Part Two: Weishaupt’s Fallacy
Nostalgia’s a funny thing; you never know what’s going to fill the place of Proust’s madeleine and catapult you back to memories of some other time. A little over a year ago, I had a reminder of that while visiting the Upland Hills Ecological Awareness Center in Oakland County, Michigan. The path from the parking lot wandered through a lovely autumn woodland, then turned a corner and deposited me back in 1980.
In those days I was passionately interested in the appropriate technology movement, to the extent of spending the better part of three years working part time on an organic farm, learning the uses of cold frames, a solar greenhouse, compost bins, and double-dug garden beds. Every cliché you can imagine about late-70s communes was present and accounted for: wood smoke and mud, naked bodies in a creaky wood-fired sauna, goats and chickens in the pasture, and a handbuilt wind turbine that went whuppeta-whuppeta and churned out a trickle of twelve-volt current whenever the breeze picked up.
The center at Upland Hills was a good deal cleaner, and the goats and the naked bodies were nowhere to be seen, but the esthetic was much the same. Their wind turbine sounded a silky pup-pup-pup atop an honest-to-Fuller octet truss tower, and the center itself was what all of us at the Outback Farm dreamed of inhabiting someday: a big comfortable earth-bermed shelter with passive solar heating and old-fashioned round photovoltaic cells soaking up the sunlight. When we went inside, I half expected to see a circle of scruffy longhairs sitting on pillows around the latest issue of Coevolution Quarterly, excitedly discussing the latest innovations from Zomeworks and the New Alchemy Institute.
Nostalgia aside, there's a lot to be learned from the rise and fall of appropriate tech in the 1970s, and one of its lessons bears directly on the theme of this series of posts. For many of the people involved in it back then, appropriate tech was the inevitable wave of the future; nearly everyone assumed that energy costs would continue to rise as the limits to growth clamped down with increasing force, making anything but Ecotopia tantamount to suicide. A formidable body of thought backed those conclusions, and the core of that body of thought was systems theory.
Nowadays, the only people who pay attention to systems theory are specialists in a handful of obscure fields, and it can be hard to remember that forty years ago systems theory had the same cachet that more recently gathered around fractals and chaos theory. Born of a fusion between ecology, cybernetics, and a current in contemporary philosophy best displayed in Jan Smuts' Holism and Evolution, systems theory argued that complex systems -- all complex systems – shared certain distinctive traits and behaviors, so that insights gained in one field of study could be applied to phenomena in completely different fields that shared a common degree of complexity.
It had its weaknesses, to be sure, but on the whole, systems theory did exactly what theories are supposed to do – it provided a useful toolkit for making sense of part of the universe of human experience, posed plenty of fruitful questions for research, and proved useful in a sizable range of practical applications. As popular theories sometimes do, though, it became associated with a position in the cultural struggles of the time, and as some particularly unfortunate theories do, it got turned into a vehicle for a group of intellectuals who craved power. Once that happened, systems theory became another casualty of Weishaupt's Fallacy.
Those of my readers who don't pay attention to conspiracy theory may not recognize the name of Adam Weishaupt; those who do pay attention to conspiracy theory probably "know" a great deal about him that doesn't happen to be true. He was a professor of law at the University of Ingolstadt in Bavaria in the second half of the eighteenth century, and he found himself in an awkward position between the exciting new intellectual adventures coming out of Paris and the less than exciting intellectual climate in conservative, Catholic Bavaria. In 1776, he and four of his grad students founded a private society for enthusiasts of the new Enlightenment thought; they went through several different names for their club before finally settling on one that stuck: the Bavarian Illuminati.
Yes, those Bavarian Illuminati.
There were a fair number of people interested in avant-garde ideas in and around Bavaria just then, and. before too long, the Illuminati had several hundred members. This gave Weishaupt and his inner circle some grandiose notions about where all this might lead. Pretty soon, they hoped,all the movers and shakers in Bavaria – not to mention the other microkingdoms into which Germany was divided at that time – would join the Illuminati and stuff their heads full of Voltaire and Rousseau, and then the whole country would become, well, illuminated.
They were still telling themselves that when the Bavarian government launched a series of police raids that broke the back of the organization. Weishaupt got out of Bavaria in time, but many of his fellow Illuminati were not so lucky, and a great deal of secret paperwork got scooped up by the police and published in lavish tell-all books that quickly became bestsellers all over Europe. That was the end of the Illuminati, but not of their reputation; reactionaries found that blaming the Illuminati for everything made great copy, not least because they weren't around any more and so could be redefined with impunity – liberal, conservative, Marxist, capitalist, evil space lizards, you name it.
The problem with Professor Weishaupt's fantasy of an illuminated Bavaria was a bit of bad logic that has been faithfully repeated by intellectuals seeking power ever since: the belief, as sincere as it is silly, that if you have the right ideas, you are by definition smarter than the system you are trying to control. That's Weishaupt's Fallacy. Because Weishaupt and his fellow Illuminati were convinced that the conservative forces in Bavaria were a bunch of clueless boors, they were totally unprepared for the counterblow that followed once the Bavarian government figured out who the Illuminati were and what they were after.
For a more recent example, consider the rise and fall of the neoconservative movement, which stormed into power in the United States in 2000 boldly proclaiming the arrival of a "new American century," and proceeded to squander what remained of America's wealth and global reputation in a series of foreign and domestic policy blunders that have set impressive new standards for political fecklessness. The neoconservatives were convinced that they understood the world better than anybody else. That conviction was the single most potent factor behind their failure; when mainstream conservatives (not to mention everybody else!) tried to warn them where their fantasies of remaking the Middle East in America's image would inevitably end, the neoconservatives snorted in derision and marched straight on into the disaster they were making for themselves, and of course for the rest of us as well.
Systems theory was a victim of the same fallacy. The systems movement, to coin a label for the heterogeneous group of thinkers and policy wonks that made systems theory its banner, had ambitions no less audacious than the neoconservatives, though aimed in a completely different direction. Their dream was world systems management. Such leading figures in the movement as Jay Forrester of MIT and Aurelio Peccei of the Club of Rome agreed that humanity's impact on the planet had become so great that methods devised for engineering and corporate management – in which, not coincidentally, they were expert – had to be put to work to manage the entire world.
The study that led to the 1973 publication of The Limits to Growth was one product of this movement. Sponsored by Peccei's Club of Rome and carried out by a team led by one of Forrester's former Ph.D. students, it applied systems theory to the task of making sense of the future, and succeeded remarkably well. As Graham Turner's study "A Comparison Of The Limits to Growth With Thirty Years of Reality" (CSIRO, 2008) points out, the original study's baseline "Standard Run" scenario matches the observed reality of the last three and a half decades far more exactly than rival scenarios.
It's not often remembered, though, that the Club of Rome followed up The Limits to Growth with a series of further studies, all basically arguing that the problems outlined in the original study could be solved by planetary management on the part of a systems-savvy elite. The same notions can be found in dozens of similar books from the same era – indeed, it's hard to think of a systems thinker with any public presence in the 1970s who didn't publish at least one book proposing some kind of worldwide systems management as the only alternative to a very messy future.
It's only fair to stress the role that idealism and the best intentions played in all this. Still, the political dimensions shouldn't be ignored. Forrester, Peccei, and their many allies were, among other things, suggesting that a great deal of effective power be given to them, or to people who shared their values and goals. Since the systems movement was by no means politically neutral – quite the contrary, it aligned itself forcefully with specific ideological positions in the fractured politics of the decade – that suggestion was bound to evoke a forceful response from the entire range of opposing interests.
The Reagan revolution of 1980 saw the opposition seize the upper hand, and the systems movement was among the big losers. Hardball politics have always played a significant role in public funding of research in America, so it should have come as no surprise when Reagan's appointees all but shut off the flow of government grants into the entire range of initiatives that had gathered around the systems theory approach. From appropriate tech to alternative medicine to systems theory itself, entire disciplines found themselves squeezed out of the government feed trough, while scholars who pursued research that could be used against the systems agenda reaped the benefits of that stance. Clobbered in its most vulnerable spot – the pocketbook – the systems movement collapsed in short order.
What made this implosion all the more ironic is that a systems analysis of the systems movement itself, and its relationship to the wider society, might have provided a useful warning. Very few of the newborn institutions in the systems movement were self-funding; from prestigious think tanks to neighborhood energy-conservation schemes, most of them subsisted on government grants, and thus were in the awkward position of depending on the social structures they hoped to overturn. That those structures could respond homeostatically to oppose their efforts might, one would think, be obvious to people who were used to the strange loops and unintended consequences that pervade complex systems.
Still, Weishaupt's Fallacy placed a massive barrier in the way of such a realization. Read books by many of the would-be global managers of the 1970s and you can very nearly count on being bowled over by the scent of intellectual arrogance. The possibility that the system they hoped to manage might, in effect, have been more clever than they were probably crossed very few minds. Yet that's how things turned out; at the end of the day, the complex system that was American society had reacted, exactly as systems theory would predict, to neutralize a force that threatened to push it out of its preferred state.
Unfortunately that reaction slammed the door on resources that might have made the transition ahead of us less difficult. Set aside the hubris that convinced too many systems theorists that they ought to manage the world, and systems theory itself is an extremely effective toolkit of ideas and practices, and a good many of the things that moved in harmony with systems theory – 1970s appropriate tech being a fine example – are well worth dusting off and putting to use right now. At the same time, though, the process that excluded them needs to be understood, and not just because the same process could repeat itself just as easily with some new set of sustainability initiatives. The homeostatic behavior of complex systems also casts an unexpected light on one of the major conundrums of contemporary life, the location of political power in industrial society – the theme of the final part of this series.
It tends to make a movement sort-of politically unpopular for some reason.
12/16/09, 8:44 PM
It's pretty clear to me that whether it's talks about the climate in Copenhagen or health care in the States, there's a bunch of argument and spectacle centering around reforms and policy changes that are so minor that they would remain completely ineffective at tackling the problems they are supposed to solve. No international agreement at this point on climate could do much of anything to reduce carbon emissions or mitigate climate change because the massive infrastructural projects that would need to begin tomorrow would be beyond the monetary and energetic power of most governments. Likewise, a health care reform bill that would seriously attempt to change health care in the US for the better would essentially require a de facto destruction of much of the "health care industry" and the money it generates. This is not something the US has the financial strength to undertake.
My point is that I think we've reached the point where federal or international governing bodies no longer have the ability to institute major changes in their respective jurisdictions. State, county, and municipal governments, on the other hand are much more flexible and able to institute policies that might prove useful for energy descent scenarios.
This is perhaps not the best example, but the issue of cannabis legalization comes to mind. Just yesterday legalization efforts in California submitted a petition with enough signatures to ensure that on the 2010 ballot Californians will vote on whether to legalize cannabis or not.
I bring this up because cannabis legalization is entirely intractable on the federal level, in spite of the boon it would be -- Less energy and effort wasted in an unwinnable war on what are essentially cultural taboos, and a potentially valuable crop for nutrition and fiber. It wouldn't mean an end to all this civilization's ills or really even a beginning to their end (much to the chagrin of hemptopia stoners everywhere), but it would be a sensible and seemingly easy enough thing for this society to choose. A cut-the-fat operation, if you will. But instead of this being handled on the federal level, a state will likely vote on a law that glaringly contradicts federal law.
Again, a poor example, but I think it goes to show that we will see many states, counties, and municipalities instituting laws pass laws directly contradicting those of their superior bodies, and their superior bodies will be unable to do anything but acquiesce or look the other way. Maybe the locus of power is dividing and moving down the hierarchy? This would seem logical from a perspective of energy.
12/16/09, 9:10 PM
Now I finally understand the background of the self(?)illusion of many main stream green politicians that it is possible to have our lifestyle just powered by "green" nature energy. Too much honesty made a huge counterleap in early eighties, but will negligible honesty provide a better deal?
12/16/09, 10:07 PM
Unfortunately, the proponents of systems theor apparently did not apply their thinking to the process of introducing their new ideas, nor did the Illuminati and thus they each received the fate they did.
It's wise to remember that new conversations introduced into the network of existing human conversations very often elicit the reaction the systems theorists received. Proponents of any new conversation must be prepared for when they trigger the immune system of the existing ones. That is because conversations defend themselves.
We are seeing this right now with climate change deniers. The deniers are an expression of the prevailing BAU conversations defending the current system. We saw it with women's suffrage and the abolishment of slavery, too. Every advance has an existing, opposing conversation that reacts like t-cells to a bodily intruder.
In fact, it's often very dangerous business to introduce a new conversation. In another time the systems theorists might have been lucky that they kept their lives. Perhaps some of the Illuminati did lose their lives (you didn't say) because often the people who do introduce a new conversation not infrequently lose theirs. Assassinations, for instance, are a result of the existing conversation protecting itself by extinguishing the propagator of the new one. Police raids are another, less harsh way of protecting a conversation.
Sometimes I stand in wonder at the progress we have made when I consider the incredible constraining force existing conversations have.
Unfortunately, much of this progress has begun to unwind and will continue to do so. It's not only jet travel and high technology that are a function of excess abundant energy — new conversations are, too.
What will be left are the fundamental conversations that seem to run humans. They are very easy to spot in times of stress or anger. They are the conversations of scarcity rather than generosity and tribalism rather than collaboration.
The subnetwork of conversations in which we choose to place ourselves will be a very good predictor of an individual's success as we move through collapse. We each need to choose them carefully.
12/16/09, 10:11 PM
12/16/09, 10:31 PM
12/17/09, 3:04 AM
BTW, the Long Descent is excellent. I'm still working on getting my partner to read it, and I'm looking forward to getting your latest book as soon as I have the money.
12/17/09, 3:40 AM
A few comments:
1. The left mythology (or "liberal" as it is said in the USA) is completely attached to the notions of being in possession of the absolute truth and fairness plus that a "strong center" controled by the vanguard people will "distribute goodness and fairness".
The roots of this are, in my opinion, somewhat different in Europe and in the USA. In Europe it is probably connected to the triumph of the leninist variety of marxism (uber-centralist, uber-totalitarian) against more distributed alternatives like anarcho-syndicalism and such.
In the USA I see completely different causes: liberal symbolic victories are connected to federal victories (abolition of slavery, civil rights act, Rowe vs Wade) and the conservatives paint themselves as anti-federal (which is really just a propaganda exercise, in my opinion).
The left-psyche is so attached to the idea of strong central govt, that if you suggest anything different, you will be frowned upon. It is also attached to this idea that we are gods: we are clever enough to design the good society from the top. Worse than that it is attached to this idea of a single, absolute, total Good.
In fact many liberals/leftists are very anti-equality in the sense that they see themselves as smarter than most of their fellow Homo sapeins.
And they parrot a lot about diversity but they tend to see that a single political and social environment is the solution to all the world's problems.
2. The so-called scientific institutions are very dependent on govt funding. This make those institutions easily controllable by political agendas, but also will make those institutions invest a lot in propaganda in order grab influence. Being able to grab funding (i.e. survive) means being able to prove that you are important for the fad of the times. The current fad of the times is obviously climate change. I work in an extremely interdisciplinary framework and it is impressive how everybody justifies their research on climate change: Mathematics? We need better understanding of the maths behind climate modeling. Computer Science? Parallel computing is needed to run climate models. Investigating reptiles? They are good markers of temperature change. Epidemiology? Climate change affects the progressing of disease. And so on.
Don't see this as a jab against climate change. It is not. It is just the observation that the so called scientific institutions are above all a social, abstract construction. Fully dependent of the world around them in the sense that they depend on political/propaganda leverage for financial survival (as opposed to say, somebody who sells grain, who satisfies a very short term need).
The maximum example is research in economics: You could not publish a paper in a respected journal if you were out of the ortodoxy (and in this case ortodoxy meant growth-ortodoxy).
What is researched is mostly socially and politically decided. People who fetichize science as a world of very pure people doing very pure things are deluded.
And if members of the fundamentalist church of science are going to attack my arguments I simply ask you to do this: think about what happens in economics. If you believe science is dogma, then you would have to accept that the economic consensus around growth (being so scientific) is beyond discussion. Or do you cherry-pick the "science" that agrees with your agenda? Because if you do, then it seems that you use "science" just as an authoritarian argument, effectively throwing away any respect for autonomous reasoning and pluralism.
3. The issue of Systems theory. I was always put back in researching it because of the people that I know around it are so arrogant! They really believe that they know more. That they are illuminated. That puts me off. But the concept of homeostasis is absolutely fundamental to understand the world. And the theory in itself seems really interesting.
12/17/09, 3:46 AM
Similarly if our PO adjustment plan is so radical that we don't fit into the greater picture of society we will be irrelevant at that point in time. Climbing down from a high energy lifestyle and still being able to function in society is a large adjustment if we are still to be able to pay the bills, eat, remain married, keep our kids happy, etc.
I could skip off to India tomorrow with a rice bowl for example or try somehow to live extremely low energy without cash but I can give up any connection to other people immediately and will probably get in the way of the law and have severe health problems or what else I don't know.
Essentially such experiments as in the 70s are useful but anyone knowing they are "right" going against reality is bound to get their comeuppance as the system always moves around the center with a pendulum type movement to the right then the left and repeat. We saw this with the severe oil price correction. Everything isn't one way. People adjust and then move on and so on. Incomes and available resources will just keep falling and people in the main will adjust according to need and not according to ideological zeal, except for the freaks who will go around with hairshirts or solar cells long before necessary or mainstream and might get caught out losing money or missing an opportunity.
For example if you were an investor who knew that the market has to fall eventually to near zero but had not foreseen the current Bear market rally and stayed in cash and gold since march you would look pretty stupid. Not that I care too much about that sort of thing, just as an obvious example.
12/17/09, 4:26 AM
das monde said...
I don’t know how really badly Weishaupt’s club was crushed. But here is my perspective of what was going on in Europe with the onset of the technological and industrial revolution. However excited but imprudent intellectual passions might have ever been, they were never close to taking political power, I guess. On the other hand, intellectual power is one of the few that might look scary to dynasties of real power or wealth. So I good deal of confusion has to be expected regarding popular understanding of strengths and dangers of intellectual curiosity, since clarity is not always (if ever?!) politically welcome.
Yet the power balance was momentously shifting in European (and colonial) societies, as industrial production was developing dramatically. Perhaps never before merchants or manufacturers were gaining preeminent powers in the economy and social life. (Though financial craft might be another story.) The difference between capitalism and feudalism is in the power of capital and industry. Somehow the feudal system could not match or resist compounding industrial developments. Some power (and rental) redistribution between aristocracy and industrialists was needed - for that we had the French Revolution and other reforms. This process must be continuing till now - though with the end of globalization and other utilization some final stage should be in sight. By now we have a kind of financial totalitarism across the world.
I conjecture that the faulty “urge” of smart intellectuals for “systematic” power is more a useful myth than a real phenomenon. Those who know power probably prefer to be poorly visible. And it does not look hard at all to fake some competitions, clashes of interest, even intellectual fallacies. If smart people indeed go blindly wrong so easily, wouldn’t anyone with influence or good resources think of playing with that? How do we tell, how much posture is there in political elites? How well do they play healthcare reforms or climate treaties?
So, however Weishaupt’s closest friends fared, his kind of club appears to have been very convenient for socializing between the new wealth holders of industrial revolution. And they may have liked it to keep their powerful fellowships private. I am not saying that many of them know everything. But if you like to imagine foolish overreach of system theorists, or particular bias of climate scientists, please consider the possibility of determined strategies of holders of real power for a perspective, and how influential are their follies.
The interpretation of the Reagan revolution is just annoying. Those guys were already bulldozing new and established systems (and theorists) in Chile and many developing places. Yes, they did not like the “Club of Rome” reports, and they handled that without even pretending of giving them a chance. They were on the way to the freedom of financial rampage that we have now - and who could stop them? For what I know about the US social conditions of 30-40 years ago, the Reagan system practitioners overwhelmed that complex homeostatic lifestyle dramatically enough.
12/17/09, 4:35 AM
What happens to faith on the downslope of industrial civilization? Those who have power lose faith in the system and those without power lose faith in those who do have power. The erosion of legitimacy in institutions would be one of the worst things to accompany the decline. In its place comes not tolerant, pluralistic religions but fanatical zealotry with the Book of Revelations as the playbook and criminal gangs, who, while not offering a belief system offer a sense of belonging they increasingly won't find from the state.
How do we stop that from happening? How can any system go on without hope? I have just finished reading
The Closing of the Western Mind by Charles Freeman discussing the adoption of Christianity in the later roman empire. It outlays a clear and coherent argument that as the empire got weaker, Christianity got stronger and not the tolerant Christianity of earlier Christian authors but a gloomy, fanatical one which revealed in elevating ignorance, the destruction of enemies and the destruction of any knowledge which might conflict with the worldview of the orthodoxy espoused by the church.
I know the preservation of knowledge is a subject you are passionate on, I am worried that if history repeats or just rhymes, some new organisations will take up power in the space left vacant by the crumbling state who will seek to destroy knowledge that isnt consistent with the religious view they support.
12/17/09, 5:07 AM
12/17/09, 5:27 AM
One very problematic outcome of the “discrediting" of systems theory has been that public and policy perception had dropped back to seeing our situation as consisting of isolated problems. As a result, despite a few isolated exceptions like the interaction of biofuel production and food supplies, our awareness of the interactions between problem domains has been dulled.
This gives rise to two risks or shortcomings in our search for solutions. One is that a “solution” in one domain may increase problems in another one through undetected interdependencies. The second is that seeing the problems as independent issues discourages the search for deeper root causes. I have the feeling that exploring root causes could lead us to some of those leverage points Donella Meadows talked about, enabling us to address a broad variety of problems with single changes.
12/17/09, 5:30 AM
Really enjoy your blog - I was just introduced to it by a friend. This comment is more relvant to the last blog than the current one, but you might be interested in hearing my podcast about peak oil which went online on Monday. It is a guest podcast on CanadaPrepared.com which can be downloaded via iTunes or directly from:
It is aimed at a slightly unusual target audience: Canadian survivalists who may or may not be familiar with the concepts of peak oil – so it’s presented in a slightly unusual way which you might not have heard before.
If you get time to listen to it, I’d be interested to hear what you think. I had to post my info here because I couldn't find a "contact you" link.
12/17/09, 6:19 AM
Although permaculture is deliberately apolitical, its practitioners, at least in the United States, are mostly crunchy types who elicit some automatic skepticism from conservatives. And farmers, as a group, are some of the most conservative people in our society.
Despite this possible shortcoming, permaculture has continued developing the best of the ideas mentioned in this post.
12/17/09, 6:38 AM
"..the greatest change we need to make is from consumption to production, even if on a small scale, in our own gardens. If only 10% of us do this, there is enough for everyone. Hence the futility of revolutionaries who have no gardens, who depend on the very system they attack, and who produce words and bullets, not food and shelter.”
It's just like Al Gore flying all across the globe to present a powerpoint about how the climate is in crisis, yet his private jet lands back in San Francisco (or wherever) where he arrives at his mansion, the roof covered in 1,000's of PV cells... strangely enough, he hasn't spent much time in a garden...
I think many visionaries have lost track of their mission by becoming highly idealistic and even highly removed from reality, and in the course, sabotage any real-world success they could have had.
Masanobu Fukuoka talks about this in his book, The One Straw Revolution -- in his twenties he had a Satori experience where it was revealed to him that nature is perfect and all of man's actions hinder the perfection of nature. Afterward, he tried explaining this to farmers he worked for and they all thought he was a bit nuts. So, he decided the only way to show people what he meant was to create a living example. He went back to his father's farm and started what he called "Natural Farming", farming without intervention. For 30 years he said, he asked himself what he could take out of the equation to reach this natural state, building off of each "mistake" he made along the way. He finally perfected his style and reached a point where his fields produced record yields with equally record (low) amounts of input -- and he hadn't plowed once...
12/17/09, 7:53 AM
John Michael Greer said...
Evan, I see your crystal ball is in working order. I'll be discussing many of these same points in next week's post.
Medved, no, either way it's a mess. That's why change has to start with individuals changing their own lives; lacking that, nothing is going to work.
Aangel, my only quibble with your comment is that new conversations are not a function of technology. They had some amazing new conversations in ancient Athens and Elizabethan London, after all.
Coyote and Frank, thank you.
RAS, yes, it's an easy trap. I'll have some suggestions for avoiding it down the road a bit.
Tiago, all this corresponds very closely to my own experience. I had the advantage of being introduced to systems theory by teachers who managed to dodge the pandemic intellectual arrogance of the field -- the fact that they were teaching at an undistinguished public university might have had something to do with that -- and so could present systems thinking as a useful tool instead of a ticket to godhood; still, I've seen the other way too often.
Surfer, well put. The challenge, as I see it, is finding ways to make necessary changes that don't evoke the backlash.
Das Monde, if you found my comments on the Reagan revolution annoying, next week's post is going to annoy the stuffing out of you. The point of bringing up the fallacies I'm discussing is to provide current activists with ways to avoid the mistakes that wrecked earlier projects of the same kind. If that's offensive to you, well, I don't see any way that can be helped.
Ajmacey, Freeman's book is a bit one-sided. The Christian church also carried out a great deal of cultural salvage and conservation; much of the classical culture that made it to the Middle Ages did so because Christian monks and nuns laboriously copied manuscripts by hand right through the worst parts of the Dark Ages. Still, in general terms, you're right; the collapse of legitimacy that accompanies the decline and fall of a civilization can provide an opening to some pretty monstrous things.
Thardiust, thanks for the link.
Glider, Technocracy never got large or powerful enough to be a threat to anybody, and so it was cheaper to ignore it. That's not always a bad place to be, so long as your goals don't require you to take political control over a continent, as Technocracy's did. As for leverage points, well, I'm skeptical; studying root causes might turn up such options, yes, but can it make them happen in the teeth of the entrenched resistance of everyone who benefits from the status quo? I have my doubts.
Peter, thanks for the link; I'll check it out. I can always be reached by an email sent to info (at) aoda (dot) org.
GreenStrong, I don't think it's at all fair to the great diversity of individuals and groups working along these lines to claim that permaculture is "the" movement doing systems theory and appropriate tech. It's one of the movements; it has some very good things to offer, but it's not the be-all and end-all.
Mark, excellent! I read Fukuoka back in the early 1980s -- we had a copy of The One Straw Revolution at the Outback Farm, and put some work into adapting his methods for our ecosystem, with mixed results. More generally, though, Gore is very nearly a poster child for the kind of activism we don't need; I recall an article a while back that pointed out that George W. Bush's ranch in Texas has a much smaller carbon footprint than Gore's mansion.
12/17/09, 8:28 AM
John Michael Greer said...
12/17/09, 8:32 AM
Yes, I have often found systems theorists arrogant. The failure to apply one's discipline to oneself is not unique to systems theorists.
One of the great principles (1884) of (chemical) systems is that of Le Chatelier, a system responds to any induced change in a manner to minimize the effects of that change. I believe that our most effective strategy is many small actions to make ourselves less dependent on fossil, encourage local organic food production, and build community structures for cooperation. (I have been trying to persuade the local banker to incorporate a model for a local script monetary system in his bank's risk management planning.)
12/17/09, 8:56 AM
Since that wasn't an option for the vast majority they had no choice but to submit to the job market that existed. The jobs came with a need for housing. The affordable housing wasn't near the jobs so the suburban nightmare grew. In the 90's I connected with a cohousing community in the building. That recipe starts with "first, get a tenure track job at the local college." Also a losing model.
Whatever green model that emerges will gain traction when it can take a literate person of average intelligence and no particular skills standing at the doorstep and build a life for that person. That is exactly how factory industrialism grew from the small workshop to the dominant world economic force. It found a place for people as they found them.
Without the ability to include and support average people all our discussions of a green transition are so much intellectual masturbation. That is the meme that has to be discovered.
12/17/09, 9:20 AM
Duncan Kinder said...
Isn't this essentially what the 19th Century economist, Henry George, referred to as rent.
Rent, according to George, was basically the inertia that pervades any social system. The particular social system that concerned George was being held back by the landed aristocracy, so he proposed a single tax on land to reduce their influence. But George meant something deeper and broader than just depleting the landed interests.
A major field of systems theory is Total Quality Management. Overcoming resistance to change and the travails of being a change agent are major TQM topics. One of its leaders, the late Joseph Juran, wrote a book entitled Managerial Breakthrough, depicting strategies of how actually to formulate and implement effective change.
In his Introduction, Juran credits Margaret Meade with many of his ideas, although I have not read her.
12/17/09, 10:19 AM
This is a *very* important topic and I am very glad you are tackling it. Are there any resources you might be able to point to for those of us who want to do some reading outside of class?
Also your story about the Illuminati was... illuminating (sorry the pun was just sitting there). I wonder though, I am reminded of a small group of German's in a beer hall in Munich. True the puetsch was a disaster but they somehow found a way to make it work in the long run. In your opinion did they do something consciously right or did they just get lucky?
Finally, re: Steve Jackson - let us not forget that his game "Hackers" resulted in a real raid by the FBI. So just because you think his orbital lasers are fictional does not mean that everyone does!
Besides it was that or mutated Sea Bass (although I hear they are ill-tempered).
12/17/09, 11:11 AM
“What will be left are the fundamental conversations that seem to run humans. They are very easy to spot in times of stress or anger. They are the conversations of scarcity rather than generosity and tribalism rather than collaboration.”
Aangel: Really enjoyed your thoughts. I have a beef with the above, however. Our human past is full of conversations of scarcity coupled with sharing and egalitarianism. And tribalism coupled with radical collaboration and restraint on those who deviate from collaboration. Those conversations will be renewed. About time.
12/17/09, 11:29 AM
"Aangel, my only quibble with your comment is that new conversations are not a function of technology."
Actually, I say that new conversations are a function of excess abundant energy, not technology. New technology is also a function of excess abundant energy.
Of course, I recognize that it's not impossible to introduce a new conversation into the network when the environment is privation and squalor. But it's very, very difficult. The basic conversations that run humans become prevalent and leave no space for new ones.
We have yet to rid the world of these fundamental conversations and probably never will.
The core conversation that is going to get us into trouble is probably:
"I'm right, you are wrong."
That might be one of the oldest conversations that we spoke right after inventing language. "Right/wrong" is a useful model to view the world through sometimes but it fails miserably in many, many cases, especially when people get positional about their points of view (c.f. most divorces and all wars). Not many people realize that right and wrong do not exist independently of language. Cheetahs do not have the concept right and wrong, nor do camels or any other species that does not have language. And yet we are trapped in the prison of language, everyone thinking what they are thinking actually exists. We failed to teach enough people in time that thoughts are mere symbols and now we are going into a period of scarcity ill-equipped to handle it.
When energy becomes scarce (i.e. when people or their kids become hungry) or when it looks like energy is threatened (i.e. food prices go up), this core conversation takes over with a vengeance. People fall into dualism (right/wrong, good/bad) and leave no space for inquiry and creation. They focus solely on survival, which is never really far from their minds even now, but it becomes everything.
That's why I say that new conversations are also a function of excess abundant energy. Energy doesn't cause the new conversations to exist (it is necessary but not sufficient) but without it there isn't as much space for new conversations to be invented and spoken.
12/17/09, 12:39 PM
12/17/09, 4:10 PM
I am amazed at how many of the comments, not only on your site, but also on the Oil Drum and other similar sites, are from people in their 60's. We have lost 30 or more years - the most productive times in our lives when we could have been working together. But we all had jobs and families and there didn't seem to be any way to change anything. But now, with the help of the Internet, Medicare and a lot of vitamins (and raw goat's milk?) maybe we can make up for lost time! We have to be much more intelligent this time and a lot less arrogant. The system certainly has a lot of fight left in it but we old folks have a lot less to loose. Looking forward to your next post!
12/17/09, 5:53 PM
That converation made me think hard about things, for I live in a rural intentional community in an area with a very different culture around us, and although that hasn't caused any problems for us in the several decades that our community's been here, it makes me wonder how long that good fortune will last when the world situation changes.
12/17/09, 5:55 PM
das monde said...
Taking modern political displays or apparent inaptness of governments and “leftish” intellectuals at face value increasingly looks like a precarious delusion to me. My point should be clear: we are dealing not so much with an established homeostatic social-political system, but with an escalating and very unconservative process.
There is so much talk these days about failed movements, failed states, failed ideologies. How often did you hear about failed states just 10 years ago? I live in a city where a couple of international Expo exhibitions were held in 1970s and perhaps 1990, in two different parks. Just last weekend I went to the park with the 1990 pavilions, many still reasonably preserved. It was quite ironic to walk around ethnic and modern art designs, UN peace symbolism, boards with state names. Many of those Arabian, African or East Asian countries are tirelessly mentioned as failed states nowadays. Then there is a slope for Yugoslavia, but next to it is already Russian Federation, not Soviet Union. The Bulgarian ground looks no less imposing than neighboring France and Austria. I indeed remember, East Europeans were much more proud of themselves then than now. I don’t know how modern Expo exhibitions look, but that park feels like a gone world. Was it a more naive world? Or just more egalitarian, optimistic, and less manipulated?
Particularly often you can come across articles on European doom or decline. People just talk about dooms that they find convenient to talk about!
I would have more patience in saying what ideas or processes failed. How did the neoconservative movement failed when Bill Cristoll, Krauthammer, Bolton and other neocons are still regularly asked their opinion, however often they might had been wrong before? When was the last time you saw a system theorist on TV? Or were they ever so ubiquitous as Glenn Becks and Billy O’Reillys? The system theory and green movements of the 1970s failed only in that much that they did not keep their (rather modest) status under the aggressive change of political climate.
12/17/09, 6:44 PM
Bill Pulliam said...
When I was a systems ecologist there was a version of an old joke going around... Why is the Systems Ecologist's wife still a virgin after 10 years of marriage? Because every night hr husband just sits on the corner of the bed and tells her how great it is going to be.
At the root, though, I think there is no particular political movement that has a monopoly on the tendency to think they know best and everyone else is too dumb to be given the power to make any decisions. One sees this at work all through society from all directions.
12/17/09, 7:14 PM
John Michael Greer said...
Pangolin, you've basically stated the theme of a post I intend to write sometime soon: the desperate need for models of transformation that can bootstrap themselves. More on this later.
Duncan, I'll have to read George -- haven't gotten around to him yet.
Tristan, depends on what kind of reading you want to do. On systems theory? Or on the history of the systems movement?
Vera, my point exactly -- the conversations we need to have can be had with or without boatloads of technology.
Aangel, ancient Athens and Elizabethan London didn't have lots of cheap energy, either, and -- to return to my earlier point -- they had plenty of new conversations. I disagree with your basic claim that new conversations are in any way a monopoly of modernity, or even fostered by it. I know that's a common claim these days, but I would argue that it's a product of the same mythology of progress that's helped land us in our present predicament.
Walter, I didn't say that the Illuminati were a tired subject, only that some of the current fantasies about them are not of interest to me. Still, I don't claim to please all the people all the time, you know.
Lynn, anything you've got from the appropriate tech movement, from personal experiences to unpublished documents, is a major resource right now, and there are people who are interested in putting it to use. Please consider looking around online, seeing who's doing the sort of thing you used to do, and offering your help -- there's plenty to be done.
Richard, the crucial thing you need to do -- and I say this from personal experience -- is make yourself part of the community. Join the Grange or some other local community organization, cultivate connections with your neighbors, become "those nice kids who live down the lane -- yeah, they're a bit strange, but they've always been polite and helpful." That's the key to living outside the liberal middle class ghetto.
Das Monde, so? You have the right to disagree with my views, just as I certainly exercise the right to disagree with yours. The change in political climate had causes other than the alleged malevolence of the people you don't like, and it seems tolerably clear to me that some of those causes were missteps on the side you support. If that's not a perspective you find useful, well, as I mentioned to Walter, I don't claim to please all the people all the time.
12/17/09, 7:15 PM
Ecologically, we are always part of a large organization. But large human systems really are something special - the ultimate in two-edged swords!
12/17/09, 7:55 PM
I was wondering about other sources of information on Weishaupt's Fallacy. I Googled it and mostly got your article. There is nothing on Wikipedia either. I'm interested in theories on organizational or movement flaws.
Thus my question about the beer hall puetsch which seems like an obvious example of Weishaupt's Fallacy. But it was followed by a successful takeover. What changed that allowed the movement to go from a small group of kooks who thought themselves so smart that all they had to do was march up to the government and it would fall to a movement that actually seized power?
12/17/09, 8:19 PM
John Michael Greer said...
Jim, thanks for the reference.
Tristan, you won't find references to Weishaupt's Fallacy anywhere, for the simple reason that I invented the term yesterday. The phenomenon's common enough, but I don't know if there's been a catchy name for it before.
As for the difference between the Nazis and the less effective groups we've been discussing, that's an excellent point to raise, not least because the core of the original Nazi party came right out of the German counterculture of the time. The differences are complex, partly rooted in the historical situation of the time, and partly in the pragmatic and ruthless attitude toward power on the part of the Nazi leadership. Ideologue though he was, Hitler rarely let his ideas get in the way of doing whatever it took to claw his way to power, and the people he gathered around him in his ascent to power were more ruthless and less principled than he was, which is saying something.
Should the systems movement have adopted the same approach? No, because they would have had to barter away everything valuable about the systems approach in the process of climbing the ladder to power. More on this in a forthcoming post.
12/17/09, 9:31 PM
J. Stephen Lansing: A Thousand Years in Bali
The Long Now Foundation
12/17/09, 10:37 PM
12/18/09, 1:30 AM
Which is part of how systems fight back, how a leftist Barack Obama becomes an Establishment Liberal, and how a conservative Ronald Reagan becomes an Establishment Liberal. For those of you partisans who object to casting both Obama and Reagan in the same terms, consider for a moment how little difference there is between their actual policies. Reagan would have been against adding to the national health plan, of course, and Obama would have been easier on the environmentalists, but otherwise, they differ remarkably little on policy.
The consensus government in the US is Establishment Liberalism, and to climb the ladder to power, you must embrace, and be embraced by the opinion makers that enforce that consensus. So one side says we should immediately invade Iran, and one side says we must impose sanctions and save military action for later. Neither side asks what particular justification we have in the goings-on in a sovereign nation half a world away.
One side is pro-torture, one is decent enough to want to hide the torture. Neither side says that we should not torture. Social issues, like abortion and gay marriage are cynically used by the partisans to drum up support from people who care about them, and then carefully ignored until the next election. Any attempt to make a real change brings out the entrenched interests with their long sharp knives and bags full of cash. The attempted reform, like the so-called health care bill, quickly becomes a tool of the powerful in the current system to further embed themselves and to exclude any real change.
National Health Care becomes insurance reform. Tort reform becomes a make-work program for lawyers. Banking reform becomes a system for the banks to extract money from the taxpayer. Bankruptcy reform becomes the exclusion of the middle class from bankruptcy protection. Campaign finance reform becomes a gag order for any who would criticize incumbents. Patent reform becomes an open invitation to corporations to lock up more and more obvious ideas under government-enforced monopoly. Copyright reform becomes an open season for the parasites of the recording and movie industries to lock up our culture behind DRM firewalls and tollbooths. And the beat goes on.
Meanwhile sincere and dedicated partisans of both the right and the left watch bewildered as their champions, who they worked so had to put into positions of influence, betray them. It happens again and again.
Sometimes a Bernie Saunders or a Ron Paul makes it through the filters, but they are marginalized and quarantined. If they start to generate some influence, they and their supporters are ridiculed and maligned, Racists on the Right, Communists on the Left. The system wins.
12/18/09, 1:32 AM
Interesting and inspiring link on 'appropriate' technology:
12/18/09, 4:29 AM
John Michael Greer said...
Faoladh, thanks for the details! I used to play a fair number of Steve Jackson games, back in the day.
Danby, good. We'll be talking more about why that happens next week.
Sid, thanks for the link.
12/18/09, 8:49 PM
Noni Mausa said...
Thanks for this. A few proclamations:
Controlling a large system requires a system larger than the large system, and thus is either impossible, or else requires truncating the original system. This is wildly inefficient, either way.
Any solution to world problems that begins with "If only everyone would..." or "Once they know all the facts, surely they will...", won't.
One stone in a river reformats the entire river.
And of course, a good song: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=n29d02fEil4
12/19/09, 8:45 AM
wylde otse said...
But, on the other hand(he he), consider: two neighbours, remote from decision-making centers (cells on a 'distribution canal or river', say, at the tip of your finger) arguing politics of The Whole...(mercifully not realizing they just got shoved up a nose).
12/19/09, 12:36 PM
A Guy From Copenhagen said...
Tristan, perhaps I can shed some light on the success of the Nazis. Hitler was a government agent planted by the secret police to keep a tap on the possible issue at hand. At the time there were many revolutionary ideas and even coup attempts in Germany. Russia had after all fallen due to the same war. The secret services and the army were worried of revolution, perhaps even more so than the Weimer Republic. Hitler rose to power and the old guard of the former regime were still a powerful system standing along side the imported liberal government. They sympathized with much of what Hitler said, even to an extent with the racial elements. They never crushed him in his infancy. His climb was exponential towards the end of the 1920s. Too late.
Perhaps the Nazi Party was a failed attempt to gain political power through a proxy political party controlled by a much larger system. The old guard might have wanted a say in a new liberal political system. A more modern example could be the way the Kreml creates its own parties or in fact allies itself with many of its parliamentary enemies.
12/19/09, 6:56 PM
System theory describes what it cannot control. How frustrating for the wanna-be controller.
All hail Eris!
12/20/09, 10:52 AM
12/20/09, 1:44 PM
Much of what you post "rings" like it is familiar to me. My first clue that the economic downturn was going to be a "lollapuloozer" was when someone cried "systems failure". It still doesn't look well.
12/20/09, 3:29 PM
John Michael Greer said...
Otse, you're more polite in your metaphors than I tend to be.
Guy, welcome to the list!
Worldbridger, as my nose print many years ago was mailed to the California state department of furniture and bedding, the only answer I can possibly make is "fnord."
Walter, I somehow managed not to take any anthropology courses in my three years at Western, though I got most of my initial grounding in systems theory from classes at Huxley College of Environmental Studies, and a lot of my hands-on experience at the Outback Farm just south of Fairhaven College. Still, a selectionist discussion of the state of contemporary industrial society would easily require a post or three to itself! The thirty second version is that the very unusual conditions of the Age of Exuberance have selected for characteristics that, while hugely successful under those conditions, are hopelessly ill-suited for existence under any other conditions -- for example, the ones that are already taking shape around us as we start to rattle down the back side of Hubbert's peak.
Ariel, I suspect it's going to look a lot worse as the government runs out of gimmicks to cover up the unraveling of an economy built on smoke and mirrors.
12/20/09, 5:03 PM
Todmorden's Good life: Introducing Britain's greenest town
"One of the founding principles of the movement has been to make it as inclusive as possible; in this it differs from transition towns, said Ms Warhurst. "We are working with people who would find transition towns hard to identify with. Our project is all about finding the lowest common denominator, which is food, and then speaking in a language that everyone can understand. Plus we don't have strategies; we don't have visiting speakers; we don't have charters and documents. We just get on with things: this is all about action."
12/21/09, 8:32 AM
I wonder how much support is given to their composting efforts by the local/state/federal government in grants, that composting site, etc. As discussed in the current comments, new ideas are often only viable through the largess of society. The same is true of "big money" projects, but those are often bought by corruption and graft from the political machines.
12/22/09, 8:40 AM
Indeed we live in a grow or die society and nothing can work to prevent the unfolding catastrophe, the present economic system is geared for growth on leverage of cheap oil and cheap credit plus pumping vast amounts of dangerous toxins into the environment.
The mentality is one of 'grow or die' yet in a few years or less maybe, people will realize that society is actually founded on the principle of 'grow and die.' One way or another, we'll find a way to shoot ourselves in the foot. Quite a talent the human species has.
12/22/09, 4:18 PM
das monde said...
Isn't it tough to say that the system theorists blew it for the whole civilization? D-oh!
In contrast, the requirements for the "other side" appear to be very different. They get all respect and no scrutinity. They are not asked to argue objectively - the more self-interests and biased they are the better. They do not have to take any responsibility of what happens around them. They are not even asked to show concern of global consequences. Nice priveleges if you get!
It is not that I root for system theorists particularly. The ones I saw were not from that golden age; they were just content to have gained better regard than they colleagues. Even among system theorists now, an end of the world does not matter as long as you are doing better than your peers!
And I suspect that many of the "golden age" system theorists fared very well later. If they really had that mechanical control mind set-up, "not too dumb" of them must had been in good demand from those actualy close to running the world. You could have those system theorists sitting now in respectable think-tanks and finesing comfortably the plans of getting rid of 90% of humanity. Extreme volumes in debt-versus-"investments" might be an ingenious step towards there.
Oh, one thing about that other Bavarian craokdown. We know how symbolic was the punishment of Hitler. He basically got just enough time in an asketic but still comfortable surroundings to write his opus Mein Kampf. That shows that Hitler enjoyed not just ruthless and pragmatic company of his party, but a very special political climate as well. As I wrote several weeks back, the Nazi government also enjoyed rare financial "freedom" that helped Germany recorver from the Great Depression remarably easily.
12/24/09, 1:08 AM