Wednesday, December 05, 2007

Solvitur Ambulando

As last week’s post suggested, the crisis of industrial society may just be approaching a critical stage in the near future. This has had an interesting and welcome impact on discussions about the future. Concerns that have been exiled to the far reaches of our collective discourse for most of three decades now – resource depletion, atmospheric pollution, and the other consequences of the fatal mismatch between fantasies of infinite economic growth and the hard limits of a finite planet – have been thrust back into center stage by the press of events.

Look back over media references to peak oil over the last few months, for example, and you’ll notice that the tone of scornful dismissal that once blanketed nearly every media comment on the subject has begun to wear surprisingly thin. We haven’t yet arrived at the kind of turning point in mass consciousness that turns the formerly unimaginable into conventional wisdom, the sort of thing that occurred in the aftermath of the 1973 oil crisis and all too briefly put ecological limits on the cultural radar screens of societies across the industrial world. Still, if this example is anything to go by, we may be only one crisis away from that.

If such a turning point arrives, one predictable consequence will be a bumper crop of proposed solutions for the problem. I’ve suggested elsewhere on this blog that this entire way of thinking about the crisis of industrial civilization misses the central point at issue; it’s not a problem that can be solved, if a solution is defined as something that will make the problem go away. Nothing will make the limits to growth go away; the sole question is whether we as a species deal with them, or whether we wait until they deal with us.

Yet this isn’t the only point that ought to be kept in mind when our collective imagination starts chasing solutions to the crisis of industrial civilization. Two other factors are so common in today’s proposals for social change that it would startle me exceedingly to see them neglected once the proposed solutions start rolling in.

First, a great many of the proposals on the table just now have surprisingly little to do with the problems they claim to solve. Not long ago, for example, I read a lively and well-written essay arguing that the best way to bring humanity into harmony with the environment was for nations worldwide to embrace socialism. We can leave aside, for the moment, the fact that this is about as likely just now as a resumption of the Crimean War; the point at issue here is that it doesn’t solve the problem it claims to address. On the theoretical plane, shifting ownership of the modes of production does not affect how those modes interact with the ecosystem. On the historical plane, socialist countries have had at least as bad a track record when it comes to the environment as capitalist countries. Instead of finding a solution to the problem it described, in other words, the essay simply tried to identify a new problem that can be used to promote the author’s preferred solution.

This sort of thing is extremely common. I’ve pointed out before that the rhetoric of survivalism rests on the same dubious reasoning: survivalists identify a problem, insist that it will inevitably lead to the collapse of civilization into a Road Warrior future populated with rampaging mobs convenient for target practice, and present the survivalist answer as the only possible response. Listen to the ritual incantations of politicians seeking office and you’ll hear the same thing in an even more caricatured form: no matter what the problem happens to be, the solution always amounts to throwing out the last scoundrel who got into office promising to solve it, so another scoundrel can take a swing at it. My guess is that in much the same way, once the limits to growth find their way back into common discourse, every project for social change you care to imagine will try to redefine itself as the answer the world is waiting for.

This last phrase points straight to the second factor I’d like to discuss here – the notion that it’s possible to know the right response to our predicament in advance. That’s a very deeply rooted assumption in modern thought, of course. Beginning in the 18th century and continuing with ever more force up to the present, ideology has become the dominant mode in Western social thought, as religious ideas of salvation through belief in correct dogma found themselves secularized into claims that the right man with the right plan could fix all social ills. From French philosophes to American neoconservatives, and out beyond them to the far corners of today’s political space where tomorrow’s ideologies are taking shape, the assumption holds that any valid response to what’s wrong with society has to start with a detailed plan for the new social order that will replace the one we’ve got.

The curious thing about this conviction is that it’s been as thoroughly disproved in practice as any idea can be. Time and again, relying on ideology to respond to reality is a recipe for abject failure. From French philosophes to American neoconservatives, the most common result of applying some new social ideology to the real world has been the awkward discovery that the plan doesn’t work as advertised. Now of course the purveyors of new ideologies insist that their ideology is different because it’s the right one, just as the promoters of old ideologies insist that the situation is different and the failures of the past don’t matter. Still, in the light of so many bad experiences, it may be worth suggesting that the problem goes deeper than that.

In making this suggestion I’m following in the footsteps of one of the most thoughtful and least remembered works from the appropriate technology movement of the 1970s, Warren Johnson’s Muddling Toward Frugality (1978). Johnson argues, in much the same terms that I have, that the end of fossil-fueled affluence is a given, and trying to fight it makes about as much sense as playing Canute and trying to order back the incoming tide. Rather, he suggests, we need to live with it – and in the process, to begin to take the modest, piecemeal, unimpressive steps that will actually get us through the crises of the future.

One of the things that makes Muddling Toward Frugality most interesting to me is that Johnson deals directly with the cultural narratives underlying projects for social change. The habit of relying on ideology, he suggests, unfolds from narratives drawn from the language of tragedy, in which great heroes risk themselves and everything else for an ideal. This makes great literature and drama, of course. Still, since the heroes of tragedy generally die, and not uncommonly take everything they care about down with them, they may not be the best model for constructive change!

As an alternative, Johnson offers the unexpected possibility of the comic hero. Throughout the Western literary tradition, comic heroes have most often been muddlers, stumbling half blind through situations they don’t understand with no grander agenda than coming out the other side with a whole skin and some semblance of comfort. They aren’t especially heroic, and their efforts at muddling through crisis fail to inspire the kind of reverent attention so many proponents of social change seem to long for. Unlike tragic heroes, though, they usually do come out the other side of the story, and not uncommonly bring the rest of the cast with them.

The decline and fall of modern industrial civilization may not seem like promising material for comedy, but the basic strategy of muddling has much more to recommend it than appears at first glance. The fact of the matter is that we don’t know in advance what an ecotechnic civilization – a society that maintains high technology in harmony with ecological processes – would actually look like. We don’t know in advance what steps will be needed to make the transition from an industrial society to an ecotechnic one. We don’t know in advance how fast fossil fuel production will decline, how the resulting economic shockwaves will affect consumption, how soon the effects of global climate change will begin to impact today’s societies in a big way, or any of a hundred other crucial issues. Nor do we know in advance which of the various proposed responses will actually work, if any of them do.

What we do know is that certain things are not working just now, and need to be changed; and that certain other things that still work may not keep working for long, and having a Plan B in place would be sensible. It’s possible, of course, to come up with a grandiose plan to fix all of the current problems at once, along with the changes we expect to come later on, but this may not actually be the best option. Rather, it may well be more constructive to encourage as many different responses to our predicament as possible, in the hope that one or more of them will work well enough to become standard practice in the future. It may also work better to encourage piecemeal responses that focus on narrowly defined dimensions of our predicament, and can be implemented on a small scale before moving to a larger one, instead of trying to change everything all at once. That is to say, our best option may be to embrace an adaptive approach to the situation, and then simply try to adapt.

Solvitur ambulando is an old bit of Latin that still gets a little literary use these days. Taken literally, it means “it is solved by walking;” a more idiomatic English translation might be “you’ll find the answer as you go.” An adaptive approach to the crisis of industrial society might well take this as a watchword. Next week’s post will focus on a specific, and distinctly down-to-earth, example of how this can work.


Dwig said...
survivalists identify a problem, insist that it will inevitably lead to the collapse of civilization into a Road Warrior future populated with rampaging mobs convenient for target practice, and present the survivalist answer as the only possible response.

I've been following The Oil Drum for a while now, and I find that postings of this kind are also "wearing surprisingly thin" among the "doomer" sort. More and more, you see family and community mentioned as crucial elements for survival, and fewer and fewer references to armaments and ammo.

Thanks for the Latin title; I've used it as a signature quote in many of my emails over the years, especially those relating to exploring ideas or muddling through. Speaking of which, many of the innovations in Cuba described in "The Power of Community" appear to have this flavor; e.g, people who knew nothing about growing plants became "instant gardeners" (in every vacant lot in the city no less than in the country), no doubt failing more often than succeeding, but learning all along the way. Changes in transportation, housing, etc. happened in similar ways. (And again, apparently the usually ideologically-driven regime was wise enough to allow the people to do considerable "walking".)

Here's a nice complement to the Latin quote, from the Spanish poet Antonio Machado:

Caminante, son tus huellas
el camino y nada más;
caminante, no hay camino,
se hace camino al andar.

Loose translation: Wanderer, your footsteps are the road and nothing else. Wanderer, there is no road, you make the road as you go. (Full poem here.)

12/5/07, 7:17 PM

yooper said...
Excellent John, simply excellent! These last two articles address the here and now, and thank you! You've gained alot of press coverage on that last article, going more main stream. Seemed like every where I turned around, there it was! Good for you! Now with this article you're laying it on the line, suggesting no one can predict what will happen tomorro.

"Solvitur Ambulando" or finding answers as you go, is right on! For one John, I like where you are going with this and am right behind ya! Knustler can cry and moan, but you John, explain the situation in real terms, that is relevent in our lives.....

To see what you're pointing to, has been an exciting adventure for me. I've learned a great deal from you..... Thank you. I, for one, look foward walking into the future with someone like you...

Thanks, yooper

12/5/07, 8:13 PM

dxrey said...
This post brings me a welcome smile, somewhat sunk in the "doom" of the possible futures. The formation of contingency plans is one of the more serious bits of the daily mental workload of many, and a fundamental bit of human nature. Where the future is uncertain, the husbanding of resources has been a time-honored response. In our time, this chiefly focuses on wealth or paper money, but their is little assurance that this will be of any use for long...

The comic hero prospers according to his wits and an open an active mind. Another bit of basic human nature is an aversion to uncertainty - the forceful clinging to certain ideologies and interpretations being the result. The suspension of uncertainty, the willingness to float in doubt, while retaining confidence in one's basic responsive abilities, seem to be a potential "hero's" attribute.

Perhaps the best contingency plan is the husbanding of those resources that seldom lose their value - an open mind, a positive regard for oneself and others, and all the skills of living we can learn.

12/5/07, 10:27 PM

Stephen Heyer said...
Hi John,
Once again, what can I say: Excellent post dealing with the real world complexities I thought just about no one else saw, better yet, with greater depth, detail and thoughtfulness than I could approach myself.

I’ve come to believe it’s always better to hang with people smarter than myself: It might bruise the ego, but I have a very real chance of learning something if only by accident. Besides, bruised egos are almost certainly a good in and of themselves on both practical and spiritual levels.

John Michael Greer: “…it’s not a problem that can be solved, if a solution is defined as something that will make the problem go away. Nothing will make the limits to growth go away; the sole question is whether we as a species deal with them, or whether we wait until they deal with us.”

Perhaps, about the worst possible thing would be for the Over Unity / Vacuum Energy / UFO Back Engineering wackos or someone to actually come up with something that worked”. “Solving” one problem (energy) would just allow everyone to carefully not learn anything and go back to business as usual like they did after the 70’s oil price shock.

Another 30 or 40 years of ignoring limits of growth and the dozen or so other major problems now brewing would leave us in an unrecoverable position when things finally blew up. That is, if we are not already in an unrecoverable position.

John Michael Greer: “Throughout the Western literary tradition, comic heroes have most often been muddlers, stumbling half blind through situations they don’t understand with no grander agenda than coming out the other side with a whole skin and some semblance of comfort. They aren’t especially heroic, and their efforts at muddling through crisis fail to inspire the kind of reverent attention so many proponents of social change seem to long for.”

Gee! I’m a hero and I never knew!

John Michael Greer: “From French philosophes to American neoconservatives, and out beyond them to the far corners of today’s political space where tomorrow’s ideologies are taking shape, the assumption holds that any valid response to what’s wrong with society has to start with a detailed plan for the new social order that will replace the one we’ve got.

“The curious thing about this conviction is that it’s been as thoroughly disproved in practice as any idea can be. Time and again, relying on ideology to respond to reality is a recipe for abject failure.”

One reason, I think, is fairly simple “Human beings are endlessly opportunistic, self-serving and self-deceiving. That is the secret of their success.”

In short, all such ideologies are corrupted from the beginning as groups and individuals controlling them struggle to shape them so as to advantage themselves while carefully pretending (to themselves) that their motives are oh so pure and noble.

Anyway, keep up the good work John and thanks for being patient with my ravings.

12/5/07, 10:44 PM

Adrynian said...
I haven't posted in a while, but I feel it is necessary to speak to the misinformed belief in the perpetually selfish individual. Please let me preface this by saying that people are capable of such behaviour, but that cooperation, a sense of fairness and even altruism - in spite of the dogmatic assertion to the contrary in Western culture - are in fact dominant in the overwhelming majority of human beings all across the planet.

I have recently been reading a book titled "The Social Atom" by Mark Buchanan - which I highly recommend, btw - in which he discusses research (p. 122) into what is called the Ultimatum Game. I quote:
Suppose I bring you into a room, sit you next to a complete stranger, and give you $100. I then say that you have to offer some of the money to the stranger, however much you like, from $1 up to the full $100. If the stranger accepts your offer, then you both get to keep the amounts in question. But if the stranger rejects the offer, you have to give the entire $100 back to me. You are only going to do this one time, and then you and the stranger will go your separate ways and you'll never see one another again. What would you do?

A "true rationalist" would give $1, because getting some money is obviously better than getting no money... so you can offer as little as you like... in full confidence that it'll be accepted...

[M]ost people, when "proposers," offer about 40% of the money, either because they feel this is fair or because they worry that a smaller offer will be rejected. Meanwhile, about half of all "receivers" reject offers at the 20% level, even if the stakes rise up to several hundred dollars... [R]esearchers have now run the experiment many times with players operating with complete anonymity through computers... people still cooperate.

Furthermore, additional experiments have been done with individuals from 15 different cultures scattered around the globe. To make... participants take the game seriously, they set the stakes at one or two days' wages in these cultures... [E]ven the stingiest offer[ed] at least 25% of the stake on average. Across the board, the "receivers" in the experiments typically rejected offers of less than about 25%... [S]ubjects appear to care about fairness and reciprocity... [and] are willing to change the distribution of material outcomes at personal cost...

Somewhat disturbingly, it is curious to note that research also suggests that the culture of modern economic theory may have an insidious influence on how economists themselves behave in comparison to "normal" people... Students from psychology and mathematics played it much as other people do. The one group that stood out were graduate students of economics, who had apparently absorbed the conviction that others will always act on their self-interest and so acted that way themselves - they refused to cooperate far more frequently than other students... As the authors of the study put it, "Exposure to the self-interest model does in fact encourage self-interested behavior." This is a somewhat worrying observation, I think, given the vast influence that economists have as advisers to many of the world's governments.

The book then goes on to try to explain why this occurs, given that ...any organism that helps others at its own expense stands at an important evolutionary disadvantage. How can such altruism be explained, scientifically?

I leave it to you to read the book - plug, plug; I really am quite enjoying it and can't praise it enough - to get the full explanation. However, - just to give you a taste of his proposed answer - he goes on to say that strong reciprocity might fundamentally be involved with the basic physics of social cohesion, and a key element of the social mechanics that enabled our ancestors to form functioning, cohesive groups. It may indeed lie at the heart of what makes us the most social of all animals.

12/6/07, 2:21 AM

Asturchale y Chulo said...
The good side on all this is that, apparently, never in our history has the West been so lost about "big answers". I mean, neither filosophers nor politicians seem able today to arrange any ideology which excites the masses as they did, say, before WWII.
I used to regard this to be a bad thing, a sign that we live in a confused age, in a time without creativity or passion. Now I will begin to think that perhaps we don`t need any prophet, after all.

12/6/07, 2:34 AM

Anthony said...
Anyone want to start tossing in a few comic-hero examples?

12/6/07, 7:30 AM

FARfetched said...
This — the notion that it’s possible to know the right response to our predicament in advance — challenges an assumption that I've had all along: that I believe we have the ability to adjust, fairly comfortably, to the changes that are coming, but we don't have the will.

I think you're saying that we may not be able to do that much even if we were willing to make the sacrifices to do it — simply because we have no clue what's going to work and what won't. A hypothesis only becomes a theory when you can test it, right?

12/6/07, 8:16 AM

John Michael Greer said...
Dwig, I've also been pleased to note that the survivalist trend seems to be on the wane, at least in the peak oil community. Thank you for the quote!

Yooper, thanks for the vote of confidence.

Dxrey, agreed -- comfort with uncertainty is one of the most crucial (and least popular) factors that need to be cultivated in the face of an unpredictable future.

Stephen, Fred Pohl wrote an SF novel years ago, "The Midas Plague," about what would happen if we actually got near-infinite amounts of free energy. He made as good a case for the value of limits as any I've seen in ecological literature. Fortunately, I don't think we have much to worry about from the latest round of perpetual motion theorists.

Adrynian, good to hear from you again! Thanks for the intriguing data. My own take is that insisting that human beings are good or evil, selfish or altruistic, or one side of any other pair of binaries is a useless oversimplification. Human beings are capable of a wide range of behaviors that can be classified in many different ways, depending on the moral theory you're using -- why not leave it at that?

Asturchale, good point! I think it's often this way in the twilight of a civilization -- the old certainties have failed, and nothing has yet emerged to replace them. I think it was Yeats, speaking of the decline of the western world, who commented, "We are between a death and a difficult birth."

Anthony, by all means. The two that come to mind instantly are Sancho Panza from Don Quixote and Papageno from Mozart's The Magic Flute.

Farfetched, exactly.

12/6/07, 11:55 AM

John Michael Greer said...
A note to all: I know it's hopelessly old-fashioned of me, but comments using insulting language -- no matter who the target is -- will not get through moderation. One of the downsides of the internet is the way it's encouraged so many people to ignore even the most basic rules of civil discourse. Here, at least, those fusty but necessary rules still apply, and trolling is not welcome.

12/6/07, 12:02 PM

RES said...
All this talk of preparing for the collapse of industrial civilization and lifeboats got me wondering if what we’re facing is a necessary step in human evolution. Humans have some characteristics (such as short-sightedness, greed, violent tendencies and quickness to anger), which were extremely beneficial to us for the majority of human history when we lived as hunter-gatherers; it can be argued that these characteristics allowed us to become the dominant species on the planet. However, these very same characteristics now appear to be setting us up for catastrophe in our present-day industrial society. This is because we went from living as hunter-gatherers (where the short-sighted, greedy and violent were more likely to survive), to our industrial society (where short-sightedness, greed and violence are all lethal to us) in a very short time by evolutionary standards; much too quickly for these negative traits to be bred out of us. Yet those of us who are less likely to be shortsighted and greedy (those who plan ahead, who are generous and co-operative) are more likely to survive a future collapse. So maybe a collapse is an necessary in order to weed out the now obsolete (and potentially lethal) traits of short-sightedness and greed.

12/6/07, 12:09 PM

Jean-Michel said...

Dear, there are so many comments I'd like to make regarding your last few posts. It is better to keep most of them for later because there are so many things to do right now. It is not a time for endless debates anymore.

As treasurer of a non-profit which has just opened a kind of shop renting bikes, I now feel I am on the right end of things. If people start shedding their car, I will be busy.

Moreover, renting bikes in a medium size city is a strategic business, and you are perfectly right to say that things are solved while on the go (or the bike).
There is no-predefined theory for this kind of things. It is by the way the very same for any field. However, you need some kind of "feeling" beforehand, what Heidegger and others called the "hermeneutic circle". This, you did not mention.

As regards, life boat time, I posted an article back in February, entitled (in French) "Wind of panic blowing over Mickey ville", in which I specifically predicted a dramatic shift (for the worst) in perceptions within 18 months. I used the metaphor of the sea, but in a different way: I said we would find ourselves staring at the sea and praying for it to open up, as for the Hebrews leaving Egypts. At the time, people all around me took me for some kind of crazy guy. Remember, back in February, we were not "officially certain" that climate change was man made (the IPCC meeting came a bit later)!

As regards today's post, it is funny because about two weeks ago I posted a three-part series devoted to 2012 on my website. It holds one the keys about what we can expect about "ideologies" or "dogmatic religion with beliefs carved in stone".

First these two things are the purest products of the mental/rationnal structure of consciousness, which is on the go as Jean Gebser first predicted decades ago. We are now on the way to a different structure of consciousness called trans-rationnal. We really do not have the choice. Second, ideologies are in only two domains of injunctions: the "We" seen from the inside or the outside. We already have methodologies at our disposal related to the domains of "It" or "Its" (roughly speaking sciences).
What we need most, and that's the pillar of the approach I pursue to address this transition we are now facing, are methodologies related to the "I" domain. If you see it from the inside, it is interiority (meditative methodologies) and if you see it from the outside, it is psychology. That's because the West has shed these interiority methodologies that we are where we are now. We need to see the invisible realm once again, but in a way that takes into account post-modernity (because there is in my view no way back to old metaphysics- my biggest disagreement with you John Michael maybe, but if you are happy, I am happy) and science.

In other words, what I want to say, and I will paraphrase the Upanishad, is that we need to practice both action and meditation. Which is maybe what this "solvitur ambulando" deeply means, because walking is an old form of meditation, and there is even a school of greek philosophers, the peripatetitians, who became famous for thinking while walking.

Said differently, what we maybe need, and it is difficult to understand it, is our transition work to become itself a meditation.
And we will get to the bottom of this latin expression.

Last but not least, I have just finished a three part series on my predictions for 2008.
At the end of it, I mention hopi traditions. They have one: the so-called "heyoka". Litterally, these are clowns or contrarians. They have been touched by a thunder being, and they start doing thing differently, so that society can be waken up from its slumber and be exposed to new ways.

A heyoka is a comic.

Yes JMG, we need no mental/rationnal heros, rather trans-rationnal heyokas or comics.
You are right on target. This one, you did not miss. Thank you.

12/6/07, 1:45 PM

Mat(ière) Noir said...
Predicting the future is always hazardous. Even in science a fair amount of muddling goes on to arrive at a reasonable solution for fairly well-defined problems. Malthus was wrong in his predictions and yet as Prof. Bartlett said, “His math is impeccable.” (And, he does cast a long shadow on our fast-approaching predicament.)

Social challenges and problems are a lot more complex. There are no Mentats nor psychohistorians on the horizon to save the world. What to do?

Muddling-through is more fruitful if one is well-informed, well-armed, and well-directed. You learn the rule, perhaps, just to figure out how and when it breaks. Building social constructs like capitalism or socialism or even survivalism are such exercises, not a real life solution.

There is a pedagogic use for doomers (engineers) as there is for bloomers (economists) and every one in between. Perhaps we pick on doomers because they offer a view that clashes strongly with our survival instinct. Why is their view not very useful? Is Hobbes important because he said, “…life is short, nasty, and brutish”? Or Nietzsche is because “God is dead”? Were they representing times in our history when optimism was a luxury or the growth had reached its technological limits of its time? Or the practical thing to do was to let the Junkers dance on your grave? We may yet see a revival of such serious doomers as we start pushing the limits to growth.

Muddling through without a compass is like bacteria trying to jump out of a Petri dish. Machiavelli be damned, we need Platos and Schopenhauers to provide that compass.

In the end, each community will live by its resources. How they organize and live will depend on the courage of the people. Sheep shall have a shepherd, lions a pride.

12/6/07, 4:10 PM

John Michael Greer said...
Res, while I can understand trying to find meaning in the approaching mess, I don't expect the decline and fall of industrial civilization over the next couple of centuries to see any particular decrease in the human capacity for violence, imprudence, and greed. History shows us that the fall of civilizations in the past has involved no noticeable improvement in the standards of human behavior, and I see no reason to think that things will be any different this time.

Jean-Michel, congratulations on the bike rental project -- this could help a great deal as fossil fuel based transportation prices itself out of the market. You're right, of course, that we disagree about the value of older metaphysics, but I have no objection at all to people trying to create new ones; I just find value in some of the fusty old stuff the scientific revolution rejected out of hand, and would like to get them into the hands of those who are interested in using them.

But I don't disagree at all with the thought of work as meditation -- or, for that matter, walking meditation, which among other things is one of the practices taught in some branches of the modern Druid movement!

12/6/07, 4:23 PM

John Michael Greer said...
Mat, when every compass points in a different direction, it's all very well to wish for direction but the only option left is to do what seems to work. As for Mentats, you haven't been reading past posts here -- I've been talking about real-world equivalents all along. Ars memorativa, anybody?

12/6/07, 4:28 PM

Dwig said...
Adrynian (and others interested in why people cooperate):

The Ultimatum game, as well as several others, are discussed in detail in Trust and Reciprocity, edited by Elinor Ostrom and James Walker, a book containing papers that emerged from a conference on the subject and later meetings among both theoretical researchers and experimentalists. Topics like trust, cooperation, commons, and so forth are the subjects of some active research among folks coming from sociology, psychology, political science (and apparently now from physics). The papers in the book include a mix of theoretical models (including formal games like Prisoner's Dliemma and Ultimatum), computational experiments with automated agents, experiments on human subjects, and comparisons of human behavior with those of other social animals. Caveat: these papers are full-up academic works, with footnotes, bibliographies, and all. Still, I find them useful as a way to ground my less formal "amblings" in the evolution of human nature.

Anthony, the comic hero that sprang to my mind was Charlie Chaplin.

12/6/07, 7:08 PM

mc said...
I am finding these recent posts and comments very interesting.
Recently, I watched a film that brought to mind a sense of current times and being on the brink of dark times - Dr. Zhivago -

He lived during the birth of the Soviet Union, through the turbulence of the revolution, WWI, and the civil war. He was a poet and a doctor and he tried to survive. He finds some joy in life through his love of Lara, but it is a tough and tragic existence.

What I like about the man is his decency (I know some may disagree, he is married)that remains throughout his life. He is I think a moral person who tries to help others and tries to survive, but does not become a destroyer of others. No, he is not comic - but this is the type of character that I like to reflect on as a model for how to remain decent during times of chaos and unraveling.

12/6/07, 7:35 PM

Dwig said...
Off topic:

John, you might be interested in a recent essay on TOD (if you haven't seen it already), called The Freezing Point of Industrial Society, by Kyle Schuant (it's been picked up on some other blogs and indymedia). I think it has some interesting cross-connections with your Catabolic Collapse model. I'll "take a walk" around it here:

First, a couple of accidental (or synchronic?) resonances: Schuant also uses the term Ecotechnic for a sustainable "end state" economy. He also tangentially covers waste, but more as a characteristic of a particular kind of society, rather than a fundamental part of the model.

Schuant's focus is on resources, in particular energy and food resources, and the kinds of economy that various quantities of each make possible. He hypothesizes that there are ranges of affordability that characterize each kind of economy, and that, for a given economy, increases or decreases in affordability beyond the range for that economy will drive a change to a different kind.

His model seems to occupy a different "space" than yours, and could be complementary to it. For example, what happens when an economy finds its fuel affordability dropping down to or below its "minimum", for one reason or another? In Catabolic terms, this will lead to a falling C(p), and thus either a maintenance or depletion crisis. Schuant would say that the outcome of this would be a transition to an economy with a lower affordability range. Similarly, when affordability rises above the maximum range, an anabolic cycle ensues. (I'm speaking very loosely here; keep your salt shaker handy.)

Speaking of your model, I've read it a few times, and each time I'm reminded of Forrester's System Dynamics modeling technique (this is what the Club of Rome used for their world models in Limits to Growth). It seems to me that CC could be expressed fairly easily in a System Dynamics model, and its behaviors explored in simulations. In particular, it'd be interesting to see under what conditions a catabolic collapse exhibits the successive "partial recoveries" you've described. (At this point, I'm not offering to undertake this. I studied System Dynamics briefly some time ago -- it'd take me a while to get back up to speed.)

Thinking about this clarified something for me, though: I've been somewhat bothered by Production as a factor. Unlike the other three, it never appears in capitals in the formulas, but always as "(p)". Looking at it from a System Dynamics perspective, however, it's clearer: while Resources, Capital, and Waste are stocks, Production is a flow.

12/6/07, 8:11 PM

dxrey said...
Comic Heroes:

Coyote comes to mind first, from Native American lore and tradition.

Voltaire's Candide as well, one of my all time favorite books.

But I cannot conjure up an example from life or history - only literature. Perhaps Li Po, or Han Shan, the Chinese poets.

12/6/07, 10:00 PM

Adrynian said...
Okay, given res's comments, I think perhaps I should provide further explanation of my previous post. In fact, violent competition and cooperative generosity can actually be seen as the flip sides of the same coin of Homo sapiens’ evolution as hunter-gatherers.

Before offering an explanation, it is interesting to note that there is a variant of the Ultimatum Game, called the Dictator Game, which is the same as Ultimatum except that the recipient can’t refuse any offer. Even here, without any threat of rejection, many people still offer a reasonable fraction of the pie to the other person, apparently out of a sense of fairness, (p. 125).

The essential argument for why people behave altruistically - supported by computer models simulating the natural competition that would have prevailed both within and between early groups of hunter-gatherers, (p. 135) - is that although people within a group compete for food, mates, etc., there was an even more powerful competition between different groups that would tend to favour groups composed of people who cooperate within their own group. That is, groups with a higher fraction of strong reciprocators will tend to win battles against groups with fewer or would have a better chance of surviving a long drought through their effective collective action. (I.e. inter-group competition promotes intra-group cooperation.) As the author puts it: being an altruist doesn’t help you personally, but it does help the group of which you are a part. The more cooperation becomes important to group survival, the more you should expect true altruism to exist – because it helped our ancestors’ groups survive through the cruelest circumstances. (…and obviously, to perpetuate their cooperative genes to subsequent generations.)

This also helps explain other recent research I have read about. The results were showing that when the volunteers placed the interests of others before their own, the generosity activated a primitive part of the brain that usually lights up in response to food or sex. Altruism, the experiment suggested, was not a superior moral faculty that suppresses basic selfish urges but rather was basic to the brain, hard-wired and pleasurable. That was from If It Feels Good to Be Good, It Might Be Only Natural by Shankar Vedantam at The Washington Post, although I read it at The EnergyBulletin.

Interestingly, this account of inter-group competition promoting intra-group cooperation also offers an explanation for why we are all so capable of blind prejudice, animosity, cruelty and violence, even to the point of genocide, towards people we identify as outside our own group. At the root of violent nationalistic, racial, or cultural hatred lies a social paradox: the very forces that work to pull us apart are also those that help to keep us together. The Colour Game, developed by Axelrod and Hammond (p. 148), is basically an iterated Prisoner’s Dilemma where the only differentiating feature of any individual is their “colour” (which can actually refer to any kind of identifiable label that could serve to tell people apart and to place them into groups). Thus, agents can’t develop Tit for Tat, or any other kind of cooperative strategy for interacting with particular individuals because they can’t tell one individual from another. People located in the same region, but of another colour, or having a nonprejudiced strategy, won’t do nearly so well, rarely getting any help from their prejudiced neighbours, and often wasting their efforts on others from whom they get no reciprocation. On the other hand, clusters of prejudiced cooperation towards others of the same “colour” tend to accumulate, which actually increases the overall level of cooperation within the world, as people inside such clusters interact only with those of the same “colour” and so have entirely cooperative interactions, while only those at the interface between groups have competitive interactions. (This makes me curious whether the Ultimatum and Dictator games would play out the same way if researchers introduced “colour” groups into the anonymous computer versions of the experiments; I don’t know if anyone’s done this.)

In most societies, and unlike in Axelrod and Hammond’s world, people interact as individuals… They interact repeatedly because they live and work together, they have memories and friends and form bonds of trust and understanding that undercut the potential power of such labels… The colour game shows what can happen, or what will indeed happen, if people are somehow forced to make decisions only on the basis of crude and superficial labels. People under such conditions act on blind prejudice because such prejudice works to their benefit. In effect, the Colour Game seems like a model of our world only under conditions in which people are so stripped of their uniqueness and, through fear, coercion, brainwashing, or whatever, are made unable to interact with other human beings as individual human beings… Social researchers see the primary cause of strong ethnic hatred as the breakdown of the normal social mechanics that let people form and maintain social bonds, across ethnic labels…

Genocides are just such an example. But ethnic hatred and distrust do not have to lead to pillaging and violence… A second common element in all genocidal events is the decisive action of some political leader or party that uses the dynamics of ethnic hatred for strategic ends… When facing crises, people invariably see their leaders as strong almost regardless of the actions they take, feel more strongly connected to the group, and naturally become distrustful of outsiders and members of other groups… As Yugoslavia fell to pieces, and precisely as its multiethnic culture was most vulnerable to the divisive mind-set, Milosevic poured fuel onto the flames with a program of propaganda aimed at demonizing all non-Serbs and rallying the nation around a myth of Serbs as a suffering and oppressed people… Milosevic seized on nationalism as “a substitute for factors of integration in a disintegrating society.”

That is to say, in a situation of societal disintegration, people will probably try to come together so long as 1) they have a history of cooperative interactions with their multiethnic neighbours, and 2) there isn’t a concerted effort of propaganda attempting to divide them. Furthermore, this indicates that [h]istory is controlled by the individual and the collective at once… [S]ocial forces or patterns that involve thousands or millions act back on those individuals to constrain their choices, often in a way that reinforces the original pattern. In the case of ethnocentrism, the collective pattern, once it begins, has energy of its own. Even the most reasonable and tolerant become distrustful and capable of violence after repeated attacks from their neighbours. Thus, it’s very important for those of us in multiethnic societies to build and continually reinforce a history of cooperation and solidarity with our neighbours before such moments of weakness arise, or else we will all be more susceptible to any attempts to manipulate our Stone Age brains to behave with blind discrimination and prejudice.

12/7/07, 1:43 AM

William said...
I vaguely recall two lines near the end of the movie Crocodile Dundee where the female lead is about to do the apparently irrational thing and hook up with Crocodile. Her father says something like "Honey, are you sure you know what you're doing?" And she - wiser now than she was at the beginning of the story - says something like "No, but it'll come to me..."

12/7/07, 9:35 AM

BingeThinker said...
I consider a political economy to be something that emerges from the individual and collective decisions of the members of a culture, not something that is designed. To a large extent arguing about ideology is arguing about what to call a particular political economy after it has emerged.

That said. People seem to be measure satisfaction according to how their standard of living compares with that of their neighbors, not in an absolute sense. So if you would like to have a peaceful transition to a lower standard of living, it seems to me it would be best to have an egalitarian society where everyone's standard of living declines at about the same rate.

12/7/07, 2:46 PM

Clarence said...
Steven: Chaplin"s definately a comic hero, he never has an idea what's going on but always manages to muddle through some how. Another I always think of as a metaphor of what we're all doing (if we're lucky) is Sweet Pea from the old Popeye cartoons. There's one in a factory where (s?)he crawls under a giant press, crawls off it just in time and stops to look around. The press comes down and catches a corner of his blanket but he doesn't notice. It rises and he crawls away. Later he crawls onto some giant turning gear teeth and crawls off just before they mesh. Etc. There's another version in a zoo that's the same idea. Pure, clueless muddling through.
RES: I think you'll find that shortsightedness and greed were far from characteristic of hunter gatherers, quite the contrary. The Tribes in this part of California as an example were an integral part of the ecosystem and managed it so well for 13000 years that the first Europeans who got here thought they were entering a virgin forest. Greed isn't very useful if you don't have a secure place to keep all your stuff. In fact, what gave Homo sapiens our evolutionary edge was our ability to cooperate. We developed language so we could do it better. Shortsightedness and greed didn't really become adaptive (for the individual)until the advent of agriculture a mere 300 or so generations ago.
And in the bigger picture, cooperation is far more the rule in nature than competition. Forests are incredibly complex webs of fungi and soil bacteria plants and animals that are all dependant on each other. Even the nuclei in our cells likely began as parasites preying on prokaryotes and figuring out a way to become partners.

12/8/07, 1:14 AM

Smith Mill Creek Notes said...
Arlo Guthrie is at boarding school. It is Thanksgiving and he's lonely.
That's bad.

A nice woman named Alice invites him to eat turkey with her.
That's good.

He gets there, and the dining hall/former church is full of garbage.
that's bad.

He figures out that he can take it to the dump with his VW.
That's good.

But it's Thankssgiving, and the dump is closed.
That's bad.

But he sees another place where some lonely garbage wants company, so he puts it there.
That's good.

Turns out that this is against the law, and he has to spend the night in jail.
That's bad.

But then it turns out that this crime makes him ineligible to be drafted and go kill people.
That's good.

And he turns the story into a song.
That no one hears.
That's bad.

So he sings it at the Newport Folk Festival and it becomes a hit.
That's good.

But then goes on to define him and he gets sick and tired of playing it.
That's bad.

Until he gets used to it, and accepts his fate.
That's good.

(PS- Just went through a two day intro to Forester's systems thinking. Good stuff.)

12/8/07, 12:07 PM

Anthony said...
Oh you people are way too smart and educated for me. Sancho Panzo from Don Quioxte?? Jeez I barely know who that is. Okay here are my candidates - let me know if I am off base. Comic-heroes...

Inspector Cluso of the Serte (the bumbling inspector who still manages to solve the case).

For that matter Joe Peschi's character in "My cousin Vinni" (the bumbling lawyer who still manages to solve the case).

Jack Burton from "Big Trouble in Little China" the bumbling side kick who thinks he is the hero. This movie produced one of my favorite quotes -

When some wild-eyed, eight-foot-tall maniac grabs your neck, taps the back of your favorite head up against the barroom wall, looks you crooked in the eye and asks you if ya paid your dues, you just stare that big sucker right back in the eye, and you remember what ol' Jack Burton always says at a time like that: "Have ya paid your dues, Jack?" "Yessir, the check is in the mail."

Bing Crosby and Bob Hope in the "On the Road" movies. A much less popular rip off would be Dustin Hoffman and Warren Beatty in Ishtar.

Of course there is the every popular Forrest Gump whom people call "Forrest Gump".

Any others?


12/9/07, 10:45 AM

Clarence said...
If Dubya were a fictional character, and thus his million dead and counting in Iraq, the 4000 Americans, the tens of thousands of walking wounded, the executed prisoners in Texas, the people losing their jobs, their pensions, their homes, their health care and their lives because of his decisions would also be fictional, he would be a pretty good comic bumbler. All his life he's failed miserably at everything he's ever done and been rewarded with the fruits of victory. He's now turned it into a fine art. After the unfortunate events of Sept. 2001 the entire world was on our side. They even demonstrated in sympathy for us and against "terrorists" in Tehran. Since then, he's destroyed two small countries, demonstrated to the world that our military is a clumsy muscle bound tool of empire, and that our moral standards are dictated by greed. Oh, and he's laid the groundwork for economic collapse that will make the Depression look like utopia. Every "mistake" he's made has led to the enrichment of his constituency: the "defense" industry, the various "health care" industries, the media conglomerates...
Pretty dark hmor, I'll admit, kind of like "Catch 22" on bad crank, and the fact that it isn't fiction pretty much destroys the comedic effect.

12/9/07, 10:55 PM

John Michael Greer said...
A lively discussion to which I have very little to add. Dwig, many thanks for the link to Kyle Schuant's paper. He does indeed use the term "ecotechnic" in the same sense I do -- this may not be an accident, as he links the term to my post on the subject. I look forward to his article on whether one is possible.

As for Forrester's system dynamics, there again the resemblance is hardly accidental. The Limits to Growth was a major influence on the development of the catabolic collapse model.

12/10/07, 9:45 AM

yooper said...
Hello John! Just got back from the big city doing my last show for the year, whew!

Sure like your thoughts about adapting to the situations as we go, really not knowing what might lie ahead. Might I suggest, that the first step in this process would be to precieve the world in a realistic way...

While in the city, I'm seeing so many people living beyond their means. They simply cannot adapt to what their world is throwing at them now... Let alone, what may come in the near future....

It's one thing to be unprepared to jump ship, yet another to be so disillusional not to notice the water at neckline and still insisting everything will be ok!!!

Do that in the harsh enviroment where I live and you will die.....Do that in the enviroment that may lay ahead, many will die....

It's been my experience John, that when some people are struggling in the water, they'll cling onto anything or anyone to prevent themselves from drowning. Even to the point of dragging that someone down with them. If we have enough people in this situation, can they actually bring us all down? Really, is'nt this happening now? Might I add, for a long time....

Perhaps, it will be little adjustments here and there, as we slide down the backside of Hubbert's curve. Helping relatives and friends see the realistic world is hard enough, not helping in preventing these people from falling even further in their erroneous ways, is harder yet.

The wisdom here, is knowing when to let go.

Thanks, yooper

12/10/07, 5:33 PM

Stephen Heyer said...
I think that in discussing George Bush as a comic hero Clarence is confusing comic heroes and comic villains.

Comic villains (a variety of antihero) are of course a rich and wonderful seam to mine in their own right and, like comic heroes, I believe they map onto real human personality types – both were probably derived from observing real people.

I’m afraid I cannot sum up comic villains as beautifully as John Greer does comic heroes, but I’d suggest they both have a lot in common. The main differences I’ve noticed is that comic villains:
1. Tend to be more successful financially than comic heroes.
2. Male comic villains are much more successful with women and many/all women find them attractive despite their better sense (seriously, this is discussed in women’s magazines under the heading of “bad boys”).
3. A lot of the problems in a comic villain’s life are caused by his/her tendency to do the wrong thing even when the right thing would be safer, easier and more rewarding.

Hey! Given GW’s apparent lack of success at 2 I guess that means he is even a failure at being a comic villain, though, then, he seems to have 1 and 3 down pretty well perfect. Guess he makes the comic villain grade after all.

My all time favorite comic villain is of course George Macdonald Fraser’s wonderful Sir Harry Flashman see or .

My all time favorite real-life comic villain is an old family friend whose adventures and misadventures are almost on the same level as Flashman’s.

12/11/07, 2:46 AM

tRB said...
I think there is a big difference between a bumbler and a muddler. The former is comic but not heroic. They benefit from serendipity. They are passive and lucky, and thus funny, but not interesting beyond that.

A muddler, on the other hand, actually acts, and reacts, and tries to get by. They aren't the kind of hero (epic?) who wins the great contest once and for all, and everyone lives happily ever after. Rather, they're more like real people, who engage with the world at a level between the passive bumbler and the supernatural superhero. Muddlers never win the "final" contest (mostly because there isn't one), but their little victories and little defeats add up to a life that *suffices*.

One fictional character who might fit John's description of a "comic hero" is Kevin Claiborne in _Pacific Edge_ by Kim Stanley Robinson. Kevin's world is probably more benign than what many of you expect of 2065, but it sure isn't utopia. His victories are temporary, contingent, but he retains the ability to put everything in context and still laugh with the world. (And I highly recommend _Pacific Edge_ to people here. Coyote himself makes an appearance, too, sort of.)

12/11/07, 8:06 AM

australia-for-ron-paul said...
I really enjoyed that post. With a background in permaculture, Chinese Medicine and philosophy and Austrian free-market economics, what you said managed to resonate strongly with all of my primary interests, and as you can imagine that does not happen often.

Can I just ask you, what do you make of the epistemological honesty of someone like Dr. Ron Paul, when he says (and means) things like:

"I don't want to run your life, I don't want run the economy, I don't want to run the world. I wouldn't know how, anyway."

It seems to me that the paleoconservative concern about central government interventionism is very compatible with your critique of western ideologically driven action. Certainly paleoconservatism itself can degenerate into rigid ideology, but I think at base there is an understanding of the limits of human preconceptions and the import of letting spontaneous self-organisation of markets and communities work things out.

Does that make sense to you?

12/11/07, 1:27 PM

richardbelltheword said...
Here's another more contemporary fictional comic hero: Yossarian, the hero of Joseph Heller's Catch-22.

How about Jon Stewart as a comic hero?

12/11/07, 7:32 PM

John Michael Greer said...
More good comments. Australia, to my mind the key problem with contemporary paleoconservatism is that it has never come to terms with the fact that government isn't the only locus of power in a modern society. The Burkean ideal of balance of power requires that the corporate sphere also be checked and held accountable -- and history shows all too well that Adam Smith's invisible hand isn't up to the job.

More specifically, it seems to me that those who insist government regulation of the economy is to blame for the recent flurry of bubbles and crashes are straining at gnats and swallowing camels. The banking and finance reforms that accompanied the New Deal succeeded in moderating the business cycle, which is what they were designed to do, and brought an end to the sequence of booms and busts that had rocked the US economy since the Civil War. When those reforms were gutted under Reagan, under the banner of deregulation, the cycle of booms and busts started right up again. Cause and effect? It certainly looks like it.

12/12/07, 9:53 AM

DeadBeat Dad said...
Great example of a comic hero:
The comedian Robin Williams:,_Robin/Filmography/

In particular, his parts in:

Mork & Mindy, Moscow on the Hudson, The Survivors, Being Human, The Fisher King, Bicentennial Man, Mrs. Doubtfire

This actor is the very archetype of someone who struggles for such modest victories. Nearly every character he plays is someone ‘muddling’ through against great odds, and shows us how to survive with more than satisfaction—sheer happiness and joy at small achievements.

We can all think of examples in our private lives of someone who struggles through with dignity against difficult odds. Anyone of us is fortunate if we have a person in our own sphere who can light the way –if not with vison & a plan—at least with optimism & hope.

12/12/07, 12:11 PM

Kiashu said...
"He does indeed use the term "ecotechnic" in the same sense I do -- this may not be an accident, as he links the term to my post on the subject. I look forward to his article on whether one is possible."

I'm beginning to post this here. I wanted to give JMG an "advance copy", he deserves that - but could find no email for him. If he should email me... :)

12/23/07, 7:08 AM

Richard said...
John, I recently found your blog via a good friend and must say you are doing good work. I've bookmarked your site and will be back regularly.

1/11/08, 10:25 AM

red said...
Thank you very much for this information.


9/14/08, 4:05 PM

jsb said...
Warren Johnson has been trying to publish a follow up to Muddling for the last decade with no success. Muddling was recently re-released by Easton Studio Press. I just got off the phone with him after an interview about Muddling and how things have changed and things have stayed the same. I'll be finishing a written version of the interview soon. His follow up to muddling is available free at:

JMG: Thanks for all your work. I'm a huge admirer. I'd love to provide you with the interview with Warren, if you're interested. He has quite a story to tell. my direct email is: jonathan.bucki at

7/28/10, 11:43 AM