Wednesday, June 02, 2010

Magical Thinking

As I write these words, the catastrophe in the Gulf of Mexico continues unchecked. It seems almost obscene to suggest that anything positive might come out of an oil spill that is already the largest in US history, and of course it’s true that whatever good might be salvaged from the situation will offer little consolation to the ravaged ecosystems and destroyed communities of the Gulf. Still, as teacher and Foxfire founder Eliot Wigginton noted, learning is only made possible by failure, and a failure this gargantuan and many-sided can at least offer us some pointed lessons for the future.

Most of those, to be sure, should have been obvious a long time ago. The fantasy of technological potency that leads the great majority of Americans, and slightly smaller majorities elsewhere in the industrial world, to think that any imaginable difficulty must have a promptly available technical solution, has been wearing thin for some time. Still, the spectacle of one of the world’s largest oil companies trying to shove chunks of used automobile tire down an undersea gusher in a failed attempt to stanch the flow has enough of a comic opera quality to lead to hard questions about just how well prepared we are to handle the downside of our own technologies once those have been pushed to the wall by the hard limits of geology and physics.

It will take time for those questions to be asked by more than a very small minority, and even longer for the answers to find their way into the collective conversation of our time. Right now, a great many people seem to be stuck in the same kind of unreason that led travelers stranded by the Eyjafjallajokull eruptions earlier this spring to pound their fists on airline employees’ desks and demand that somebody do something to get the ash out of the air. Equally useless demands that BP, or the US government, or somebody, get out there and stop the oil spill right away, have filled the media of late. It seems very hard for many people to grasp that all the possible ways to stop the spill right away have been tried and have failed, and that the one real hope left – the hard work of drilling a relief well next to the one that’s spewing oil into the Gulf, so that cement can be injected far enough down the borehole to matter – can’t be completed before August at the earliest, and could possibly take until the end of the year.

The gap between that bitter reality and the fantasy of instant techno-fulfillment that plays so large a role in the modern mind has been filled, on most peak oil websites, with a flurry of comments proposing a dizzying assortment of impractical gimmicks to deal with the crisis. Perhaps the saddest of these is the insistence, repeated even by people who ought to know better, that the US ought to use a nuclear weapon against the well.

This particular bit of uninspired lunacy takes various forms. Some suggest setting off a warhead at the wellhead; somehow they’ve managed not to notice the impact of the resulting tsunami on all the oil platforms and pipelines in the Gulf, just for starters. Others insist that a warhead ought to be lowered down the well bore; of course this fails to deal with the fact that the bore is jammed with wrecked drilling hardware, not to mention full of hot, sand-laden crude oil blasting up from the depths at a pressure of 13,000 pounds per square inch, not much less than that used in industrial machinery to make water cut holes in solid metal. Still others propose drilling a hole down next to the existing well and putting the warhead down that; here again, by the time a hole wide enough to admit even a small tactical warhead could be drilled to that level, the relief wells now under way will be long finished.

The notion that a nuclear weapon is the answer to BP’s undersea gusher is conclusive evidence, if any more were needed, that reasonable thought has gone right out the window. Admittedly it’s only fair to say that this happened with nuclear weapons a long time ago. To a frightening extent, the US nuclear arsenal has become a phallic talisman of national omnipotence that serves mostly to help Americans distract themselves from the waning of the real foundations of their country’s former hegemony. If that arsenal ever ceases to be militarily useful – and it’s probably a safe bet that China, to name only one likely candidate, has scores of laboratories working right now on technologies to make that happen, paid by the billions a year we spend to import salad shooters and cheap electronics – our national nervous breakdown may be one for the record books.

Still, there’s a sense in which it’s unfair to critique the proponents of nuking BP’s oil well merely because their plan won’t work and could very easily make an already catastrophic situation even worse. These are difficulties in putting the plan into practice, and it’s not supposed to be put into practice. It serves, rather, as an incantation, a way to banish the appalling awareness that neither you, nor I, nor anyone else except the fairly small number people actually struggling to deal with the well, can do anything about it.

Incantations of this sort make up a remarkably large fraction of the talk about peak oil and the future of industrial society these days. Get into an online conversation on the subject, for example, and you can be all but certain that at least one of the people involved will pipe up with a plan to solve it. It doesn’t matter at all that, much more than nine times out of ten, the person proposing the plan is doing nothing to make it happen, and neither is anybody else. The plan is not meant to happen. It’s meant to dispell the profoundly troubling sense that the future is spinning out of control and there’s not actually all that much that we can do about it.

Grand plans of this kind are hardly the only sort of incantation being chanted at the moment. A claim splashed across the cornucopian end of the internet in recent weeks insists that the world has enough readily available crude oil to keep going at the present rate of production for 800 years. To describe this as the end product of a horse’s digestive tract is to insult honest manure; not one scrap of evidence backs such a claim, but then evidence is beside the point when you’re composing an incantation.

The logic that underlies this kind of incantatory communication is often called “magical thinking” nowadays. There’s a deep irony in this phrase, since this kind of thinking is exactly what mages – actual practitioners of magic – don’t do. I’ve generally avoided talking about magic in these essays, but this is a context where that can’t be avoided. I’d like to ask those of my readers who have religious or rationalist objections to magic to keep reading; they may be surprised by some of what follows.

Probably the best place to start that discussion is with an elegant volume that’s sitting on the desk next to my keyboard as I type these words. Scarlet Imprint, a small British magical publisher, has just released an anthology about the crisis of our time titled XVI; students of magical symbolism will recognize this gnomic label as a reference to the sixteenth arcanum of the Tarot, which shows a tower being blown to smithereens. I have an essay in it; so do sixteen other contemporary mages; I’d be indulging in absurdity if I claimed to agree with more than a part of what’s in the book, but one thing not to be found in its pages is the sort of “magical thinking” just mentioned.

There’s a reason for this. One of the most distinguished 20th century theoreticians and practitioners of magic, Dion Fortune, defined magic as “the art and science of causing change in consciousness in accordance with will.” (If that doesn’t sound like a recipe for making broomsticks fly, you’re beginning to catch on.) The basic tools of the mage are will and imagination; the raw materials he or she works with are symbolism and ritual – “poetry in the realm of acts,” as Fortune’s near-contemporary Ross Nichols defined that last term. The point of magic, as Fortune’s definition suggests, is changing states and contents of consciousness; it can have effects on the material world as well, but that normally involves influencing beings that bridge the gap between mind and matter – you and me, for example.

Exactly what can and can’t be done by way of will and imagination, working through emotionally powerful symbols and ritual psychodrama, is a question on which not all mages agree. Still, I don’t know of anyone in the field who claims to be able to levitate a broom, say, or to do any of the other things that make up the stock in trade of fantasy magicians. If magic instead of science had come out on top in the reality wars of the late Renaissance, we might all be watching movies in which mysterious scientists in white lab coats mutter algebraic formulae, climb astride giant test tubes, and zoom off to the Moon; compare that to real science, and you’ve got some sense of the gap between Harry Potter and real magic.

This is why serious mages generally roll their eyes when somebody comes along and insists that we ought to be able to solve physical problems – for example, shortages of material substances – with what amounts to magic. This happens quite often; I can usually count on hearing from somebody every month or so who thinks that because I’ve written several books on magic, and serve as the presiding officer of a contemporary Druid order, I ought to agree with them that we can conjure some replacement for petroleum out of thin air, or in some other way produce a world much more comfortable than the one we’ve got, by some change in consciousness or other.

They tend to be rather discomfited when I explain to them, as gently as possible, that they’ve made a very elementary mistake in magical theory. The technical term for it is confounding the planes; “the planes of existence,” an old axiom has it, “are discrete and not continuous” – which means in plain English that mind is mind, matter is matter, and making the transition from mind to matter is not an easy, much less an automatic, thing; it has to be done in specific ways, and with careful attention to the very real limits of the material world.

Now this does not mean that magic is useless in the face of the predicament of the industrial world. The problem is that the changes in consciousness that would actually do some good are changes that next to nobody in the industrial world is willing to make: for example, a shift in priorities that deliberately embraces poverty, accepting a rich personal, intellectual, and social life as a substitute for, or even an improvement on, the material extravagance that the industrial nations currently offer their more favored inmates. That change in consciousness is certainly accessible to each and every one of us; human beings just like us have been making it for many thousands of years; but it requires a rare willingness to step outside of the approved habits and ideas of modern industrial cultures. Striking a rebellious pose and claiming originality is very fashionable these days; actually rejecting the conventional wisdom of our time, and thinking thoughts that conflict with those of one’s contemporaries, is less common now than it was in the supposedly conformist Fifties.

I’ve come to suspect that one of the principal reasons for that, and more generally for the remarkable way in which today’s industrial societies are continuing to sleepwalk toward the abyss, is precisely the habit of incantation discussed earlier in this post. The internet is the natural home of incantation; discussions on email lists and online forums, bereft of the subtleties of normal human communication, often turn into a duel of incantations that the loudest and most intransigent voice generally wins.

Now it’s worth noting that incantation is a tool, and like any other tool, it can be used or misused. There are plenty of contexts in which the skillful use of incantations can have beneficial effects. Assure yourself repeatedly that you can accomplish some task that is in fact within your powers, for example, and your odds of accomplishing it go up significantly; assure yourself repeatedly that it’s out of your reach, and your chances of failure do the same. Still, using incantations as a nonchemical tranquilizer to ward off stress, and to assure yourself that everything is fine when everything is not fine, is much more problematic. In a time of crisis when keeping a level head and going on with life is crucial, it can have a valid place, but if it’s being used to drown out the still small voice that warns of approaching danger, it’s an invitation to disaster. In next week’s post, however, I propose to offer a counterspell.


LS said...
Hi JMG. I am looking past the whole magic thing and am hearing your message. "Magical thinking" is a good description of what so many people seem to be doing.

I am looking forward to hearing about your "counterspell" as it is much needed.

I am sceptical about the chance of success of such a spell though, as my experience has been that the reason for the magical thinking in the first place is deep ignorance. I.e. you can't talk about Euler's equations with someone who still counts on their fingers; you have to educate them step by step, building on stuff that they do know, until they are educated enough to be able to grasp the fundamentals of the real topic

For me the "counterspell" (for the few people I bother to try with) has been slow, relentless education about the fundamental issues (such as the mathematics of geometric growth, and energy concentration). But it is a very slow process.

If there is any way to speed up the process, then I am interested to hear it (or is that just more magical thinking?).

6/2/10, 11:20 PM

The Onion said...
I am not surprised at the number of people who take the nuke option seriously. I wonder how many people's notion of what is possible in this situation stems from movies like Armageddon. Perhaps if not from one genre specific film entirely but from a cumulative effect that leads to the 'techno-triumphalism' that Kuntsler so often mentions.

Do we imagine every problem now like a Bond film where some real life Q presents us with a set of neatly defined options, each equally effective yet applied as a matter of taste like picking trim packages for your car?

6/3/10, 12:01 AM

Lamb said...
I have always thought that intent directly relates to result (is that magical thinking?).
For example...a meal prepared by loving hands with the intent of providing comfort and nourishment is better for a person---though it may be of simple or even lesser quality ingredients---than a gourmet meal prepared by someone whose only intent is to impress and make a profit.
I was discussing this with a friend as we talked about the BP debacle in the Gulf. The company went into the Gulf, intent on drilling and making as much profit as possible. No thought of who the oil would go to---heating homes or providing fuel to keep the lights on, etc, just pure greed for profit. My friend commented that maybe the planet had just had enough and burst out of it's skin, in effect, a scream of "You want oil, you bastards? HERE, I'll give you all the oil you want and MORE!"

I know...anthropomorphizing an entire planet...bad form, maybe, but it seems appropriate.

6/3/10, 12:05 AM

team10tim said...
Hey hey JMG,

What is the reading comprehension level of your target audience? I ask because of the double entendre of the title of this post.

Using the word 'magic' in a sincere sense is going to alienate a large group of people, effectively shutting down large chunks of the reader's mind. Because, for most people 'magic' means broom sticks and crystal balls. And since language is defined by the majority using the word 'magic' in a sincere sense makes you a quack.

But, on the other hand, the purpose of language is communication. Communicating that the world is laboring under the fantasy of thinking that technology will magically solve all problems on demand and contrasting that notion with the reality that propaganda/social norms/neuro-linguistic programming/etc. can effect a meaningful change in aggregate and individual behavior is artfully encompassed in the phrase 'magical thinking.'

6/3/10, 12:33 AM

rainman said...
A calm, sane and reasonable analysis, as ever. Thank you for providing a mental refuge from which to view the storm of craziness which is modern life. "Poetry in the realm of acts" - just beautiful.

I await next week's post eagerly; I've come across the magical thinking of denial within companies and individuals, and failed so far to find any effective cure for it. Would that I could, Harry Potter-like, just wave a wand and say something silly...

6/3/10, 12:39 AM

Wordek said...
Classic piece. Thank you
I cant find anything to disagree with, (unusual for me) So Ill simply add that when the phrase “tactical nuclear warhead” gets used in most other contexts, I just quietly snigger at the depths of goof spawned absurdity that earnest hooman beeings can plumb. But when I first heard it used in the context of deepwater horizon, I almost ruptured myself.

Hi Bill
From last weeks post
“Cut your hand on a manure-covered shovel and you might die from the resulting infection”

Given all the “feudal overlord talk” doing the rounds this reminded me of something:
892: Sigurd the Mighty of Orkney strapped the head of a defeated foe to his horse's saddle. The teeth of this head grazed against his leg as he rode, causing an infection that killed him.

Man. No one is safe! (bet the head had a good chuckle though)

6/3/10, 12:48 AM

James said...
Sometimes I wonder if this whole blog is an exercise in magical thinking.

6/3/10, 12:54 AM

Lucy said...
Amen. From one feminist Christian theologian (Quaker) to a Druid.

6/3/10, 1:04 AM

Conchscooter said...
One of the greatest things that worries me about impending collapse is the inability of my neighbors to connect the dots, a form of "magical thinking" that disables the ability to reason. Thus when collapse occurs it will not only come as a surprise, but the cause of the collapse will be perceived incorrectly and a rampage seems likely to ensue. So I am now looking forward to next week's essay with more than usual interest, thank you.

6/3/10, 1:31 AM

sofistek said...
I'm not sure your use of the term "magic" is that commonly recognised outside of the mages. Consequently, I'm also not sure that the use of that term was helpful.

It seems to me that magic is commonly thought to mean the manipulation of the physical world in a way that is counter to physical "laws". For instance, aircraft being made to disappear or broken eggs being made whole again. Clearly we don't live in a world that includes that kind of magic, as you've implied.

I'm not sure what to draw from this week's essay except to note that the Internet is full of people who have the answer to every problem but who will never have the power or ability to implement it. Don't we already know this?

6/3/10, 1:42 AM

Ponter said...
Thank you for introducing some of your spiritual/Druidic practice into the discussion. I truly appreciate that point of view. And thanks for the book recommendation. Tarot is so misunderstood. It is, among other things, the story of the journey to enlightenment.

I understand your reluctance to make a habit of it, for fear of alienating some readers, but a change of consciousness is inevitable. We either grow up or we're toast. So we'd better start now in considering some other, very different points of view. Nice post.

6/3/10, 3:27 AM

deepian said...
Thank you for bringing real magic into the discussion - it seems to me that an Archdruid should not be so coy on this subject as you tend to be in this column, but I found your comments on magic illuminating and very interesting.

Thank you also for this excellent blog, one of very few that I read regularly and avidly. I am sure there are many more like me who rarely comment but whose lives are enriched by your effort.

6/3/10, 3:37 AM

Ponter said...
Personal Note: I've just looked through the TOC, and some of it does appear a little suspect. Still, Even goofy ideas can generate new thinking along other lines. Looks fascinating. However, at £44 I think I'll give it a miss. Maybe you can convince them to issue a cheaper paperback edition. Alternately, might you at some point be allowed to publish your essay online?

6/3/10, 3:42 AM

john said...
Dear JMG,

You're getting a lot of press at the moment,I've seen you mentioned in a few places,JHK's website,Mike Ruppert's and The Guardian.Congratulations!

Something you said this week rang esspecially true for me.Your point about the internet being a place where the loudest,most strident and most intransigent being percieved to be the winner in most arguments.I've seen it a few times in The Guardian on the opinion Blogs.In 2 topics in particular,Climate Change and Evolution vrs Creationism( and to a lesser extent in anything to do with resource limits).

One clever guy who seems to be paid by somebody(corporate someone) important in the fossil fuel industry is called 'Move Any Mountain'.The man can't have a job,he seems to troll the Guardian comments looking for people to argue with.And he comes off looking pretty good.He will usually try ,quite effectively,to refute ,point-by-point,everything that anybody who even slightly endorses MMCC-MMGW,says.I have to say it's a heroic effort and must be a ,nearly, full-time job.

I used to be convinced of MMCC and have gained a healthy scepticism in the near past because of cooling trends,lower solar output(the maunders minimum),Lovelock's attitude to it all(nothing we can do anyway,so enjoy your life while you can)and scientific mischief at certain British Universities.I still believe it's happening but am less convinced that it's our fault(about 70/30 it's still our doing).I'd be interested in your take on the matter?

6/3/10, 4:04 AM

Bill Pulliam said...
One of the best-documented cases of magic at work is the medical placebo effect. Change the mind, change the perceptions of the body, change the body. A point that is often missed in discussions is that the placebo effect is REAL. The symptoms actually have improved. There is nothing trivial or insignificant about it. Change your consciousness, change your will, change your impact on the world around you through both obvious means and subtle, intricate, inexplicable extended effects.

It's amusing watching all oil-boosters and "greenie" bashers commenting on The Oil Drum, seemingly having no idea what the actual focus and intention of the site they have stumbled in to is! I wonder if they will all go away once the crisis has passed?

6/3/10, 5:46 AM

gaias daughter said...
JMG, this may be a bit off-topic, but are you familiar with Hank Wesselman's book series beginning with _Spiritwalker_? If so, would you care to share your opinion?

What brought it to mind was your discussion of magical thinking. Hank considers himself to be a shaman, not a mage, but there seems to be a cerain amount of overlap.

6/3/10, 5:58 AM

Brad K. said...

I wonder - if the focus on "embracing poverty" is the same as eschewing ambition.

Electrical Engineering is a five year degree. As a scientific programmer, I worked with several, including a few that were programming managers. It seemed that programmers most often aspired to elegant programming, or at least finishing the assignment. EE's all seemed to be working on their five-year plan to advance to supervisor / manager / executive.

I look at my small town, and the guys running the lumber yard are working hard to . . . keep lumber and nails available. The folks at the grocery store for the last ten years (since I moved here) seem to have work and to some extent, happiness.

The movie theater where I work part time is interested in advancement. If you have been there a couple of years and advanced to shift leader, or assistant manager, you get lots of attention and recognition from the manager, district manager, and home office; the rest are part of the replaceable pool of peasants. Just as they focus on the magic of a particular "successful" movie to drag customers in instead of working diligently and continuously to nurture existing customers, management tends to grow management instead of stability. In their defense, this is a nice place to work, even if at times the facilities seem under-maintained and products seem a bit low-cost. But, hey, the theatre has always been an expression of illusion!

It just seems that the materialism flows from ambition, ambition for status, ambition for social and cultural "advancement" (in the absence of spiritual development).

6/3/10, 6:16 AM

Jeff BKLYN said...
Excellent post once again.

I live by 'life is a gradual release from ignorance' and the hardest part of that philosophy is just how 'gradual' that 'release' can be.

On a side, I got caught up in the beauty of that book you linked to and ordered a copy with the quickness only to come back and read the next line you wrote about it, which didn't seem to be a stellar endorsement. Uh, my questions is, should I stick with my impulse buy?

I used the 'incantation' that it will be the only book I buy this summer...

Embracing poverty ever so slowly.

6/3/10, 6:21 AM

Patrick said...
I liked this discussion of magic as a change in consciousness/commitment wrapped in ritual vs fireballs and broomsticks. As a young man I flirted with esotericism and never realized there was anything beyond the occult store paperback garbage. It's amusing to me that in the end my rationalist/utilitarian philosophy (which has no room for hokey religion and mumbo-jumbo) has led me to very much the same conclusions; if you want something to happen, you have to commit to it mentally and then the change will come not because faeries bring it on the wing, but because you're willing to make the effort and sacrifice. Whether wrapped in a ritual or merely written on the whiteboard you must face every day, reinforcement is powerful.

Nice work!

6/3/10, 6:24 AM

Erik said...
Good morning JM,
I wanted to draw your attention (and that of your readers) to an interesting essay I came across this morning courtesy of Dave Haxton: John Perlin writing on the history of "peak wood".

6/3/10, 6:25 AM

Mike said...
Man Mr Druid, Your work is pretty darn good. It is refreshing to read something that is nuanced and well thought out. Especially writing that goes beyond internet "incantations" towards one's own philosophical inclinations. It's easy to guess what the hippies and greenies will say to other hippies and greenies. It's easy to guess what lewrockwell will say to other libertarians. is so predictable it is not even funny. These guys are all chanting to themselves reaffirming all their own beliefs.

Your writing is like a human breath in the internet techno-ether. Further, I don't know how you can come up with such good well-developed content week after week. Good job.

6/3/10, 6:27 AM

Keifus said...
As I understand it, one of the defining axioms of rationalism (as opposed to empiricism) is a similar distinction between mind and matter. I don't know, however, the extent to which a strict rationalist must assume that the material and mental planes are completely independent of one another. (Even in the Renaissance, it had to be obvious that affecting the matter of our brain will affect our mind too, and everyone will make the transition back to mere matter eventually, sadly automatic.) It continues to surprise me that people have taken rationalism and empiricism to such extremes as to imagine them exclusive of one another, but that probably reflects my second-hand understanding of the arguments people have actually made.

I like reading about the early thinkers of the Renaissance--I'm impressed with the creative strides they made using a more diverse philosophical foundation than many people today. The later period may have been engaged in "reality wars" although I'm enough of an empiricist in the end to view it as a gradual evolution of the parts that were actually working at explaining things.

Anyway, regardless of what consciousness is or can do, I can't disagree that substantive changes in it are going to be necessary before too long. And speaking of the Renaissance, it's always interesting to compare our own times to when big shifts in the popular viewpoint did actually happen.

6/3/10, 7:11 AM

Keifus said...
Hey Brad K, I think that at least some of those electrical engineers are motivated to progress toward management because they need the cash to pay off their five-year engineering degrees. This is less a problem for a guy stocking nails.

Although, I heartily agree that it's a fundamental sickness in our society that a maker of things or a solver of problems (oh, and in the spirit of the post, let's keep those problems on a hands-on, human scale) is less important than the wheelers and dealers. It's a shame that engineers are rewarded to embrace ambition. I think it makes a great deal of them (us) miserable.

6/3/10, 7:20 AM

John Michael Greer said...
LS, the counterspell only works for (and on) those who are willing to put it into practice. I wish that wasn't the case, but there it is.

Onion, bingo. Too much Hollywood on the brain, not enough exposure to real life problems that can't be solved in an hour and a half.

Lamb, intent has a potent influence on result, so long as you combine the intent with action -- cooking the meal, for example. Certainly BP's intent seems to have been a major factor setting them up for disaster.

Tim, my audience covers a pretty broad spectrum. Those who get the point of the phrase will get it; those who don't may learn something else from it.

Rainman, granted! Doubtless "wake up and smell the benzene" could be turned into bad Latin.

Wordek, that's a great story. Sigurd's enemy definitely earned his spot in Valhalla.

James, no, it's an exercise in magical action!

Lucy, thank you!

Conch, as we approach the point where the social consensus breaks down in the face of too many contradictions, a lot of options come open. More on this later.

Sofistek, see my comment to Tim above.

Ponter and Deepian, it's a complex issue. The sort of attitude Sofistek displayed in the comment right before yours is very common, and education can only proceed one step at a time.

Ponter (again), we'll see!

John, I'm not sure if you're aware that people are paid to do that sort of thing. During the last US presidential election, the daughter of a friend of ours worked for the Obama campaign; her job consisted of surfing the internet, finding any post that criticized Obama, and posting canned responses to counter the criticism. She was one of a team of people who did that all day, every day. No doubt the very well funded global warming denial lobby has the equivalent.

As for global climate change, my take is that it's clearly happening, at least partly because of human pollution, but that it's a good deal less unusual than current rhetoric suggests. The Earth's temperature jumped 15 degrees F. in less than a decade at the end of the last ice age, you know; sudden, devastating climate shifts are business as usual on this planet.

Bill, bingo. If our health care system wasn't simply a sales force for the pharmaceutical industry, placebo-based medicine would get billions a year in funding -- we're talking about an internal mind-body mechanism that allows sugar pills to cure major illnesses, after all! -- and we'd eventually get as good at it as, say, your average tribal shaman.

Daughter, I haven't read Wesselman -- I've tended to avoid most of the current neo-shamanic literature, for a variety of reasons. Still, I'll put him on the list.

Brad, I don't think they're quite the same thing, but abandoning the (by now mostly unreachable) dream of upward mobility is another potent magical act that can have some very positive payoffs.

Jeff, it's a great book -- my point was simply that very few mages agree on much of anything!

Patrick, well put. There's a deeply ritual dimension to that whiteboard, you know.

Erik, thanks for the link!

Mike, thank you!

6/3/10, 7:28 AM

John Michael Greer said...
Keifus, my take on cultural ideas of what's real and what's not has been heavily influenced by Thomas Kuhn's Structure of Scientific Revolutions. I don't think that we got our current materialistic paradigm because it's objectively better than the alternatives -- a paradigm defines the problems that need to be solved just as much as it defines the resources available for solving them. Thus we got a take on the world that's very good at figuring out what nonliving matter does in artificial situations, along with an ideology that states that the benefits you can get by figuring out what nonliving matter does in artificial situations are more important than, say, social harmony or a sustainable relationship with the biosphere.

6/3/10, 7:34 AM

Adrian Ayres Fisher said...
Love your comments on incantation and "magical" thinking about technology "saving" us. Couldn't agree more.

What you say about magic is very interesting, especially to one unversed in that discipline. In some ways, though, your discussion makes magic sound a little like serious (as opposed to fundamentalist or institutionalized) Christian or Buddhist practice--in purpose, not ritual, of course.

But maybe I'm misunderstanding, and the changes in consciousness and life ways that seeking enlightenment involves are not precisely what you are talking about? Hmmm.

Speaking, like Lucy, as a Quaker to a Druid. With respect.

6/3/10, 7:34 AM

sv koho said...
Good post JMG. You almost always give us a new slant or new perspective on the crisis de jour. The nuke option is absurd from what research I could manage. I could find no instance where it had been tried on any oil blowout. I did find several times the rooskies used it on gas well blowouts on land in the 60's and 70's. It's even less plausible than stuffing a 14000 psi out of control well with salad shooters and tires and sports equipment. I've never been a fan of the South and maybe it is an attempt by damn yankees to finish the job that Sherman started. We heard the same solution proposed in Viet Nam when I was tramping around. Bloomberg ran a story this week saying that the oil leaks in the Niger delta are worse than the GOM leak but nobody is being harmed but the indigenous indigent Africans. No concern of the MSM. I am wrapping up a short vacation in the sultry south a few miles inland from Topsail Island in NC where my parents and a few hundred other folks lost their beach cottages to Fran in the 90's. A massive RE boom has replaced all of the cheap shacks with expensive shacks which will likely be the last gasp for coastal suburbia after the next hurricane cleans house. No amount of magic will alter that destiny here at the end of empire

6/3/10, 8:13 AM

Andy Brown said...
Vision and imagination are some of the great inventions of the species -- our ability to untether ourselves from the reality we are presented with has led to our ability to create and realize so much. It will be an interesting bookend to our history, if it is this very ability that does us in.

6/3/10, 8:54 AM

Bill Pulliam said...
I have seen (it may be a paraphrase of Crowley) a definition of magic as "The art and science of manifesting your will through all means." Some would argue this is a rather all-encompassing definition, to the point of being unhelpful. But to me the key phrase here is "through all means." Industrial society focuses on physical and mechanical means. But a huge part of the lives of the individual and the society is not mechanical, it is interpersonal, psychological, and mythological. Self-described magicians focus also on these non-material aspects. I think it would be absurd to claim that the internal state of ones consciousness has no manifestations in the external physical world -- what is language but a means for expressing the inner outwardly and affecting the world around you, for example?

Think of the magic of poetry, of music, of advertising and marketing, of the mythologies of progress and apocalyticism, and how profoundly they affect the material nature of our contemporary existence. These are all manifestations of will, of internal states of consciousness, and they are exceedingly real.

It may be the laws of physics that are the proximate forces that cause a massively heavy machine like an airplane to levitate up into the sky. But the ultimate source was the focused consciousness of humans, whose minds and bodies together willed these machines into existence and commanded that they fly.

And they flew.

6/3/10, 9:03 AM

Keifus said...
That one has been on my to-read list for a while now, for various reasons. It probably means something that people have thrown it back at me more than once.

6/3/10, 9:19 AM

Paradise Garage said...
Sir, with all due repspect and humbleness.
I submit, when they can release the Cross that they are bound to, they might be able to think.
Which I Am shure You are Aware.

6/3/10, 9:25 AM

Ariel55 said...
Dear John, Excellent, how you get to the heart of things! Hey, my mother loved "honest" manure! I loved "causing change in consciousness in accordance with will". As you taught me long ago (and thus saved my own sanity--) insanity is the notion that what we WANT matters, and is the whole equation. That's not sane. Thanks for the stabilizing post!

6/3/10, 10:19 AM

pgrass101 said...
It amazes me that some of the same people who refute science that they don't agree with try to invent science to solves problems that they can no longer ignore.

It also baffles me that the vast majority of people in the country seem to choose to close thier eyes as we are driving over the dge of a cliff and they will not even admit that their eyes are closed much less that a cliff is still there.

6/3/10, 10:59 AM

Oregoncolonel said...
I am still not quite sure from your post what you mean by the term "magical thinking", other than the ability to change the way someone thinks. To me, "magic" is a term that is frequently used to label that which cannot be explained. In that sense, we all engage in "magical thinking". The problem in modern industrial cultures is that technology is something that most people view in magical terms. They don't understand the complexities of it, but they worship the benefits they derive from it. The shift underlying modern magical thinking is a shift away from reverence and awe of that which is natural and organic, and towards that which is artificial. In the process, we have come to worship ourselves, instead of the earth. It's a recipe for disaster, and we all are complicit.

6/3/10, 11:07 AM

Steven said...
Can you recommend a reading list on the subject of "magical theory"?

6/3/10, 11:21 AM

nutty professor said...
I do not think that you are saying that magic cannot alter social and political realities - I think of those stories of the Hermetic mages against Hitler during WWII for example - but where does your post leave us in terms of the relationship between justice, magic, and the direction of will and imagination toward social change? I guess that is another topic, another blog? Darn.

6/3/10, 11:39 AM

Rodney said...
With all due respect, as soon as they pull themseves off of their respective crosses, they might be able to see the wood it's made out of.

6/3/10, 11:39 AM

Red Neck Girl said...
JMG Said:

As for global climate change, my take is that it's clearly happening, at least partly because of human pollution, but that it's a good deal less unusual than current rhetoric suggests. The Earth's temperature jumped 15 degrees F. in less than a decade at the end of the last ice age, you know; sudden, devastating climate shifts are business as usual on this planet.

I have my own theory how that happened, it seems there's a series of meteor craters walking into the water and off of the continental shelf, on the East coast. It would have created a nice tidal wave of, biblical proportions around the Atlantic basin. At approximately the same time there were landslips under water in a Norwegian fjord that exposed two large methane deposits to the sea.

I did hear a few phrases in radio introductions this morning that really ought to clue people in on how tight resources are getting today. Things like 'wood shortages,' or something like '60% of our oil from off shore deposits coming through Louisiana.' It's too bad it won't get them to thinking, I'm sure they won't even consciously notice those phrases and consider the implications for their lives.

When it comes to magic, it comes to me with sensual, poetic descriptions about the natural world around me. I do see it as alive, with a beauty that can never be described the same way twice. I am truly blessed with those moments of perception.

6/3/10, 11:49 AM

Nebris said...
Hey, I'm ready to bet our future on Soviet technology!!

6/3/10, 12:18 PM

Robin Datta said...
Thanks again, as usual.

For an interesting take on the GOM oil spill (Matt Simmons interviewed on Financial Sense NewsHour podcast):

If the suggestion there of a substantial portion of the oil reserve leaking out comes to pass, one might speculate on earthquakes as well.

Interestingly, there are folks in the medical community that look upon the "placebo effect" as a something of a personality disorder: when testing for efficacy of drugs this effect is taken into consideration as ineffectiveness - a sugar pill is deemed ineffective.

However many "practical" practitioners will take into consideration a patient's "need" for a pill and will prescribe one.

One sees a brisk market for "intellectual pills" in connection with the Peak Energy situation.

6/3/10, 12:46 PM

MisterMoose said...
What is mind? No matter...

What is matter? Never mind...

If you've ever had an argument with a true believer in a particular religion or political philosophy, you'll know that changing someone's belief system is one of the most difficult things you can try to do.

So, is this just the way our brains are wired? Evolution doesn't seem to have a particular destination; it just works with whatever is available. While there are probably perfectly valid reasons why we think the way we do, we are still faced with the reality that emotions often overcome logic, and the lust for power or wealth often make us do things that lead to the kind of mess we are in today.

After living among the natives of this planet for over 6 decades, I have come to the following conclusion:

Just because someone has a sincere and deeply held belief in something does not necessarily mean that what he believes in is true.

This holds for bible-thumping fundamentalists who deny evolution, college professors who still believe in communism, global warming deniers, global warming believers, Ayn Rand libertarians, the Taliban, and just about anyone else you can think of (just read most of what is posted on the Internet if you don't believe me).

Sometimes reality will whomp you upside the head and you'll realize that some of the things you thought were true, just aren't. The current oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico could very well provide just such a whomp. Whether it will be sufficient to change enough minds remains to be seen.

If enough of us have the epiphany about the necessity to change the way we all live, then maybe we can get through the next couple decades with minimum bloodshed and suffering.

Unfortunately, many people will react to the coming changes by ignoring any inconvenient truths that don't match their preconceived notions. Some will go so far as trying to shut up (or, in extreme cases, even kill) anyone who disputes their version of the real truth. The old guys on the reviewing stand in Red Square were pretty good at this. The people who blow themselves up in order to kill infidels in the name of Allah offer another example of this phenomenon.

Magical thinking is only one of the problems facing us. It isn't what we don't know that can hurt us; it's what we do know that is wrong.

6/3/10, 1:22 PM

rbtp said...
The concept of magic as you describe it struck me as similar to the concept of brought forward by the Shuar (Amazonian hunter gathers) as a solution for the problem that is the industrial world. I heard author/activist John Perkins speak on his encounter with the Shuar which I’ll attempt to summarize.

The Shuar believe that giving energy to a dream results in the dream becoming reality. They worked with Perkins to better understand the industrial world, and how to stop it from destroying their habitat. Perkins and team explained the concepts of money, profit, production and the like. The elders returned to him after deliberation with their solution. The problem of the industrialized world was that they had the wrong dream (materialism). To solve the problem, they needed to change the dream.

Giving energy to dreams is like magic; applied variations of consciousness creating changes in the physical world. I find the wisdom of the Shuar deeply meaningful in today’s predicament. Changing the dream is the only way we have to cope with a future of limited resources.

6/3/10, 2:58 PM

tristan said...

Given your definition of magic (from the essay) how would you differentiate between magic (as you defined it) and psychology/counseling/psychotherapy? Or if you want to take it to the social rather then personal level then what is the difference between magic and effective propaganda (communication for behavioral change as it its now called)?


6/3/10, 3:04 PM

pfh said...
There also does seem to be a physical cause of magical thinking, once you clear away the leaves and get down to earth. It's basing your information on your own or other people's information. The validity of information rests on connecting with its complex physical subjects... which don't work by our cultural value system at all.

Obama says "BP should have seen the risks", A Tweet by "shoudaknown" says: Obama asks why BP didn't think through the #consequences... (of feeding an #economy that must always multiply to remain stable!)

I have a short and long pieces on the cause & cures for our culture of magical thinking: "What Wandering Minds Need to Know", & "Models Learning Change". The latter is physics written for general audiences, likely to get published this month. It's on how models (that that have no bounds) can be made responsive to physical systems (that always have bounds beyond the information in their models), and how to define timely response to approaching limits stability as systems approach them.

6/3/10, 3:32 PM

Llewellyn said...
Another great post JMG!
Why some people think that a nuclear warhead is the answer is beyond me, it would probably make the area radioactive for a few thousand years.

But that normally involves influencing beings that bridge the gap between mind and matter – you and me, for example.

You could mention spirit as well, but that may cause some of the more materialistic readers of your post to blow a gasket.
Slightly off topic, what are your thoughts on Daniel Dunglas Home, he is said to have levitated, he was tested dozens of times by committees of sceptics, and also by Sir William Crookes, and was never detected in any attempt at trickery?
I have no religious or rationalistic objection to magic, being pagan.

6/3/10, 4:51 PM

scruff said...
Mr. Greer, on a slightly tangential topic, I keep hearing from various sources that the standard magical methods don't work for people with Asperger's. If you have found this to be the case, can you comment upon what does?

6/3/10, 5:03 PM

Arabella said...
Long time, no comment; I've been reading all along, though. Thank you, JMG, for providing an explicitly Druid take on things and also for illustrating that "embracing poverty" isn't a bad thing.

6/3/10, 6:22 PM

Spirited Raven said...
James Howard Kunstler will, no doubt, appreciate your reference to salad shooters! Keep up the very important work! Your writing cuts through the BS.

6/3/10, 7:19 PM

Richard said...
Gaia's daughter, I'm glad you brought up Hank Wesselman, as I have read the series and found it quite interesting. For those unfamilar with it, it's Hank Wesselman's account of his altered state experiences as well as his thoughts on them. In those experiences he claims to have connected with someone named Nainoa living 5000 years in the future.

Sound crazy yet? I understand if you think so, I'm skeptical too but there are several reasons I think it is his actual experiences. One thing is that he has had his brain tested and it goes into a very unusual state during these experiences, so I can be pretty sure he's not not totally making everything up.

The other reasons are more subtle and that's what I think is relevant to this blog. The books are generally formatted with one chapter on his visions, then one about his thoughts on what just happened as well as other related subjects usually having to do with shamanism and spirituality. What's peculiar is that, despite his written accounts having had to be filtered through his perceptions, I still notice many instances where his perceptions don't quite seem to match his actual experience. Although he's a scientist to start, he ends up buying pretty much conforming to "new ageism" and apocalypticism in his own interpretations, while to me especially after reading JMG, many aspects of Nainoa's world could have come about very differently then he thinks. To me this disconnect actually is an indication that his experiences did not come from his own mind, as if that were the case he probably would have dreamed a world more to his expectations.

For some background, Nainoa's world is California in the future, which is then a tropical climate, and Nainoa is actually Hawaiian (although he has blue eyes so the Hawaiians then are geneticaly descended from the diversity of people there now), in this future the Hawaiians colonized California which was empty of people when they arrived. They do have old vague accounts that describe the collapse of our civilization as sudden, which leads Wesselman to apocalypticism, but as JMG has pointed out, events that actually takes place over long periods to someone living then are later thought of as sudden events, and also the collapse I think would be more likely to be rapid in Hawaii than elsewhere because of it's so far from anywhere and still dependent on so much imports. The collapse would have to end up worse in the end than JMGs scenarios, for the West Coast to become totally depopulated for example, but it could still take place along similar lines.

Also, Nainoa's world is no utopia, Wesselman does paint it in a good light in some ways, although he's dismayed at the loss of mush or our knowledge, but there's still conflict (at the beginning of Spiritwalker Nainoa has to flee sttackers to his settlement), and it's not what your average new-ager thinks of as his dream world.

There's a lot more I could say about this subject but don't want to take up too much comment space, but I'll conclude that even Wesselman states that he doesn't think the future is set in stone, that he's seen one possibility. Who knows, maybe it's a "parallel universe". And I'm still a skeptic too, but I do think it's a book worth reading for yourself, even if you end up thinking it's total hogwash.

6/3/10, 8:14 PM

John Michael Greer said...
Adrian, you're quite correct. Serious magical practice is very close in its basic structure and approach to serious Vajrayana Buddhist practice, or to some of the more structured Christian mystical disciplines. The language as well as the forms differ, and so do some of the applications, but there's a lot of common ground.

Koho, yes, I read the same article about Nigeria, and don't find it hard to believe at all. One of the secrets of catabolic collapse is that we've been exporting collapse to the Third World as a way to avoid facing it here at home.

Andy, if anything, it'll be that ability that saves as many of us as can or will be saved.

Bill, one of the reasons that I prefer Fortune's definition is that it provides focus. Of course it's possible to define magic so broadly that every intentional act is magical -- but at that point you've lost sight of the fact that there's a very specific set of techniques and philosophy, historically known as magic, that allows you to do some remarkable things with consciousness and intention.

Keifus, read it, and then read it again. Most people don't catch the huge implications of Kuhn's work on the first reading.

Garage, it's not the ones who hold onto the Cross that worry me, it's the ones that see the human ego and its toys as the be-all and end-all of existence.

Ariel, you're most welcome.

Pgrass, science is a source of prestige in modern society, so people treat it as they do any other form of prestige. The sad thing about that is that much of the potential of science as a way of knowing gets lost in the shuffle.

Colonel, you're certainly right that worshipping ourselves and ignoring our dependence on nature is a recipe for disaster! By magical thinking, though, I mean two different things; first, the common meaning of the phrase, which is believing that wanting something will make it happen; second, the kind of thinking that mages actually do, which is a good deal subtler -- and, I suggest, saner.

Steven, there's very little specifically on magical theory in print; in most worthwhile books on magic, you get bits of the theory mixed in with lots of practical training, and a great deal of the theory is expressed in symbolic terms and has to be "unpacked" in study and meditation. (Dion Fortune's major work on magical theory, The Cosmic Doctrine, is written entirely in the form of a symbolic cosmogony and doesn't appear to be about theory at all.) You might try my book Learning Ritual Magic for a theory-dense primer, or The Druid Magic Handbook for a similar text written specifically for Druids.

Rodney, see my comment to Garage above.

Professor, it's definitely another topic and probably another blog. I don't see abstract ideal justice as something that can be achieved in a human social setting, but there's a long conversation in explaining why that is.

6/3/10, 8:28 PM

John Michael Greer said...
Girl, it's happened many times, and apparently for many different reasons. This is not a stable planet!

Nebris, tell me that when you've driven a Trabant.

Robin, a "personality disorder" that can cure organic diseases -- and the placebo effect has been repeatedly shown to do this -- is hardly something to dismiss in such terms!

Moose, excellent. You get tonight's gold star for recognizing that evolution isn't progress, and doesn't have a goal or a destination. You'd be amazed -- or maybe you wouldn't be -- how many people miss that.

Rbtp, the Shuar are right, of course. I suspect they haven't realized, though, that anyone could be so unsophisticated as to forget that their dream is a dream, and mistake it for reality. No tribal hunter gatherer would be that dense; it takes an advanced civilization to produce people so naive about the inside of their own heads.

Tristan, therapy's done by one person, the therapist, for another, the patient, for the purpose of helping the patient fit into a dysfunctional society. Magic is done by the mage, for the mage, for the purpose of transcending the dysfunctions of society. That's the short form, but it's pretty close.

Phil, that's a good point. Thanks for the links!

Llewellyn, I'm an agnostic when it comes to any apparent violation of natural law that I haven't actually witnessed. I don't fall into the logical fallacy of "extraordinary claims require extraordinary proof" -- it amazes me that people who claim to respect reason would use such an obvious bit of special pleading; I simply want to see it myself.

Scruff, I have Aspergers, and I've never had any trouble at all using standard magical techniques. Neither have other Aspies I know -- in fact, the Aspergers tendency toward mental hyperfocus and tolerance of solitude seem to give Aspies, on average, an easier time becoming capable mages than neurotypical people have.

Arabella, welcome back! I find that deliberately embracing poverty is a very effective way to make my own life simpler and more comfortable; the less stuff you have, the less stuff you have to worry about.

Raven, thank you. I got the example from him, of course!

6/3/10, 8:55 PM

Bill Pulliam said...
JMG -- I've evolved over the decades from a more ceremonial magic approach towards a rather thoroughly animistic philosphy of magic, so I have no real problem with a definition that could be seen to include every act as a magical one. That does not mean I don't recognize the powerful and special nature of particularly heightened or opened or relaxed or dissociated or projected or whatever states of consciousness achieved willfully through specific practices, it just all feels more like a continuum to me. Maybe though that is just a product of having been doing this stuff for so many decades that it all feels thoroughly natural now, even the stuff that some might class as "supernatural" (as if there could be anything in the universe that is not natural). Or maybe it's that dissociate tripple conjunction straddling the 1st house cusp in my natal chart...

Which leads me to two perhaps more directly relevant tangents...

The thought occurs to me that ceremonial magical practices are generally associated with city-state societies aren't they? As opposed to every-act-is-a-magical-act traditions that seem more connected to agrarian and hunter-gatherer societies. Well, except, I guess traditional shamanic practices in some cultures can be about as high ceremony as anything, and are often embedded within every-act-is-a-spiritual-act worldviews, so never mind on that idea... I do know for myself the desire for structured ritual decreased dramatically when I personally switched to a rural life from an urban one, so I'm probably just projecting. Still, I wonder if more ritualized and overtly willful practices might be particularly helpful, appealing, and effective for minds that are products of urban western societies, especially for introducing the concepts, practices, and experiences to those who become interested but have not previously thought in these terms.

Finally, about the laws of nature -- I am convinced that real magic never breaks natural laws. It works through them. Sometimes it appears to tweak the probabilities, but unlikely is not unnatural. And even that might be a matter of perception rather than statistically verifiable reality; still, the impacts are no less powerful.

As an addendum, I just remembered with a chuckle a mystery initiation ritual I once performed for a college group. We went through the ceremony of purification and challenging, I lead them down into the underworld (which some might have thought strongly resembled our crawlspace), and revealed the sacred object to them that embodied the fundamental nature of life, death and rebirth -- the Compost Pile. Dunno how many left enlightened, but you can't force the great truths on the unready!

6/3/10, 10:27 PM

William T said...
JMG - "The Earth's temperature jumped 15 degrees F. in less than a decade at the end of the last ice age"

I don't believe that it is possible to claim this as a "fact" - for one thing the temporal resolution of the temperature records from that time do not allow such precision. Also, the TOTAL change in average global temperature between the ice age and now is a bit less than 15 degrees F.

6/4/10, 3:26 AM

Cherokee Organics said...

Much goes on in peoples minds and in their actions that is largely unacknowledged consciously. This is often seen in the effectiveness of advertising. It cannot be denied, because it works.

I saw some magic at work this week whereby a group of people tried a strategy against me (perhaps unknowingly, but they judged the situation poorly) that backfired against them. I feel that I have come away with additional mojo at their expense. This for me is magic and it has even perhaps changed their perspectives and world views. Well, I can only hope so anyway...

As to the internet, I think a lot of people use it to assuage their guilt at what they are knowingly (perhaps subconsciously) doing to this wondrous planet and their fellow animals. Most people talk more than the sum of their actions. I can only hope that one day they may stop talking and start doing something productive and less harmful. I don't worry about these things though as nature will sort it out regardless.

Good luck!

6/4/10, 3:26 AM

divelly said...
1."Technology sufficiently advanced is indistinguishable from magic."
Arthur Clarke
2.Levitation:A panel of physicists,chemists and engineers witnessing this would collectively scratch their heads,but show it to a practitioner of leger de main and it will be replicated at once.
3. For an example of current unconscious sympathetic magic,just travel to any rural area of the USA and notice all the bullet holes in the deer crossing signs.

6/4/10, 4:39 AM

mxyzptlk said...
JMG, you're completely justified in considering what you do much closer to rationalism than starting from a conclusion like "material wealth will continue to accrue indefinitely" and gathering what facts one can find to support that. In fact, I shared one of your blog articles with Michael Vassar, the president of the Singularity Institute for Artificial Intelligence and a helluva rationalist; and he was impressed--wondered if there was any possible areas for collaboration.

One more bit of rationalist evidence:

> Striking a rebellious pose and claiming originality is very fashionable these days; actually rejecting the conventional wisdom of our time, and thinking thoughts that conflict with those of one’s contemporaries, is less common now than it was in the supposedly conformist Fifties.

This brings to mind a comment by Eliezer Yudkowsky, the founder of SIAI:

"...dissent doesn't feel like going to school dressed in black. It feels like going to school wearing a clown suit."

6/4/10, 4:55 AM

das monde said...
A very nice explanation, JMG! There are enough people thinking like you. What power do we have?

I do not wish to bring Toffler very often, but his influential shock-futurology was a (somewhat obscured but big) factor in the mass psychology of dismissing nature and technology limits. Say, this week I found at the conservative NRO an explanation that the word “Gingrichian” must mean a future-shocky optimism about markets and technology — not a stern-faced call for going back to the Old Ways of Doing Things..

The remarkable thing is that Toffler’s books were not particularly hyped, but the underlying philosophy of embracing technological, corporate, governmental and other changes basically dominates the development of global and local societies. It succeeds where many (Commun)isms failed. The package of embracing accelerating novelty, transience was accepted briskly in Eastern Europe and all other freed worlds, in particular. It is accepted as common economic and social wisdom everywhere, without direct opposition. Is shock-futurology not a surrogate magical formula for the masses of this time?

The accelerating change does have a technological basis, but I conjecture that it is rather deliberatively leveraged. If certain elite powers are confidently steering the world to their liking, the shock-futurology must be their magical-psychological tool.

The question of how much people can cope and adopt to the hectic change misses a big point. To my understanding, virtually any amount of novelty and change is comfortable if a person is motivated, has immediate successes and particular goals. But if these ingredients are missing, change is hell. And this has social implications - the culture of hectic change is a heavy differentiator between creative innovators and the rest. Besides, even if people can cope with continuous job changes, endless corporate or social reforms, they are distracted enough not to see how much they are loosing. As you know, blue collar wages had been shamelessly decreasing, social traditions and symbols destroyed, environment neglected. With so much blinding change, who will complain of gone Caribbean, deplorable use of military power, massive political shifts, or angry mob violence?

Perhaps human nature is indeed irresponsible towards the supporting environment, and the civilization would be piloting towards an abyss under any practical utopia. But this well-defined suicidal mass psychology of innovation embracing “capitalism” is particularly unfortunate, whether it is emergent or managed outright. When it comes to (individual or societal) adaptation, change tempo and available time matter a lot. Just as financial markets finally collapse after short periods of madly dubious financial schemes, civilizations probably make their last few steps when they catch a singular virus of endless “inevitable” change.

6/4/10, 5:16 AM

Robert C. Guy said...
"...I have Aspergers..." My initial reaction was my usual feeling of rebellion that wells up in me when anyone uses the labels that psychiatrists and the like give. When I was in 3rd/4th grade in foster care I was defined as quite obsessive compulsive and suffering of attention deficit disorder and other things and given rather large pills to take. Grades plummeted. It did little for the symptoms. It wasn't until years later I read that the o.c.d. and a.d.d., like so many other psychological labels, were labels for groups of common symptoms collected together and not associated with exclusive, specific, identifiable causes that could be directly altered in defined ways which would bring about new fruit. I was taken off the pills (at my mother's insistence I believe) and after thorough testing by a lead teacher at the school I was attending while in foster care I was taken from the 'behavior improvement program' (the class with the room with the padded walls and bubble windows that they could lock a child in if they got too violently out of hand) and put into the class of children for advanced learning. I do not equate the ability to regurgitate information with being a better person but it is interesting to me to review the life gone by and observe the change in their interpretation of my compatibility with society as a whole and thus my prescribed labels and chemicals intended to alter my mind until I seemed conveniently compatible with accepted assumptions (so called common sense) and habits. The thought, taking so very much less time to think than to try and encode in words for transmission through media of written communication, passed in a second or two through what I suppose is my mind and I said (to the image of you in my thoughts) "If people are going to go along and employ labels like that then they might as well say they are possessed by or channeling spirits or be suffering from polluted chakra or (pause) or I suppose they really might as well say that they are possessed of Aspergers, suffering from Aspergers, compatible with the label of Aspergers or in whatever way they choose to communicate that collection of commonly associated symptoms." Perhaps you said it, perhaps I read it elsewhere, but I recall now a description of psychologists and the like in modern society that drew an interesting parallel between the positions those individuals seem to occupy in the movements of this society and the positions of priests and other keepers of the dominant faiths of ages gone by. If other druids I might meet along life's way might regularly inspire the (for lack of a better word) images, in my mind, that you do, then I should eagerly undertake the pursuit of their association. I am grateful for your regular communication here; even last night after again reviewing your previous post and its associated interchange of ideas (along with the dozens of other articles read and portions of a book on geomancy, a book on sacred geometry, reading the AODA's First Degree Curriculum, listening to a lecture by Noam Chomsky, and other explorations) I thought of the situation of the oil in the gulf and oil's relationship to our society and a thought rolled by regarding seemingly common symbolism of certain colors "Black is often portrayed as evil, undesirable, simply not good; I recall reading an article that addressed in some detail the possibility that the probable roots of black and white are the same, both simply associated with the absence of color; I remember Wade Davis saying in a talk of ancient cultures and referring to a particular group '...this is a people who cognitively do not distinguish the color blue from the color green because the canopy of the heavens is equated to the canopy of the forest upon which the people depend...' and I thought 'the darkness of night is perhaps not in itself evil for being black but the absence of light in that darkness often fails to illuminate.'" Thank you for casting light in so many places.

6/4/10, 6:14 AM

Bill Pulliam said...
I'd like to delve a bit more into the Aspergers thing; this post dealing as it does with consciousness, will, focus, and symbolism seems like one of the more appropriate occasions to address this. Aspies are a moderately large subset of the population, and have an influence and importance disproportionate to their raw population numbers in many fundamental areas of society, such as art, science, and technology. It seems absurd, really, to characterize this mode of brain operation as a "disorder" when it contributes so profoundly to the Great Human Endeavor. For the record, I am not an Aspy, to the surprise of my friends I test out with an AQ of about 18 which is deep within the neurotypical range. But I think I earned most of those 18 points on the science-geek questions rather than the social behavior questions, which has always lead me into places like Academia and the Internet that often seem like global Asperger's conventions! So I am extremely familiar with the Aspy Way and all its myriad variations.

One thing I have noted is that many Aspies are particularly drawn to structured ritual, ceremony, and costume. On beyond the engineering labs and blogs, some places I have noted a higher predominance of the Aspy Mind are in religious communities (mainstream and alternative), SCA-RennFaire-LARP-etc. activities, and, interestingly, the Leather-BD-SM-DS-etc. sexual fetish communities. So, I can see that the affection for ritual and the ability to concentrate intently on an object of focus would be great draws to and advantages in ritual magical practices.

But another common trait of those born to the Aspy Way is less clear to me how it interacts with this stuff: the pervasive tendency towards literalism. One of the common quirks of many of my Aspy friends is that they tend to stub a toe when the path of the conversation takes a sudden turn into analogy or metaphor. This literalism is often fodder for Aspy humor, such as "You bought a hot water heater? Why does your hot water need to be heated?" I really wonder how this Literalism works in systems of myth and magic that are built almost entirely out of symbols and metaphors. Clearly this is not a high barrier, but I wonder if a "typical" Aspy (another non-existent beast) processes these symbols and metaphors in a fundamentally different way that does the "typical" neurotypical (yes, I know, that's a redundancy, another thing the Aspy Mind is often especially sensitive to). It's common for Aspies and NTs as broad groups to handle concepts in fundamentally different ways; I'd expect this is another of those instances, and it would definitely be relevant when conversing about these topics across the Aspy-NT line.

By the way, JMG, not to overpersonalize this, but in our brief face-to-face time and much more extensive online interactions, I have not actually seen this literalism strongly in you. In your writing you revel in metaphor, symbol, and analogy, you don't trip over them at all. But, as I think about it, it also seems that the infrequent instances in which you and I seriously butt heads on a topic, it is usually within this realm.

6/4/10, 6:31 AM

hapibeli said...
Lovely post! Thanks and looking forward to your incantation...

6/4/10, 7:29 AM

Anna M. Helvie, RM/T said...
Another great post. John, several people have probably already told you about this book, but "just in case:" there was an author, economist Juliet Schor, on NPR's Diane Rhem Show yesterday morning. She's written a book called "Plenitude: The New Economics of True Wealth" that, from the hour-long discussion, echoes many of the practical points you make in this blog: downscale; get hold of your own time; domestic economy; etc. I haven't yet read it and don't know if she works with the peak oil concept, but I found it interesting (and wonderful) to hear these ideas being discussed in a full hour in a mainstream media outlet. Much spluttering and squawking ensued about the impossibility of her ideas, but to me that shows that they hit a nerve. Thank you, Anna Helvie

6/4/10, 8:40 AM

Gwendolyn said...
Theater of the Absurd is a companion to Magical Thinking in this oil spill. The beach "clean up" is a carefully orchestrated farce, at least in some places, designed for consumption by mass media and its audience. My brother-in-law has been photographing the scenes on the ground and from a low-flying lightweight what-ever-you-call-it.

If you're interested:

6/4/10, 9:12 AM

spottedwolf said...
the part I find most amusing is exactly as stated in my former comment on the prior wit; " we cannot emotionally cope with the speed of our technology".
A simple statement built on the fundamental flaw in our ability to create.
Though 'magical mages' claim extravagant abilities throughout history....usually after the is a fact......that everything beyond nakedly gobbling up leaves and bugs a product of man's ability to draw images from experience and connect experiment to conclusion. The flaw of this ability lays, of course, in our inability to thoroughly guage our creation's aftermath. Modern man has moved with such techno-speed that we do NOT learn from our past.... in the same way a 'mage' can pick and choose through success and failures....after the make a claim. We are bold liars 1 and all....the fallacy of anthropocentricity. ;-)

6/4/10, 10:33 AM

Flanagan said...
What is your take on New Falcon Pubs authors, I wonder? (Aleister Crowley, Robert Anton Wilson, Christopher Hyatt, etc)

6/4/10, 10:50 AM

Joel said...
As a scientist, I can assure you that Michael Crichton's depictions of "scientific thinking" are almost as offensive as J. K. Rowling's depictions of magic. His scientists never seem to publish anything, or to otherwise tap into the power of peer review.

To pick one book, any basic knowledge of nanotechnology or of ecology makes "Prey" about as implausible as flying to the moon on a giant test tube, but I can excuse all the errors regarding technical facts. The real problem in my opinion is his Bizarro-world representation of transparency and authority in the social aspects of science.

So yes, I can really sympathize.

6/4/10, 11:24 AM

andrewbwatt said...

Nicely done. As someone about two years into the mages' kind of magical thinking project (performing daily ritual and exercises designed to bring about changes in consciousness) I must say that it's incredibly useful both to seeing the world anew, and seeing through its more typical deceits.

If some of your readers are thinking about doing the Druidry Handbook or the Ritual Magic book, if may be instructive to have an oustide endorsement: after the first year of honest practice, you'll be more honest, more physically and emotionally flexible, less personally ambitious but more practically goal-oriented, less angry, more balanced, more serene, less nervous, more social, less materialistic, more open and ethical. At least you'll see yourself that way.

Moreover the techniques are general purpose -- you'll find that they're useful at work and in church and at outdoor barbecues and at the local coffee house or bar (though drinking and smoking seem to lose a lot of their luster).

6/4/10, 11:39 AM

Meg said...
Something I thought you would appreciate, regarding being in denial about the state of the world:

6/4/10, 3:29 PM

Wordek said...
I note that the the title of your essay in XVI begins “The Shape of Time”,
This reminded me of a challenge I once set myself: To construct a perspective where time travel is impossible. Essentially I concluded that what we refer to as time is like the markings on a ruler. Not a thing or dimension in and of itself, but merely useful as a measure of something else (that something else being defined for the purpose of this hypothesis, as the shape of the universe) So “time passing” is merely a reference to shape change.
The past exists only as echoes or fossils in the shape of now. “Been” and “will be” are just references to marks on our ruler “here and now”. There is no “forth dimension”, no past anywhere for us to travel to and no shortcuts to the future. Billy Pilgrim was just dreaming after all.

Now before you say anything I know this hypothesis is only relevant to the material plane ;)

“As for global climate change, my take is that it's clearly happening, at least partly because of human pollution, but that it's a good deal less unusual than current rhetoric suggests”
“I used to be convinced of MMCC and have gained a healthy scepticism”

Agreed: I first became aware of the theory of anthropogenic climate change about the same time as peak oil. Late 70's early 80's. Researched what was current about both topics at the time and came to the conclusion that oil should be conserved during an ongoing process of developing and implementing other energy sources, and that a long term investment ( ballpark 80 years) in climate modelling would possibly begin to produce the core components of one of humanity's greatest triumphs in our understanding of this complex and mysterious physical world.
And what did we get less than 30 yrs later? Cow farts make world too hot! Run em over in your hummer!!
A sense of humour is indispensable. Fortunately, peak absurdity is not yet on the horizon.

“ I don't think that we got our current materialistic paradigm because it's objectively better than the alternatives”
You could from a particular perspective explain human history as a technological arms race. Since its hard to whack someone over the head with an idea and have them stay down, the most aggressive and clever exploiters of any important material resource usually get the whacking stick that gives them the edge. But then of course most materials are finite and this race has no finish line.... positions change..wax and wane.

Aspergers and neurotypicality
The labelling of people as aspergian (did I just invent a word?), is simply a manifestation of psychologys myth of the standard human. Essentially in order to fix broken people psych-xxx's need models of what broken and working people look like so that they know when to act and when they have succeeded. But their models (of people and culture) suffer from paucity.
I could possibly be convinced to pity them their positions, but they seem to be fairly well paid so.. what the hey..

“tell me that when you've driven a Trabant”
Now theres a bomb you could plug a well with!

6/4/10, 7:59 PM

Wordek said...
Hi divelly

“Levitation:A panel of physicists,chemists and engineers witnessing this would collectively scratch their heads”

Imagination begets manifestation …. So scratch no more...

Shanghai Maglev Train

6/4/10, 10:53 PM

hapibeli said...
Got this email from my brother tonight. "Magic" indeed?

BP Oil Spill, Beach Charade

Grand Isle, LA - May 29, 2010

The President came and went, along with most of the media. I am reminded of a toilet: the bowl filled, business was done, the handle pushed and all the flashing blue lights, black SUVs and media flushed right out of town.

The school buses return. They had to. Last night I watched a BP spokesman on CBS defend this farcical clean-up, promising they would be back. They are.

Yet, today's beach clean-up effort is the most ridiculous waste of manpower I have ever witnessed, truly unbelievable, an immense joke, funded by British Petroleum.

As you scroll through these images, I challenge you to find one spot of oil. Look hard at the pure white hazmat suits, the cute yellow or white booties. See any muck on them? Anywhere? Look hard, very hard, for any oily sheen reflecting from the pool of water, surrounded by a picnic-like atmosphere.

This beach is cleaner than it has ever been. There is nothing there at all. It is completely sterile of the usual flotsam and jetsam, of seaweed, and of oil. There is nothing on it. Yet, I estimate there are at least a thousand paid workers, making $12-18 an hour, drifting and dawdling, with no purpose or direction on roughly six miles of beach. Yet, right nearby are islands covered with oily slicks to which no one is even paying attention.

So here I am on Grand Isle, surveying this fiasco. I carry no press credentials, emblems or logos, nor pretend to be other than some white dude taking pictures.

Apart from a few brave souls, these BP hired clean-up workers are under strict instructions not to speak to the press (which I am not). Within seconds of shooting as many images as possible, I am intercepted by white, paramilitary-cop-wanna-bees, who snap and growl to the workers to, quote, "shut the fuck up and say nothing".

Personally, I say nothing at all and continue shooting, filming their fake-bullshit badges, Rent-A-Cop black t-shirts and quasi-Special-Forces logos. The badges, I note, say nothing official, no county name, no badge number, not even a reference to BP. They appear to be just internet-purchase costumery.

They turn their heads, these wanna-bees, mumbling into Walmart walkie-talkies and eventually storming off in embarrassment. They have no authority what-so-ever. This is a total BP sham. Several times I am told to leave the beach as ‘it is under military control', yet no military is present. When I politely press them about this ridiculous contradiction, they fumble for an answer.

When I do leave the beach, the local (and very real) cops just smile and wave. They know who I am and what I'm doing.

The lack of Port-a-potties for this huge work force is nauseatingly apparent. Next to the main parking lot is a private campground, where the huge work force has been forced to relieve themselves. To quote a local, "It smells like a goddamn hog pen."

I challenge you, one more time, to look for the tiniest spots of oil or any BP logo and I ask, Why, if the company is called ‘British Petroleum', are the proud and productive clean-up crews sporting stars and stripes hat-ribbons?

6/4/10, 11:06 PM

bryant said...
3. For an example of current unconscious sympathetic magic,just travel to any rural area of the USA and notice all the bullet holes in the deer crossing signs.

OK Divelly, I did indeed LOL. I am presently in northern Nevada running a sample program, and the trip to my field area includes an antelope crossing sign with bullet holes. Touché.

6/5/10, 8:47 AM

John Michael Greer said...
Bill, I don't know that there's any important distinction between urban and tribal cultures when it comes to complex systems of ritual magic. Some of the First Nations here in America, for example, have ritual systems of immense complexity and richness, easily as intricate as anything you'll find in Western ceremonial magic. As for the compost mysteries, though, that's excellent -- I've long argued that modern Pagans might usefully take up the old practice of making offerings to the earth deities, using a compost bin as the appropriate altar.

Cherokee, no question, nature will sort things out. I'd prefer that she do it in a way that doesn't involve mass dieoff.

William, check the data from Greenland ice cores. The reason why we're not 15 degrees F. above ice age temperatures is that things have cooled off considerably since the post-glacial hypsithermal (the period right after the ice age, when global temperatures were about where they'll be when anthropogenic global warming crests).

Divelly, that's a great example!

Mxyzptlk, I confess to knowing absolutely nothing about SIAI, and the terms "singularity" and "artificial intelligence" tend to make me roll my eyes -- there's such a huge amount of covertly religious mythology around those concepts these days! Still, if you (and Dr. Vassar) think there's common ground, a conversation could well be worthwhile; I can be reached via info (at) aoda (dot) com.

Das Monde, good. Tofflerism is arguably the most popular theology of the religion of progress these days, and you're quite right that it's been accepted blindly even by people whose previous experience with triumphalist ideologies should have made them think twice.

Robert, understood. Still, I use labels such as "Aspergers" because they make certain kinds of communication a bit easier; I can sum up a lot of the things that set me apart from a lot of my contemporaries by that term, and it also helps signal other people with the same set of differences that I have some idea what they're talking about.

Bill, learning not to be overly literal was a long process for me, and it took a great deal of study of fields where symbol, metaphor, and analogy are right up there in the foreground -- in particular, ceremonial magic, which uses those as core working tools -- to get some facility with them. It's rather like learning to handle casual conversation; what comes very naturally to most other people can be learned through practice and focused study by Aspies.

Hapibeli, thank you!

Anna, no, I hadn't heard about that book yet. Thanks for the reference; I'll check it out.

Gwendolyn, I'm very interested -- and have passed this on to some other people in the peak oil scene.

Wolf, true enough. The real mage is willing to run the risk of giving advice in advance, though.

Flanagan, depends on the author, and the book. I'm not a Crowley fan, though.

Joel, that's fascinating to hear! Though I probably shouldn't be surprised. I've argued for a long time that serious mages need to have a solid familiarity with scientific method, as it happens; I don't know how much likelihood there is that scientists will ever get familiar with the basics of magic, but it's to be hoped for -- there's a good deal more to be talked about there than most people in either tradition tend to recognize.

Andrew, thank you. As you know, it's in doing the daily work that the rubber actually meets the road.

Meg, thanks for the link!

Wordek, I should have guessed you were a Sub-Genius. Hail "Bob," and all that.

Hapibeli, this is what Gwendolyn was mentioning up above. Magic? Of an inept and self-defeating kind. I'll likely be discussing this in next week's post.

Bryant, we've got plenty of pierced signs here in western Maryland, too!

6/5/10, 11:39 AM

Elzibah127 said...
"Magical Thinking" is GREAT and I am so pleased to have found your blog. I am mortified that I was one of those people who were looking for our technological "prowess" to get us out of this fix and not thinking through what could happen.
Do you still teach cabala by correspondence?
Bring on the counterspell! And thank you.

6/5/10, 12:44 PM

Wordek said...
Hi Divelly & Bryant
“and notice all the bullet holes in the deer crossing signs.”
I used to work for a company that had bullet holes in the company logo mounted up on top of the building (well they looked like bullet holes). Should I have been more worried than amused?

Aleister Crowley
You may have already guessed that Im no student of magic so everything I know about this feller was picked up while looking at other things.
Was Crowley a spy? He went to Cambridge when The Great Game was in progress, and warfare isnt always about guns, gadgets and uniforms.
In interpreting history its prudent to be on the lookout for bias from the subject, the context, the historical commentators and yourself, but from my limited perspective, Im inclined to believe that not all of Crowleys actual motives were as they may have been described by himself or others.

On a lighter note: I dont know if this next story is true or not, Its not exactly as I recall it from years ago but it will have to do.

---The man and his friend went dining. Halfway through their meal in a nice restaurant, the door flew open and a large bald man wrapped dramatically in a cloak stalked in. He proceeded to swoop up to various diners, grab food from their plates, eat it, and move on to other tables.

Most astonishingly NO ONE paid him any attention and continued talking as though nothing were amiss. The stranger swooped down on the man and took some of his food, then helped himself to more at the next table. After a bit, he left the dining room, all without one person making a fuss.

The man asked his friend, "WHO the bloody hell was that madman!?"
His unruffled friend said, "Oh, that's just Aleister Crowley. He thinks he's invisible."---

“Magic” or showmanship, truth or legend, thats “Deep Cover” done Crowley style!

“I should have guessed you were a Sub-Genius.”
Me? Naaa... Thats just an old head I had strapped to my saddle.... ;)

6/5/10, 6:55 PM

Houyhnhnm said...
JMG said, "Serious magical practice is very close in its basic structure and approach to serious Vajrayana Buddhist practice, or to some of the more structured Christian mystical disciplines. The language as well as the forms differ, and so do some of the applications, but there's a lot of common ground."

When I read Learning Ritual Magic, I felt the common ground. This practice shares much with classical horsemanship, e.g. Oliveira, Podhajsky, and Belasik. It also didn't surprise me that I met Chogyam Trungpa in a horse barn.

Horses are creatures of ritual, and good trainers are too. For example, several years ago a new student arrived a bit early. The horses were still out, so I summoned my Arab and TB geldings. They were almost a quarter of a mile away, grazing in spring grass. When they heard my whistle, their heads popped up. When they cantered up the hill to us, my new student said, "You're a witch!"


6/5/10, 7:31 PM

Thardiust said...
There’s actually an interesting free book by Jeff Vail which explains how when one entity influences another, a chain reaction of dynamic and connected events ensues.

6/5/10, 8:36 PM

Thardiust said...
Here's the link-

6/5/10, 8:39 PM

spottedwolf said...
John..." the real mage is willing to run the risk of giving advice first"

Welcome to my world little brother, its a fine task you've chosen. As far as magic, power, intention, channeling ..... their fallacies and realities.....subjects I discussed at length for a year and a half on my website to offer experiential insight.

and I love the "compost heap altar" for it certainly fits nicely within the profile of my most sacred of iconic Suzanne.

6/5/10, 9:06 PM

K said...
Look at this article in the front section of this Sunday's New York Times re: the peak-oil scene and "life after oil":

6/5/10, 10:42 PM

Cherokee Organics said...
Hi all,

I've been thinking about magic since I read this weeks entry. It's not normally the sort of thing that gets a lot of attention from me.

However, as I said, it got me thinking along the lines of "how (as a society) did our dreams become so small?". At what point did we swap trinkets and stuff for community and what have we lost in doing so?

I'd appreciate any and all thoughts on this subject, because it does seem to me that (as a society) we have had some pretty heavy magic put onto us all. But again, is that sort of thinking an attempt to allocate blame elsewhere? It can be quite a circular argument, because you have to work out at what point you try to extract yourself from the carousel that is society?

I've read much about marketing and human communications in an attempt to personally move away from the collective apathy and denial that seems to be such a strong presence in society. It's not the easy path though. Much respect to all.

Good luck!

6/6/10, 2:49 AM

Twilight said...
"The plan is not meant to happen. It’s meant to dispel the profoundly troubling sense that the future is spinning out of control and there’s not actually all that much that we can do about it."

I've been noticing this effect too, but had not really thought through what was happening - thanks for presenting it from this point of view. It helps to understand how people can so easily ignore what is visible all around them.

This is why I've grown tired of talking about peak oil - peak oil is here, and all the plans and coulda shoulda woulda ideas are just incantations as you describe.

They're simply a way of saying "this scares me and I don't want to believe it, so I'll cling to this delusion instead". But these schemes are largely not happening, and they will not have the impact or effects their proponents imagine.

The only peak oil discussions I engage in anymore are with those who have not heard about it or not thought about it. Once they get past that stage then usually the incantations to ward off the unpleasant thoughts come out.

I think this effect is greatly in evidence on the TOD threads on the oil spill, where many new members are discussing the technical aspects of the gusher while totally deflecting any thoughts about the connections to peak oil. It's just a technical issue you see, a couple of guys who didn't follow proper procedures or cut corners for profit.

6/6/10, 6:48 AM

mxyzptlk said...
JMG, thanks--I will try for some contact. You may be surprised; even people who've spent their lives drawing cartoons about video games have begun to realize what you've been telling us:

> I'm fairly certain that playing videogames has given me unrealistic expectations when it comes to solving real problems. Independent of the scenario - a race of ravenous sentient robots, a wife lost in the folds of a parenthetical metanarrative, and so on - I can be expected to deliver a satisfactory resolution in twenty hours or less. More than satisfactory, in fact. I will recalibrate your entire concept of success as it relates to human endeavor.

> I might leave a crack somewhere in the proceedings, something to allow for a sequel, sure - Navajo rugs, and so forth. But this oil thing exists at a point beyond my ability to usefully file it in my mind. I have a naive, quasi-religious faith in the capacity of people to resolve problems, borne of three decades plowed into interactive power fantasies and utopian science fiction. It's left me more or less paralyzed by the world-as-it-is.

-- Tycho, Penny Arcade

SIAI actually isn't trying to build an AI; they're working on things they think must be done beforehand. One of these is improving the art of human rationality, through sites like and local community groups.

Many of the heuristics and cognitive shortcuts evolution built into us break down disastrously in a modern environment, and lead to things like the status quo bias. You may consider it a quixotic quest, but they'd like to increase the number of humans who can reason successfully about situations normally eclipsed by our biases.

Oh, and yes--I'm named for an old comic character, Superman's 5th-dimensional trickster-god-archetype foe.

6/6/10, 8:07 AM

pfh said...
What K said about the "peak oil" article in the Times ( demonstrates another relevant point or two about "magical thinking".

The Times, as always, listed the various popular debating points that popular authors have been bringing up, in the interest of free speech I guess. It skipped the common analytical approach of looking for what the disparate views might have in common, like the strong evidence that "peak cheap oil" is the actual thing in short supply. You'd think in a review article like that they might raise the question of how a whole civilization designed to operate on cheap oil would even support it's overhead, let alone grow by leaps and bounds, when that's gone. But no.

Also glaringly missing was the clear connection between all the "peak this and that's" with "peak money" and how relieving one or an other peak resource constraint for economic sustainability is a very thinly disguised intent to continue multiplying money, forever. That of course pushes "ever higher peak anything" till on balance there's no money left to be made by any means.

Keynes, Boulding and I have spent the better part of a century persistently pointing to the natural certainty of that as the default nature limit of money in a market economy... not to bother anyone of course with realities when cultural ideology has a more friendly ring.

Anybody's free to chime in!!

6/6/10, 3:35 PM

John Michael Greer said...
Elzibah, now that's a blast from the past! No, the old correspondence course on the Cabalistic magic of the Golden Dawn was turned into my first book back in 1996. These days I teach a number of things by correspondence and otherwise, but that's not one of them.

Wordek, the details vary, but yes, that's one of the classic Crowley stories. He was actually a very minor figure in his own time; his posthumous popularity is almost entirely a product of the fact that he appealed to the Sixties mentality, which saw him as a sort of proto-hippie.

Houyhnhnm, that's fascinating. I know exactly nothing about classical horsemanship, but I've noticed that magical training and martial arts training (in which I do have some experience) have very striking parallels; it may be that any discipline that seeks to work with wordless realities comes to have a similar structure.

Thardiust, most interesting! Thanks for the link.

Wolf, it's been part of my job description for a decade now.

K, the wall of denial is starting to crack in a big way; the Times' snide attitude is the last defense before panic sets in.

Cherokee, it's a long and very complex story, woven out of the interaction between the scientific revolution and the natural process of increasing abstraction that, as Vico points out, is inseparable from the ripening of a civilization toward its death. One way to talk about it is to think of it as a magical spell; another is to use the old story of Faust, and ask how and when we collectively sold our soul for a short period of worldly omnipotence. More on this later.

Twilight, exactly! And of course we get the same thing here in many different ways, from people who are scared pea-green of the future and are using an assortment of incantations to deal (or avoid dealing) with that fear.

Mzyxptlk, I'm certainly interested in anything that will encourage people to learn how to think -- a demanding skill, and one that needs much education and regular practice in order to do successfully. As for your moniker -- yes, I caught that; been a while, but I used to read DC comics pretty heavily; my tastes tended to Batman and Green Arrow rather than the kid from Krypton, but I knew the basics.

Phil, my guess (as I mentioned to K) is that the Times, and the end of the political class for which it's the mouthpiece, are slowly and with desperate unwillingness being forced to confront peak oil. No doubt we'll get every imaginable kind of incantation out of All The News Unfit To Print in the years to come, but a sane assessment of our civilization's prospects will be far off if it ever arrives there.

6/6/10, 9:20 PM

Draco TB said...
We live in this little thing called <a href="><i>reality</i></a> and yet so many people seem to want to believe in the fairy tale of infinite resources, infinite technology and the ability to live without cost upon a finite world. I realised awhile ago that such was impossible and that we needed a collective paradigm shift away from that mindset but the socio-economic system (capitalism) that we live under requires that we believe the delusion.

6/6/10, 9:36 PM

spottedwolf said...
John....the website I sent Dirk which he posted for all is the brother-in-law of one of the ladies, Gwendolyn I think, who regularly comments herein. The guy's pictures were excellent.

In many ways I sympathize with O'bama...for he really stepped into a mess with the oval office. In another way....more empathy than otherwise....I laugh at his folly because it takes a monumental ego to choose such a task. Its tough that the 1st non-caucasian President finds himself dealing with all the monumental screw-ups from decades of 'white rule'.....but I think he knew and expected a lot of the messes he's inherited.

6/6/10, 10:20 PM

Cherokee Organics said...
Thankyou JMG. I look forward to this. Regards.

6/7/10, 1:55 AM

pfh said...
JMG, I'm afraid I'm seeing it somewhat the opposite way, that the denialism of the NY Times only gets worse over time, with treating all entertaining theories as equal being the new rage, for example. I'm seeing that as a feature of OUR culture of being domesticated to comply to the ruling myths of our culture, rather than mature to think for ourselves.

It's so widespread that people just don't give themselves permission to question our own dysfunctional ideology, as 1) our arrested development keeps us thinking like children waiting for hand outs and 2) our ideology contains a "Catch 22", that the only way to judge the validity of any idea is by how it fits into our ideology. I think thats how "the physical world be damned" becomes part of our standard method of decision-making.

6/7/10, 5:51 AM

John Michael Greer said...
Draco, I don't know that it's useful to say "we need a collective paradigm shift" -- is that any different from saying "we need a replacement for petroleum"? The one is unfortunately about as likely as the other...

Wolf, a lot of people in 2008 were saying that both US parties were doing their level best to come up with unelectable presidential candidates, in the hope that the other guys would be left holding the bag. It's Obama's bad luck that he won the booby prize -- though a case could be made that he's made things worse than they have to be by trying to manage appearances instead of dealing with the issues.

Phil, I certainly don't mean to compliment the Times. Still, how often have they even mentioned peak oil before now? My guess is that we're within a few years of peak oil going mainstream -- which means, granted, that everybody else gets to stumble through the same process of denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance that those of us already on the bus have experienced. It may make for a strange decade.

6/7/10, 6:54 AM

Brad K. said...
@ spottedwolf,

I am continually amazed at how many people consider President Obama "non-caucasion". Yes, his father was Kenyan - and he spent his early years growing up in Indonesia, registered in an Islam school as Bobby Soetoro, as an Indonesian citizen and Islamic.

He wrote in one of his books, how he decided that he could succeed, politically, faster by denigrating and denying his mother's white/caucasian heritage (you know, the part that actually *does* trace to American citizenship). Obama is as caucasian as many others - he just chooses to portray himself as black, rather than mixed heritage. It has been said that there are very few so-called "whites" in America that don't have some intermingled racial lines. Wasn't it Hungary, that advertised their international adoptions as the "last truly white" full-blooded Caucasian race?

Note that I don't claim any of the denigrated Birther arguments about Obama's citizenship. Clearly his mother was American and white, and his father was Kenyan. Michelle Obama, commenting on Barack's "home village" in Kenya, clearly supports that fact; Obama's father was Kenyan.

It just seems facile, to me, for Obama to claim only the heritage of one parent, when it is the other parent that gave him US Citizenship.

6/7/10, 7:38 AM

Draco TB said...
Draco, I don't know that it's useful to say "we need a collective paradigm shift" -- is that any different from saying "we need a replacement for petroleum"? The one is unfortunately about as likely as the other...

Well, the collective is made up of individuals and once you get enough individuals to take steps away from the capitalist mindset then the collective will move. But the important part is to get rid of the capitalist mindset of eternal exponential growth. I've been doing this with a small bit of success. After all, it's patently obvious that eternal exponential growth on a finite world is impossible.

I don't try to give a complete vision of what to move to but I do try to open discussion on this. Pointing out how competition inevitably makes things more expensive while also suggesting that competition, in the right areas, can produce benefits so we should be asking if the added costs of competition supply enough benefits. I also point out how cooperation in many things is far better than competition, health services is certainly a good example here. I wrap that up with suggesting that whatever we do we must live within the ecological limits of the the Earth's biosphere. We don't know what those limits are yet but it's fairly obvious that we've surpassed them.

And, GAH, stuffed up the link in my previous post - left the closing quotes off :(

6/7/10, 7:45 AM

PanIdaho said...
JMG said:

"My guess is that we're within a few years of peak oil going mainstream -- which means, granted, that everybody else gets to stumble through the same process of denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance that those of us already on the bus have experienced. It may make for a strange decade."

And, I dare say, a rather frightening one. Especially given all the other stuff that's likely to be going on around the same time.

6/7/10, 11:19 AM

Joel said...
>I don't know how much likelihood there is that scientists will ever get familiar with the basics of magic

Maybe you mean "ever again"? It's my impression that whenever Isaac Newton had a thought that would become famous, he was also, at the same time, doing alchemy.

I also wonder if Arthur C. Clarke intended a double meaning when he remarked on sufficiently advanced technology.

Lastly, because programmers work on things that mostly exist outside the material plane, I've seen a lot of influence of magical ideas and nomenclature on computer science; I'd feel comfortable betting that at least a few experts in that field know a thing or two about magic. Whether CS counts as science is hotly debated, though.

6/7/10, 8:19 PM

Houyhnhnm said...
JMG said, "[M]agical training and martial arts training (in which I do have some experience) have very striking parallels; it may be that any discipline that seeks to work with wordless realities comes to have a similar structure."

In some cases, the overlap is overt. For example, Chogyam Trungpa founded the Shambala School of Dressage in 1979. Today, Paul Belasik teaches Zen Buddhism and martial arts to his students as part of their riding instruction.


6/7/10, 8:45 PM

spottedwolf said...
"manage appearances" hmmm...point considered although..I'll bet Obama thought he'd be able to use "magical thinking" via his ability by oratory to inspire allegiance.
He just may be one of the rare instances of a politician who actually thought in terms of "intention" and "will" rather than the ultra-heavy entrenched dogma.....survival of the fittest.... which is so prevalent and pre-emptive in the thinking of "collective America"

6/7/10, 10:28 PM

Ric said...
Scott Adams on the Adams Complexity Threshold:

"Complexity is often a natural outgrowth of success. Man-made complexity is simply a combination of things that we figured out how to do right, one layered on top of the other, until failure is achieved."

This is more relevant to your essay a month or so back about complexity, but most of the comments are perfect illustrations of this weeks topic.

6/9/10, 3:06 AM

Glennjeff said...
I really enjoyed that essay JMG.

I was wondering if there was a bout of collective madness going around myself.

Feel free to write down everything you know about magic for us.


6/9/10, 4:02 AM

spottedwolf said...
@ Brad,
your comment is well known and understood but as long as the man portrays himself as 'black'...and looks black...he will be seen as a black man by most......who do not give a hoot about his past.

The argument about how black or white we are carries little weight in generalities because most people generate opinions based on surface issues. It is from this point I extrapolate.

Obama's opinion of himself is laced with a much deeper context concerning race than any "average caucasion" can understand....except theoretically. That I well know as my people on my father's side are Canadian Metis...and once that becomes part of a discussion there is a noticeable change in the 'atmosphere'. There are many in this world who still fear 'blacks' and other races though they tend not to address this or even know it.

My comment is based solely on recognizeable common opinion.....not hereditary accuracy. Obama will be the scapegoat of American lore as a matter of convenience and it may well be exactly what was intended by those who orchestrate such games. Color....stills goes a long way in the human condition. I hope this clarifies my earlier post.

6/9/10, 9:23 AM

The 27th Comrade said...
Dear JMG;

This post has the same title as the one you wrote earlier Wednesday, February 21, 2007. I know because I was downloading your archive for off-line reading, and saving by title, when I realised a discrepancy. (It was claiming I have read this post when I have not; but I knew I had read one of an identical title, so I caught the bug.) Now I am doing by date; it was a silly technical decision anyway.

But anyway, I have read in far enough by now to notice that you put emphasis on the role of monastic orders in preserving culture.
You, however, went on to praise Rabbinical Judaism for cultural preservation, even though it did no such thing—Second-Temple Judaism being a religion that shares nothing with Rabbinical Judaism beyond the Hebraisms and genetic history that the former retains.

The real heroes of cultural preservation among the Jews are a monastic order seldom recognised here as such: the Essenes. And they have all the hallmarks, including strict gender separation. And they did your favourite thing of preserving libraries in places where basically nobody went. They also did not use high-acid paper, thank God.

(Keep up the great blog. For all my disagreements with you, there are enough agreements to merit me reading it. I created the system that I just debugged for the express purpose of reading this blog’s entire archive offline. It is open source, available at for those who are curious.)

4/24/12, 10:14 AM