Wednesday, December 17, 2008

Why Dissensus Matters

During the last month or so, these essays have tried to present an extended critique of the very common notion that we can collectively plan for, and achieve, the future that we decide we want. By now, though, that point has been pushed about as far as it will go. Those of my readers who are going to get my point have gotten it, and are likely more than ready to go on to something else, while those who continue to believe they can order up a future to go will continue to believe that no matter what gets said here.

Still, that discussion leads on to a further question, one that can’t reasonably be avoided here. Given that I don’t think much of the prospects of planning a desirable future and then making it happen, what am I suggesting instead? That’s a harder question to answer than to ask, because the only answer I have to offer presupposes certain things about what we can know about the future, and those have to be clarified first. The same thing is true, to be sure, about the attempts to plan the future I’ve critiqued. If we could know where history is headed and what influence our actions could have on it, making firm plans for the future would be a safe bet. Equally, if it’s impossible for us to know anything at all about the future, then all bets are off, no course of action is more likely to succeed than any other, and the only option left would be moment-by-moment improvisation.

Still, it seems to me that neither of these extremes fits our situation. There are certainly things ahead that we will never expect until they show up on the doorstep, but not everything about the future falls into this category. An interesting distinction also lies between many of the things we can know about and many of the things we can’t: very often, we have no way of knowing what will happen, but we can predict very accurately that certain things won’t happen, and we can also accurately predict the kinds of things that will happen.

A specific example may help show how this works. Some years ago, when the late housing bubble was shifting into overdrive, quite a number of people – I was among them, though I didn’t have a public platform for my predictions in those days – noted the acceleration in housing prices and drew two conclusions. The first was that those who insisted real estate could increase in value forever were wrong: not just a little bit wrong, but utterly, catastrophically wrong. The second was that if real estate kept zooming up, there was going to be a massive crash. (Those who see this as 20/20 hindsight may visit the Housing Panic blog, one place where these predictions appeared.)

Both predictions, it’s worth noting, were based on the evidence of history. Ever since market economies evolved the capacity to support speculative bubbles, people have lost their senses at intervals over some investment or other: tulips, stock, real estate, precious metals, commodities, you name it. The infallible sign that this has happened is the claim that the investment in question is exempt from supply and demand and will just keep increasing in value. I think most of us remember when exactly these things were said about tech stocks, and it’s been rather les than a year since many people insisted that the same things were true about petroleum: wrong in both cases, and in every other case in human history. Thus we can know something about the future: we can accurately predict that no speculative investment will rise in value indefinitely.

The second prediction followed on the heels of the first. Because millions of people were climbing aboard the real estate bandwagon, and prices were zooming upwards, it was a safe bet that eventually prices would slump, people would sell off their investments, and the result would be a crash; that’s the way every speculative bubble in history has ended. Thus the bloggers on Housing Panic knew the kind of thing the future would hold: a collapse in real estate prices in which a great many people would lose a huge amount of money. Those who noticed that banks were loaning money recklessly to speculators also knew that many banks would go under; again, that’s the kind of thing that happens when greed trumps caution and banks forget that money should only be loaned to people who can pay it back.

What nobody knew was when the crash would come, what would trigger it, and how it would play out. This is the difference between knowing what kind of thing will happen and knowing what will happen. Nothing is more difficult than timing a bubble. Isaac Newton, arguably one of the brightest human beings who ever lived, tried to time the market during the South Sea Bubble and lost most of his money. (Any of my readers who consider themselves smarter than Newton are invited to try to predict the turning point of the current bubble in US treasury bills. Since the bursting of that bubble will probably put what’s left of the global economy into cardiac arrest, this is by no means a purely academic exercise.)

These same considerations apply to any attempt to predict the future, and in particular to the central theme of this blog, the twilight of industrial civilization and the long descent into a new dark age. Civilizations, like speculative bubbles, have promoters who insist they can keep on going forever; just as with bubbles, announcements of that sort have historically been a clear sign that serious trouble is not too far off. It’s a safe bet, in any case, that every bubble will pop and every civilization will decline and fall. Those who are heavily invested in a particular bubble or civilization will of course insist that it’s different this time, just as their predecessors did; those claims have been wrong so far, and the evidence isn’t favoring them this time, either.

It’s quite possible, in turn, to predict the kind of things that will happen as industrial civilization lurches down the uneven slope of decline. Plenty of civilizations have done that before, and the common features stand out clearly from history; some of these features are already visible in the present case – it’s educational to page through Spengler or Toynbee and note how many features of a declining civilization had not yet appeared in their time, but have shown up on schedule in ours. What nobody can know in advance is just how these trends will work out in detail.

This is the perspective on the future that frames the proposals I’ve made here and elsewhere for coping with the long descent ahead of us. It’s certainly possible to know in advance some of the things that won’t happen. For example, declining civilizations always seem to get prophets who insist that some vast and improbable transformation will suddenly replace their civilization with the kind of society they would rather inhabit. They are always wrong, and such prophecies should be seen as signs of the times rather than knowledge about what will actually happen.

Set such fantasies aside, and it’s not that difficult to predict the kind of things that will happen as our civilization runs down. Mass migrations, for example, usually take place when civilizations collapse; the tidal force of migrant workers and refugees streaming across today’s borders is already making headlines, so it’s a safe bet this process will shift into high gear in the future. On the other hand, it’s anyone’s guess how those migrations will affect individuals and communities in any given corner of the world. I’ve suggested in these essays, for instance, that the western shores of North America may end up receiving some millions of refugees by sea from Japan. The Japanese islands can only support a small fraction of their current population on local resources; the northern Pacific currents go the right direction, and Japan has a huge and capable merchant marine and fishing fleet, so means, motive, and opportunity are present.

None of this makes the arrival of the first rusting container ship full of refugees on an Oregon beach a certainty. For all we know, Japan might purchase eastern Siberia from a disintegrating Russia thirty years from now, and settle its extra population there; it might go to war with China and suffer losses so drastic that the point becomes moot; or some other unexpected turn of events might set history in motion down a different path. What we do know is that as fossil fuels run short and importing food becomes a strategy without a future, a large fraction of the population of Japan will either relocate or die; what they do about that bitter choice is less predictable.

Thus the knowledge we can get provides no basis for making a future to order, but potentially allows room for something beyond improvisation. Since a miracle is not going to bail us out from the results of our collective mistakes, we need not waste time waiting for one, and can get to work in more practical ways. Since the kind of things that happen early in a civilization’s decline are tolerably well documented, we can assess trends already at work in the areas where we live, and guess at the near-term challenges we are likely to face. Since the endpoint of the process of decline is also fairly well documented, we can try to anticipate what things, readily available now, will be scarce and useful to our descendants, and do what we can to see that those things get passed down the chain of years to the waiting hands of the future.

Now it’s true, of course, that none of these options are foolproof. Even with the guidance of history, it’s possible to misjudge the shape of the future disastrously, and even those who guess the future in advance may not be able to avoid its dangers. This is why the concept of dissensus, introduced last week, is vital just now: as any ecologist can tell you, in the face of unpredictable change, the wider the range of variation in a species, the more likely that some of them will have what it takes to adapt. A monoculture of ideas, organizational styles, or paradigms is just as vulnerable as a monoculture of living things, and so our best option just now is to encourage disagreement, so as to foster as many different approaches to the future as possible.

The need for dissensus, it should be stressed, does not simply cover the technologies different individuals and groups might decide to pursue, the organizations they might choose to make or support, or the survival strategies that might seem most promising to them. It also reaches into the realm of ends. I have said this several times in recent posts, but it bears repeating: we have no idea what kind of society is best suited to a world after industrialism. It’s far more likely than not, in fact, that such a society will have little in common with the notions that middle-class intellectuals in the industrial world today might have of it. This doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t try to imagine such a society; it does mean that attempts to push diverse visions into a single consensus are as unproductive as they are futile.

Diversity in the realm of ends, finally, also applies to the most basic decisions about the way the predicament of our time is framed. For some people, the most meaningful challenge focuses on rebuilding communities to help them and their residents get through the end of the age of abundance. For others, it focuses on building new societies they hope will replace the one we have now. For still others, it focuses on developing new technologies, or rescuing old ones, to replace those that will stop working when today’s lavish energy supplies run out. There are those for whom raw survival is the most important thing, and there are those who have come to terms with the inevitability of death and are pursuing other goals.

Which of these choices is the best? Wrong question. All of them, and more, are necessary parts of a dissensus-based approach to the crisis of industrial civilization. As you read these words, members of a city council in a Midwestern college town may be mulling over a project that will pull their community through hard times, while activists one town over, with the best intentions in the world, devise a similar program that will fail and take their town’s future with it. One ecovillage in Ohio may be inventing social forms that will evolve into the neotribal societies of the 22nd century, while another attempt on similar lines sparks quarrels that tear a community to shreds. One hobbyist in Montana, staring at pictures of a 19th century solar steam engine, may start making the prototype of a machine that will become the prime energy source of the ecotechnic age, while others miss the necessary insight and waste their lives on dead ends.

What adds spice to the irony is that we have no way of knowing in advance which is which. All any of us can do is pursue the work that calls to us individually, cooperate with others who share the same commitment, take the measures to weather the crisis that seem to make sense from where we are, and remember that those who disagree with us most heartily may be assembling their own piece of a puzzle that is, ultimately, bigger than any of us.


MoonRaven said...
When you began by saying that you didn't "...think much of the prospects of planning a desirable future and then making it happen...", I thought, 'that's probably true but it's what I am trying to do and still plan on doing'. I did wonder what you thought was worth doing. So I was surprised that your ending seems so encouraging to me. Of course none of us can know what's actually going to happen. Therefore, I completely agree that "All any of us can do is pursue the work that calls to us individually, cooperate with others who share the same commitment, take the measures to weather the crisis that seem to make sense from where we are, and remember that those who disagree with us most heartily may be assembling their own piece of a puzzle that is, ultimately, bigger than any of us." I'm still planning on trying to create that desirable future--which is the work that 'calls to me'--and support others doing similar work, as well as those working in different directions. No one can know what will work, but but I know what won't: just criticizing the efforts of others will not help bring about anything worthwhile. Each of us has to get out and do our piece of the work.

12/17/08, 5:52 PM

bmerson said...
... All any of us can do is pursue the work that calls to us individually, cooperate with others who share the same commitment, take the measures to weather the crisis that seem to make sense from where we are, and remember that those who disagree with us most heartily may be assembling their own piece of a puzzle that is, ultimately, bigger than any of us.

I agree that this is a terribly important concept. When times are difficult, we often tend to turn inward, attempting to close ourselves off from potential harm, but also shutting the door to potential gain. We can do this physically, emotionally, logically.

However, if we, as a species, are to survive long into the future it is will be critically important that we balance this urge to close down against the benefits to be gained from being open to as many ideas as possible. It will be absolutely necessary to avoid the not-invented-here syndrome and, instead, eagerly welcome new ideas even as we pursue our own. It will be the shared knowledge of experiences, of potential solutions tried, of past successes and failures, and of future ideas, that will bring the greatest hope for success.

This, frankly, is as true today as it will be in the coming hard times, a fact obscured in the smoke of burning fossil fuels. Hopefully, when the smoke clears, we will realize that this trait of being open to all possibilities has not been lost, but just temporarily hidden. An open mind is the among the greatest strengths of our species, a closed mind one of its greatest weaknesses.


12/17/08, 6:04 PM

Frank said...
Brilliant post, JMG. Your discussion of financial bubbles is certainly backed by history. There is another bubble due to burst. Perhaps you have purposefully avoided discussion of the coming dieoff of Homo Sapiens Sapiens. Viewed from the perspective of geologic time, the growth curve of humans over the past few centuries has been quite steep. By the same reasoning you have applied to other bubbles, the assurance of a massive human dieoff is 100%. What is unknown is when, and maybe how. After all, would it be difficult to organize a worldwide lottery for a limited number of newborns to drastically reduce population within a few generations? Only if humans can perceive the human bubble would this be considered. A significant refinement of human perceptions would be needed. "Over population" is not today even whispered publicly. Jay Hanson has produced a remarkable site devoted to this topic at

Dissensus seems another word for diversity. We see the example of diversity within the natural world and understand its yield is resilience. It is also possible to see widely ranging diversity among indigenous cultures, a proven way of sustainable human existence. In fact, it was my search for the writings of David Holmgren (who points out the indigenous/sustainable link) that led me to the Dieoff site and along with my mate Bonnie, to begin work towards our own idea of human sustainability at EntropyPawsed

12/17/08, 6:10 PM

SouthFlorida said...
Nice summary about how to distinguish "known knowns" from "known unknowns," to borrow a phrase from the reviled Donald Rumsfeld. Could you possibly expand on some of the ways in which signs of collapse of civilization not evident in Toynbee and Spengler's time are becoming evident in our time?

May I politely suggest that this topic might even merit a weekly post of its own at some point?

12/17/08, 6:49 PM

john.wells said...
Well done. To each their own ends.

12/17/08, 8:17 PM

Andrew B. Watt said...
I like this.

I also read who comes at this whole peak oil thing from the perspective of a Jewish farming family in upstate New York. They certainly seem to be trying to find a way to build self-reliance and community in that context. Their effort may fail, or mine, or yours, but it's the interplay of all the successes and failures that will become something new.

I've become mindful, since the auto-bailout failure in the Senate and the Madoff Ponzi-scheme collapse, that we're seeing the already-wealthy suck in all the wealth they can possibly accumulate. They're fearful of the future in a way they've never been before. Many are hoping against hope that they will be holding some sort of golden bag or parachute when the dust clears and the crisis passes. And this is, in fact, a strategy which is part and parcel of this larger process of dissensus.

Would you please, in a future post, take the time to lay out three to five common-sense precautions that you think would be beneficial if most people took them, even if not all of them did?

12/17/08, 8:34 PM

Arthur Vibert said...
Thank you for this post. It puts things into a manageable perspective and gives one a good way to approach the future.

With humility, but determination.

12/17/08, 8:34 PM

John Michael Greer said...
MoonRaven, exactly. You may recall that my commentary on the Transition Town movement ended by suggesting that it was an experiment worth pursuing -- it's just not the only game in town.

Bmerson, I see it as more of a balance; it's good to have an open mind, but not so open that one's brains fall out.

Frank, I've discussed the coming depopulation explosion in several earlier posts, this one in particular. It's certainly an issue that has to be faced.

SouthFlorida, I'll take that under consideration. Might take more than one post, since neither author is easy to summarize!

John, many thanks.

Andrew, I also read Sharon's blog -- in my view, it's among the best out there. I'll certainly consider a post on practical precautions. As for Madoff, though, remember that he robbed some of the wealthiest people in America, and the fiscal bloodshed in the hedge funds has also primarily hit the rich -- who owns hedge fund shares, after all? One of the interesting things about depressions is that income becomes more evenly distributed in society during them, and the flattening of the rich by speculative busts is one of the reasons.

Arthur, you're most welcome.

12/17/08, 9:47 PM

wylde otse said...
The mass-migration aspect on which you touch speculatively troubles me more than the likelihood that ingenuity will be lacking in our transition town/tribes.
The specter of Rwanda type massacres where machetes were used because ammunition was expensive in the dispatching of some 3/4 million people sickens me.
Hard to tell where fracture lines will develop, racial? national? religious?
Easter Island is a microcosm of what may become: a resource-depleted society turning on itself...seems society at large is none the wiser for the lesson.
But hey, I don't want to end on a morose note.
The value of consensus is clearly evident in the following scenario: two wolves and a sheep discussing who should make the next meal.(if consensus fails, they can always take a vote)
Yogi Berra credited with this one:
" I don't like to make predictions - especially about the future."

12/17/08, 10:45 PM

Russ said...
I agree that within the context of relocalizing, decentralizing solutions, we can't know what "will" work, or more likely what will work in a given area for a given community (no doubt lots of wildly different things can work for different people - that's something which won't change from the way things are today).

One thing I do think is true, however, is that no society-wide (let alone global)"solution" to Peak Oil or climate change is likely to ever be enacted. Everything I see tells me that, even leaving aside the intentional obstruction of selfish interests, the sheer inertia of the cheap fossil fuel/ exponential debt civilization pretty much rules out any real solution.

That's why I've checked out on macro-solutions. A few years ago I paid close attention to things like Kyoto, RESs, etc.; now I no longer do.

By now I think all concerned people can do is organize their own communities or lifeboats or whatever, try to come together with friends, family, neighbors (and offer education to those ready to hear it and to play a constructive role), to find some solution which works for them. Beyond that, we need to basically write off society at large as a loss.

[The only caveat I'd add is, since there certainly is the possibility that the power structure may try to organize a "fascist" solution, which could temporarily prevail, we do need to remain politically engaged to the extent of combatting any such attempts.

But beyond that, I'd say "politics" is a dry well.]

12/18/08, 1:48 AM

Lloyd Morcom said...
I think one of the difficulties we have thinking about the sorts of changes coming our way is seeing how the time scales involved change our perception or even our lived experience of these changes and how they impact on lives and cultures. Abrupt and catastrophic change makes for good story lines, but great changes spread over a long enough time scale are often hard to spot against the background noise of day-to-day life.

Dmitry Orlov's observation about the high mortality rates amongst certain demographics during the post-Soviet collapse becoming visible only in hindsight and after studying the statistics comes to mind.

I had a project I was working on in Renmark in South Australia, an irrigation area on the Murray River, some years ago which involved an eight hundred kilometer drive on several occasions from where I live in Southern Victoria, a green and quite densely settled and prosperous coastal region. Much of it through very parched marginal wheat growing land in Western Victoria and I was struck by the advanced decay visible in many of the towns along the way. Collapsing fences and outbuildings, closed and fenced off fuel outlets and motels on the edges of towns: and yet none of this was in the daily news or on the lips of my fellow citizens in daily discourse.

In the same way, the world could go through a huge population decline over several generations almost imperceptibly as far as those living through it were concerned. Of course there are the poster children of catastrophe such as the genocide in Rwanda or the present disaster in Zimbabwe, but Russia, Italy and Japan will most likely have radically smaller populations in fifty years time through fairly subtle changes in demographics and fertility rates.

We must remember the radical changes we have lived through on the way up: my father died in December last year and just before he did I congratulated him on his timing, managing to go out at the very peak of industrial civilizations expansion. Yet when he was born the world's population was a third of what it now is, there was no TV, radio was a novelty, there were no refrigerators or washing machines in ordinary homes and people died in great numbers from simple infections.

12/18/08, 2:46 AM

RDatta said...
It is said that two great scholars went to visit Siddhartha Gautama. The first was a theist,and the Buddha convinced him that there was no G_d. The second was an atheist, and the Buddha convinced him of theism.

One of Buddha's disciples watched both sessions, and than asked how he could be so inconsistent. Siddhartha told him that the Buddha never utters a falsehood: each scholar had learnt the truth at their level of understanding... and that the disciple had the teaching at his level of understanding.

The whole may be greater than the sum of its parts.

12/18/08, 5:59 AM

Nnonnth said...
Ah, now I understand what you have been talking about over the last few weeks. This process you're talking about is what I call 'planning'. I suppose others must mean something different by the word... again, I don't know anyone who sees a fixed future.

There's one thing worth a mention here - I know you're eager not to have your spiritual job overflow onto this page, but you probably are aware that good spiritual development (from training) can make the difference to likely survival.

It's not only that such a process increases one's courage and equanimity, it has to do with what you are saying at the end of this week's post, namely - that people have got to be working on what arises in their lives, 'the work that calls to us individually'.

With spiritual training, these things that arise are much more likely to be (I can't say it any other way) - the 'right' things. Being able to flow correctly within a course of events is really a spiritual matter, and it's where spirituality can't help but cross over into practicality. I seem to remember from somewhere that you've studied the martial arts, and if so, you will know exactly what I'm talking about.

An actual spiritual discipline (of no matter what cultural provenance, if it's committed) could make a big difference to one's future. It's a far more practical suggestion than many might think.

12/18/08, 6:35 AM

Tully Reill said...
JMG, a well thought out and (I feel) valid point as usual. Many thanks for your continuing to bring us your thoughts and insights here.

12/18/08, 6:36 AM

John Michael Greer said...
Wylde, events like the Rwanda massacres are unfortunately nothing new in history.

Russ, I don't necessarily want to close the door to political responses to the crisis; there are places where something of the sort might help, though it can't make our predicament go away. Local politics in particular has more potential, in many cases, than I think most people in the alternative scene have grasped.

Lloyd, your Australian example has any number of equivalents here; how many people outside the Great Plains states realize, I wonder, that there are now hundreds of abandoned towns dotting the prairie, and regions of county size that have reverted to the old definition of frontier -- fewer than two non-First Nations people per square mile? Demographically, the American settlement of the inland West is proving to be a long term failure, and I don't know of anybody who's measured the implications of that fact.

Rdatta, the whole is always greater than the sum of its parts; that's the first lesson of systems theory.

Nnonth, no argument there; I just direct my discussions of the role of spirituality in preparing for the future to different forums.

Tully, you're most welcome.

12/18/08, 8:34 AM

Dwig said...
"I just direct my discussions of the role of spirituality in preparing for the future to different forums." John Micheal, I'd be interested to hear some of your discussions on the role of spirituality. What other forums would be good places to encounter these? (Reply privately if you prefer.)

12/18/08, 2:19 PM

Dwig said...
Here's a couple of things not specifically triggered by this week's post, but I'll offer them here anyway:

We've discussed here the differences between trying to predict THE future, and exploring scenarios of possible futures. David Holmgren has recently published an interesting set of scenarios, with detailed discussions of each. Right now, I recommend the Conclusion, and particularly this bit: "We must commit to concrete actions and projects. We must stake our claim, not for ourselves but for the future. In committing to our task we should remember the stories of Pythagoras and the monks of Lindisfarne. It is not the project but the living process that will be the measure of our actions. Let us act as if we are part of nature's striving for the next evolutionary way to creatively respond to the recurring cycles of energy ascent and descent that characterise human history and the more ancient history of Gaia, the living planet. Imagine that our descendants and our ancestors are watching us."

I recently saw a video clip of a talk by Buckminster Fuller in 1983. One point he made in passing stuck with me: "When I was born, humanity was 95% illiterate. Since I've been born, the population has doubled and is now 65% literate (a gain of 130x)." Returning to the Culture Conservation theme, I'd suggest that literacy is a crucial cultural "artifact" to be conserved; if we lose it, the way down will likely be much rougher. In this same vein, maybe we have here a factor that is truly new to this episode of civilizational decline; JMG, do you know of another case where the literacy rate at the peak was as high as today's?

12/18/08, 3:15 PM

yooper said...
Hello John! I really enjoyed your article,"Why Dissensus Matters", excellent as always.

While I was reading it, in part, I was reminded of Grahams's thoughtless review of your book, "The Long Descent". While reading it, it quickly became obvious that this man knew little about about you, or what you're trying to convey... What a pity... Btw, I think, "The Long Descent" is a masterpiece, either for the beginner or someone who has studied peak oil or resource depletion for a great deal length of time....

Another part, is that of the up coming project that I'm trying to put together, "Catabolic Collapse, Detroit, Michigan". As I describe this, I hope it meets with your approval. I'd like it to be as true to form as if it was coming from your mind set (if that is possible). In my study of Spengler, I feel, that I've come to know you even better, as least having an idea from where you may be coming from.

Dissensus does matter, it's how I've grown to know you and your ideals, better... It's only through understanding each other, that cooperation can begin.

I'll very likely tie Japan in with my little project and agree whole hearted on your thought here, sad as it may be.. I'll also likely expand on your thought about "Imperial Sunset" in The Long Descent, as unpopular, as that thought might be........

Thanks, yooper

12/18/08, 4:51 PM

kerrick said...
JMG, and interested others, would you like to have a discussion about the role of spirituality in preparing for the future at Liminal Nation? I think your voices would be valuable there.

12/18/08, 5:04 PM

Nnonnth said...
JMG: Nnonth, no argument there; I just direct my discussions of the role of spirituality in preparing for the future to different forums.

Oh I think you're wise to keep things separate, I couldn't see what you do working otherwise.

I just felt that although you keep these separate they aren't of course in fact separate, and this was such an apposite post to tie them together.

You never know who is listening/lurking that might need to see that connection made, but wouldn't be the type to venture into spiritual forums. So I thought I'd make the connection explicit this once.

Kerrick, I'll check it out.

12/19/08, 2:57 AM

Mark said...
I'm glad you've put things this way -- there is so much talk of collapse, peak oil, etc, etc. I've been starting to think that perhaps we are trying too hard to live the future. We seem to be forgetting that what is most important, regardless of what we feel may happen in the future, is the present moment.

So it's possible that while we are trying to plan for how our economy will work in a post-industrial world, we're wasting more time thinking than acting right now. It's like eating a meal at McDonald's while thinking of how we can plan a local food economy for the future.

And perhaps that is why humans have seen such a wave of rise and fall -- we're infatuated with predicting or planning for the future. But most of the time we end up missing every opportunity in the real world (right now) to ever have any positive effect.

Overall I think perception is half our battle. We want to believe we're working to help to guide the universe (or civilization). But as Hermes Trismegistus said, "You do not see the point, since you are always forgetting that the universe is not for your entertainment. It does not serve you; you serve it."

12/19/08, 7:58 AM

Christopher said...
JM has said that a diversity of responses offers more chance of hitting on "the right thing." Yet any large system supports more than one adaptation. It's not just fox or squirel, or even fox AND squirel, as Dwig noted.

Nature -- even in harsh environments -- supports say, penguins and seals and whales and terns and paracites and sometimes humans (but I repeat myself). Rather than play Russian roulette by adapting in one way, and hoping to come out "the winner", we need to "love our enemies" -- not necessarily in the nicey-nice sense it's often, idealistically, presented, but in the sense of litterally supporting the success of our compettitors, or at least not messing with them unnecessarily.

As the "hippy era" devolved into a "yuppie" adaptation in the face of Reaganomics and other limitations, much of America's creativity was absorbed into Business. I heard a consultant doing a business conference to improve efficiency, and one key point was teaching businessmen to admit when they are wrong and to change their minds. There is usually a huge loss of efficiency in holding onto an inappropriate decision. The consultant wanted businesses to foster an atmosphere that favored changing one's mind when confronted with a new and superior argument.

That's what we need to do, too. Focussed as many of us have been on "culture wars", we really need to lighten up. If I torch a bunch of "gluttonous" mobile homes, there will be more competition for the available yurts. When the retired bank exec (who bought it new) kicks off, his hippy kids may make it the core of a cooperative farm venture. If my compettitor succeeds at a lifestyle, my daughter may be blessed with one more viable option in a decade or two, after my cob village rots away.

No one "right answer" is going to finally emerge. What is "THE right way" to live now? We are blessed with an evolving bundle of synthetic adaptations, and can combine tantric Indian wisdom with European socialism and the herbology of South America, or whatever. Preserving the range of options from which multiple, competing and combining adapations can adventurously emerge seems to me the very key to a liveable future.

To the extent that we can influence local government or egalitarian self-help societies, we should foster a live-and-let-live culture, so long as the core needs of the larger group are not damaged.

12/19/08, 8:31 AM

Weaseldog said...
On the timing of crashes, I figured out in 1998 that a run up in oil prices will almost always precede an economic downturn. So far it's held true.

As supply and demand get tight, speculators see the trend and pile on, the price of oil rises until the demand destruction takes hold.

Demand destruction has momentum and creates an economic chain reaction.

Each time, the Fed will respond by trying to spur the economy by increasing lending. The goal is infinite growth.

It's a bit like pumping the gas pedal to make the car go faster, when there's a clog in the fuel line. You can get short bursts of acceleration, then the engine stalls, becomes flooded as you pump the pedal, and it takes a while to get it going again...

Greenspan, Bernanke and Paulson are all trying to make the economy grow faster than it's physical inputs. They need it to grow to infinity and they will fight to achieve infinite economic growth at all costs. They've bought into the Flat Earth Philosophy of infinitely recyclable resources and are basing our policy upon this myth.

The goal now is to consolidate entities that are too big to fail into entities that are too gargantuan to fail. These entities must grow. So Paulson is stealing solvent banks and reselling them to insolvent banks at firesale prices, to proper up their balance sheets. I think that the next administration is likely to do the same with the auto industry.

They'll be forced into bankruptcy and sold off. Then the plants will be shut down and the workers fired, their pensions looted. We've seen the IMF do this before. Paulson knows the script. He's one of the players that participated in the rape of Argentina. Know he's turning his amorous eyes on the USA.

Now that Obama has picked Monsanto shills for top cabinet posts, we may soon see Monsanto get a bailout, so they can buy up family farms using taxpayers funds. After they drive them under of course.

So we'll hear endless speeches about how bailouts for Monsanto is the first step to saving family farms. Just like the banking bailout is saving homes from foreclosure...

It's a new era.

I'll be ordering my spring seeds soon.

12/19/08, 11:34 AM

Jan Steinman said...
JMG, it seems to me that you are conflating diversity with disagreement, when you write things like "... our best option just now is to encourage disagreement."

If, as Frank says, you mean "Dissensus seems another word for diversity," then I'd encourage you to avoid saying discouraging things like "[let's] encourage disagreement."

By pitting "dissensus" against consensus, you've fallen into that particular American trap of seeing the world as competing dualities -- rich vs. poor, greens vs developers, Republicrats vs Democans.

Diversity implies a much wider range of options. Indeed, our group's consensus process encourages the expression of diversity. Diversity and consensus strengthen each other; they are not the polar opposites you imply with "dissensus" and consensus.

I have a great deal of respect for you, and I feel concerned when I see you writing of "encouraging disagreement." Indeed, "agreeing to disagree" is nothing more than a form of consensus on diversity.

Sorry if this sounds nit-picky -- words are so important. Let's continue to work on ways we can agree, even while agreeing that diversity of ideas is important. There's no need, in this polarized world, to pitch one against the other.

12/19/08, 5:41 PM

kerrick said...
Is dissensus what the President Elect is going for with his cabinet? Because it certainly isn't unity. And it speaks to, I think, a certain awareness that he doesn't have all the answers and can't necessarily predict what approach will work best to meet our present and future challenges. That's a stark and refreshing contrast to the previous administration.

But a danger with dissensus, especially within a bureaucracy, is spreading resources too thinly to make any approach effective. That's what I'm afraid will happen with our dissensus on climate change. If we allocate pocket-change each to, say, ethanol farms, biodiesel research, solar development, carbon capture, offshore wind farms, fourth-generation nuclear plants, retrofitting existing infrastructure, hydrogen fuel cells, and conservation education, we may well hit on the right combination of strategies but not have the resources invested in each to get them far enough to be successful. The tenor of this discussion seems to be that our failure to deal with these challenges is something of a foregone conclusion, which may or may not be the case; I'm just offering this as an example of a way in which dissensus may be limited.

12/19/08, 6:18 PM

Jacques de Beaufort said...
I'm still trying to figure out if you are a nihilist or not.
You seem to despise the idea of teleology, and similarly view epigenetic cultural evolution as incidental and merely a "random walk". This would appear to be a Positivist or Materialist stance (Steven Pinker, Comte, etc), and yet you are also the author of many books dealing with magic and paganism...Animistic spirituality that stands in direct opposition to the ego-centric narrative of Judeo-Christian variety. I understand that you despise Modern Industrial Civilization (as do I), but there is nothing in your writing that that would suggest that you are not a misanthrope. If you see human life as pointless, as Zen Buddhism does, then you have to admit that your own life is worthless.

12/19/08, 6:43 PM

John Michael Greer said...
Dwig, I mostly put my discussions on the spiritual dimensions of our situation to Druid forums. As I see it, there's no such thing as a "generic spirituality" -- those that claim theirs to be universal simply mistake their irreducibly subjective point of view for objectivity -- and so I'm not at all sure how much of what I have to say would be meaningful at all to people of other faiths.

I'll have to look into the point on literacy -- don't happen to know off hand.

Yooper, I look forward to seeing it.

Kerrick, I'll give it a look as time permits.

Nnonnth, by all means! I certainly didn't mean to imply that you shouldn't bring it up, just that I normally don't.

Mark, excellent! When we realize the arrogance implicit in thinking we can make the world do what we want, we've taken a big step toward grasping the possibilities we do have.

Christopher, well put.

Weasel, it never seemed useful to me to blame conspiracy for what can be adequately credited to stupidity.

Jan, er, I don't see anything discouraging about the concept of disagreement. Conflict also has a valid and, at times, beneficent place in the world. You might also reread my post -- I'm not suggesting that consensus and dissensus form some sort of polar opposition; I'm suggesting that they, and other methods distinct from both, are all options that should be on the table.

Kerrick, of course dissensus is limited. So is consensus. So is every other approach, and every other paradigm, that can be applied to any aspect of the universe of human experience. There ain't no such thing as One True Way.

Jacques, I don't think it's nihilistic or misanthropic to try to see human ideas about destiny and purpose as the culturally constructed narratives they are, and to try to get past them. I don't despise teleology; I find it unhelpful as a way of thinking about history. Nor do I despise industrial civilization, as you suggest; I simply recognize that neither messianic fantasies of salvation through progress nor narratives of demonization are much help in making sense of where we are and where we're going. I'll address this in more detail in a future post.

As for the value of my life, or anyone else's, value doesn't inhere in the bare fact of existence; the value of a life consists of what one does with it in the very brief time each of us has on this Earth. As Walt Kelly had one of his Pogo characters say, "Don't take life too seriously, son, it ain't nohow permanent."

12/19/08, 11:45 PM

Nnonnth said...
JMG: As I see it, there's no such thing as a "generic spirituality" -- those that claim theirs to be universal simply mistake their irreducibly subjective point of view for objectivity -- and so I'm not at all sure how much of what I have to say would be meaningful at all to people of other faiths.

Well I understand, but I can't help feeling there's more value in inter-disciplinary discussion on such topics than you're implying.

There's no need for elements of a 'dissensus' to avoid one another's company, and judging by this random paragraph from an OBOD site, some at least of your fellow druids would agree with me here:

Some choose to treat Druidism as their religion as well as it reflecting their philosophy of life, others choose to practice a different religion, such as Christianity, Buddhism or Wicca, while still holding to the core beliefs and principles of Druidism, which are compatible with all spiritual paths.

To claim compatibility, then, is not the same as to claim 'generic universality'.

And even incompatibility doesn't imply incommunicability!

I have a feeling there are plenty of spiritual people who would be interested in your views, and those of other druids, who wouldn't necessarily want to be druids at all themselves.

Even if some of them would feel challenged, that's rather difficult from not finding anything meaningful in what you say because you happen to be of a 'different faith'. Which seems to be what you're implying... there are plenty of Christians who read Yogananda after all, not to mention the similarities you've mentioned between Druidry, Taoism and Stoicism for example.

Is it out of line for this non-Druid to ask for a link to a good druid forum?

12/20/08, 2:10 AM

John Michael Greer said...
Nnonnth, sure thing. If you visit here you'll find the forum hosted by the order I head, and here you'll get to the one hosted by the Order of Bards Ovates and Druids, the largest Druid order in the world these days. It's only fair to say, though, that neither forum devotes more than a small part of its time to issues of the sort discussed here.

12/21/08, 11:06 PM

hfpblog said...
Readers may enjoy the Global Guerrillas Blog from John Robb, in particular posts such as Emergent Communities Dedicated to War.

Robb is a military theorist who examines "networked tribes, systems disruption, and the emerging bazaar of violence. Resilient Communities, decentralized platforms, and self-organizing futures".

I don't think we need to look very far for what tomorrow will be like. William Gibson said "the future is already here, it's just not evenly distributed." Just look at the pirates off the coast of Somalia to get an echo of tomorrow. The seeds of tomorrow are already here with us today.

PS - Great blog

12/22/08, 3:53 PM

John Michael Greer said...
hpf, thanks for the link -- I've been reading John's blog for quite a while now.

12/23/08, 2:08 PM

John Michael Greer said...
Offlist to Iconoclast and Kartturi: please reread the message above the comment window. Long disquisitions about your personal philosophies, with no relevance to the current post, belong on your own blog, not this one.

12/23/08, 2:11 PM

John Michael Greer said...
Offlist to Kartturi: no, your email doesn't come through on attempted comments. You'll need to send it.

12/23/08, 4:31 PM

wylde otse said...
This has been an excellent blog ( year), made even better by the brilliant incisive intellects which have alighted here. My heartfelt thanks to you all for sharing your hard-won wisdom; and to our marvelous host.

1/6/09, 10:47 PM