum Geologists 1972 Annual report.

Additionally, it is theoretically imposssible for the Universe to form hydrocarbons of any sort without a biosphere, and anyone holding a different opinion or presenting evidence to the contrary is simply delusional. (Gulf Oil Company picnic 1974)

Banning DDT will result in countless deaths from mosquito borne viruses and world wide starvation will ensue without its use in agriculture.

Ceasing the production of nuclear reactors by 1980 would result in the death of tens of thousands from exposure to the cold in the Northeastern United States and quite possibly result in handing the world over to the Communist Governments who are wisely building nuclear reactors. Furthermore, it is theoretically impossible for a reactor to release any radioactive products. This from the guest lecturer in my high school physics class, as he slammed volume after volume of AEC safety protocol binders to the floor with a thud to make his point in 1975.

And most recently in the mail from from Glaxo/Smith/Kline:

If you as an asthmatic don't allow us to use cfc compounds in your inhalers, you will die of an asthma attack, environmentalists want to condemn you to death.

I do not think it is possible to estimate what the technologies available in 2050 will be like, and the issue is not how we would crunch the numbers, but how they will.

Just suppose, for a moment, that someone builds an N-ray power plant tomorrow that solves all energy problems once and for all.

Does that invalidate any of your analysis of how screwed up things are, and what could be done to remedy the quality of life people experience?

I don't think so.

1/16/07, 10:35 PM

John Michael Greer said...
Gordon, I'll be responding to both these comments in more detail in a future post. Still, I admit I'm baffled by two things. First, there's still a helluva distance between 18th century technology and 9th century technology, and I don't see where you get the idea that I'm claiming the latter as the likely endpoint of deindustrialization; I'm not. I'm suggesting that the technology we'll have at the end of the deindustrialization process will resemble mid-19th century technology at best, and early 18th century technology at worst, though it will be powered by slightly different energy sources. More on this in the future post.

Second, unlike the propaganda you've cited, I'm not talking about immiment catastrophe -- in fact, that's one of the central points of this blog. I'm talking about the fact, and I do think it's a fact, that the energy-intensive technologies made possible by the 20th century's extravagant and unsustainable use of fossil fuels will be sunsetting out, to be replaced by simpler and lower-energy technologies, over the next century or so.

My "analysis of how screwed up things are, and what could be done to remedy the quality of life people experience" (to borrow your phrasing) is a different issue. It's actually not my analysis -- it's been being repeated over and over again since the dawn of the industrial age. What makes the current situation a bit different is that in the tolerably near future we will no longer have the choice to maintain the energy-intensive societies of the recent past -- and we're not anything close to ready to deal with the transition. That's the point of this blog, really.

1/17/07, 11:03 AM

Joel said...
This comment has been removed by the author.

4/14/07, 10:41 PM

Joel said...
"the hunter-gatherers of the Kalahari desert...their way of life is a good deal more durable than ours."

Uh, maybe...for notes on the durability of their way of life, you can go to the following site, and scroll down to the "postscript" section:

Notice their reliance on Diesel fuel to extract water, the rampant nicotine/alcohol addiction, and how 2/3 of their wealth now comes from substistance farming, mineral prospecting, and jet plane-transported tourists.

On shades of belief in progress: David Brin ( is one of my favorite advocates of progress. He sees progress as unlikely, hard-won, and much less about gadgets than about a willingness to test assumptions. He is to the progressives you describe as Troy Perry is to Fred Phelps, more or less. He might shake some of your assumptions.

Humans can hunt without weapons. If a group of hunters runs marathon-style after prey that adapted to fast sprinting under predation by big cats, we can force them into repeated bursts of high-energy running until they are too exhausted to flee (sort of the way the energy shortage is pursuing our economy?). Ask any recreational runner who brings their dog along while training: in addition to intelligence and longevity, we have endurance much higher than the average mammal.

4/14/07, 10:47 PM

Joel said...
This comment has been removed by the author.

4/15/07, 8:07 AM

Joel said...
(I wish I'd learn to preview my comments before posting them, or that Blogger allowed editing after a post...)

No coal tar? One of the technologies that will frantically try to replace fossil fuels is the wood gas generator, which was used to run IC engines on a fairly large scale during WWII. The main product of such an engine is, as the name implies, a mix of flammable gasses, and a secondary product (in the inverted downdraft configuration) is charcoal. A byproduct of the process, especially when it's done badly, is something very much like coal tar. It's also reasonably simple to tune the process to produce larger molecules in greater amounts.

Charcoal can't keep the power plants running, but it may allow potbellied stoves in the city, and it's definitely sufficient for aluminum recycling. By the way, the best aluminum to cast is the type used in engine blocks, which might just be widely available as scrap if oil becomes scarce.

4/15/07, 8:46 AM