Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Alternatives to Nihilism, Part One: A Dog Named Boo

"Where do you get your ideas?" is a question that most writers fairly often field, and generally dread. Science fiction writer Harlan Ellison is just about the only person in print with a ready answer; he used to state crisply – for all I know, he still does – that a little old lady in Poughkeepsie, New York sends him a weekly manila envelope full of story ideas. The rest of us are left to fumble with the difficult task of explaining the tangled roots of creativity.

Still, there are times when it’s an easy question to answer, and for me, at least, this week is one of those. The idea behind this Archdruid Report post came from a comment on last week’s post, made on Energy Bulletin’s repost by a commenter who used the name "pulltheweeds." My post was a comparison of today’s vacuous political rhetoric on energy with the more pragmatic and effective responses that were pioneered during the energy crisis of the Seventies. The comment in its entirety – I’ve taken the liberty of adding such old-fashioned conveniences as capitals and punctuation – was this: "The days of ‘Me and You and a Dog Named Boo’ are over."

To some extent, that was simply another example of the sort of internet witticism that’s designed to score points instead of addressing an argument. Equally, it’s a fine example of unintentional irony, since the Seventies hit it referenced was an open-road song that celebrated the freedom that cheap abundant petroleum briefly gave to footloose young Americans. In that sense, the comment is quite correct; the days of "another tank of gas and then back on the road again," to quote the song, are over for good.

Still, that wasn’t what "pulltheweeds" was saying, of course. What he or she was suggesting was that the conservation and alternative-energy technologies I discussed in last week’s post were the products of an aspect of American popular culture that flourished in the Seventies, and died a wretched death in the decades that followed. The homebuilt solar panels, hand-typed guides to insulation and weatherstripping, basement-workshop inventions, lively little nonprofits running on raw enthusiasm and shoestring budgets, and the rest of the landscape of the Seventies appropriate-tech scene drew on the same cultural current that made "Me and You and a Dog Named Boo" a hit, and also, however briefly, had quite a few Americans thinking about living with a lot less energy and a lot fewer resources as an adventure rather than a fate worse than death.

It’s easy to make fun of the excesses and eccentricities of the era: the air of well-scrubbed, fresh-faced innocence, say, that was so assiduously cultivated by the exact equivalents of those who now cultivate an equally artificial aura of sullen despair. Still, the 15% drop in America’s petroleum consumption that took place between 1975 and 1985, coupled with equally sharp declines in other forms of energy use, might suggest that the John Denver fans of that time, with their granny glasses and dogs sporting brightly colored bandannas in place of collars, had something going for them that today’s supposedly more sophisticated culture has not been able to match so far. The shift from the one to the other set of cultural themes may have more to do with that difference in outcomes than is often recognized, and that possibility is one that needs to be explored.

That is to say, we need to talk about the roots of the contemporary American cult of nihilism.

I don’t think that last phrase is too extreme a description. For the last few decades, it’s been hugely fashionable in America to believe, or at least affect to believe, the cynical notions that all ideals are frauds or delusions, that those who try to live up to them are either posturing liars or simple-minded fools, and that we might as well enjoy ugliness because all beauty is by definition fake. Watching this week’s idols dragged down to the lowest common denominator by yet another wretched scandal has become America’s most popular spectator sport. Meanwhile, and crucially, the notion that the American people might face a challenge, any challenge, by rising to the occasion, much less might reasonably be encouraged to do so, gets dismissed out of hand by pundits, politicians, and ordinary people alike when it’s mentioned at all. This wasn’t always the case, and as this nation and the industrial world as a whole lurches blindly toward a set of challenges right up there with anything in the last five thousand years or so of recorded history, it bears asking why a rallying of the nation’s will and potential that would have been an obvious part of a response to crisis fifty years ago is so unthinkable now.

It’s useful, in making sense of this cultural shift, to remember that there are at least two kinds of cynicism. There’s the kind – variously weary, amused, hurt, or icily dangerous – that comes naturally to those who have too often seen others betray their ideals. Then there’s the other kind – sullen, jeering, brittle, and defensive – that comes just as naturally to those who betray their own ideals, and makes them lash out angrily whenever anything too reminiscent of that betrayal flicks them on the raw. It’s the latter kind, I’m convinced, that shapes the mood of America today; the disquieting sounds that murmur through the crawlspaces of our collective imagination, waking us abruptly at night, are the echoes of a profoundly troubled national conscience.

For another measure of the same troubled conscience, think of the extraordinary reach of conspiracy theories of all kinds through American culture. These days, if you hear people talking about any of the problems or predicaments that beset our society, it’s normally a safe bet that the conversation will end up fixating on some group of people whose monstrous wickedness is allegedly the cause of it all. Democrats talk that way about Republicans, and Republicans about Democrats, while those who have abandoned the grinning corpse of America’s once-vital political culture have their own colorfully stocked rogues’ galleries of alleged villains to offer.

Any of my readers who would like to see how much of this fixation on hunting for scapegoats unfolds from an uneasy conscience need only suggest in public that ordinary Americans might bear some modest degree of responsibility for the unwelcome trends of the last few decades. The shrillness with which most Americans will insist that all the blame lies elsewhere makes it tolerably clear just how sensitive a nerve has been touched. What Carl Jung called "projecting the shadow" has become a potent political reality in America, but you don’t need a degree in Jungian psychoanalysis to realize that people who spend their lives pointing fingers at other people are trying to paste a villain’s mask on the rest of the world in order to avoid seeing it when they look in the mirror.

A third measure? Consider the contemporary American obsession with apocalyptic fantasies. Back of all the gaudy claims of history’s end currently on display – the Rapture, the Singularity, the supposed end of the Mayan calendar in 2012, and all the rest of it – is a frantic insistence that we don’t have to live with the consequences of our collective actions. That’s the common thread that connects the seeming optimism of the claim that Jesus or the Space Brothers or superintelligent computers will fix things, on the one hand, with the seeming pessimism of the claims that we’re all about to be wiped out by solar flares or asteroid bombardment or the evil plans of the Illuminati. Either way, the world that our choices have made is not the world we have to inhabit; either way, it’s not our responsibility to fix what we’ve broken, either because someone else is going to fix it or because it’s all going to be blown to smithereens shortly by something that, please note, is never our fault.

All three of these factors have deep roots in American history, but it’s not too hard to identify the point in time when they moved in from the fringes to dominate the collective imagination – and that lands us once again in the wake of the Seventies, the years when a society that previously idolized John-Boy Walton and John Denver suddenly started idolizing Gordon Gekko and self-proclaimed "material girl" Madonna instead.

Putting that shift into context requires a glance back over the history of the second half of the twentieth century. The aftermath of the Second World War left the United States abrubtly filling the position of global hegemon previously held by Great Britain. In the aftermath of Hitler’s defeat, Americans believed they had a permanent lease on the moral high ground as they expanded around the globe and confronted the Soviet Union. Mixed motives and the pressures of expediency had their usual effect, though, and as the cognitive dissonance built up, it became increasingly hard for Americans to pretend that all the atrocities and abuses of the Cold War era belonged to the other side.

Those pressures reached critical mass in the early 1970s. The Pentagon’s epic incompetence in the Vietnam war and the blatant illegality and corruption of the Nixon administration sparked a backlash that, for once, reached right up into the corridors of power. In the wake of the resulting explosions, American troops came home from Southeast Asia, Nixon was forced out of office, and a quarter century of dubious and often illegal policies unexpectedly saw the light of day. All this took place during the runup to the US bicentennial, and the contrast between admittedly idealized notions of the 1770s and the awkward realities of the 1970s forced many Americans to notice the gap between what they had become and what they claimed to be.

These cultural shifts also happened, of course, as America’s own oilfields reached their all-time peak production, and the coming of America’s own encounter with peak oil threw a generation of easy assumptions of perpetual national prosperity into question. There were still plenty of people alive who vividly recalled the Great Depression and the austerity of the war years, and thus could get their minds around the concept that the postwar boom might be a temporary and self-canceling event, or even a corner into which the United States had backed itself. Many Americans, across a wide range of social and political positions, embraced the possibility that a prudent regard for the limits of nonrenewable resources might be a valid approach to economic and political questions, and that resource conservation and a shift toward less extravagant ways of living might be the best available options over the long term. An even broader spectrum of Americans came to believe, at least for a time, that something crucial to their nation’s meaning and value had gotten lost in the rush to global empire, but might still be recovered in time to matter.

It’s popular nowadays to forget that this happened, or to insist with varying degrees of cynicism that the moment of awareness couldn’t have lasted. Maybe that’s so, but I wonder how much of that comes from the same uneasy conscience that drives so much of today’s fashionable nihilism. Americans came together during the long ordeal that began with the stock market crash of 1929 and wound its way through the shadows of depression and war until 1945, and a similar effort over a similar time scale would have been more than adequate to the task of launching America into the transition to an ecotechnic future. Back then, the US still had abundant coal, oil, and natural gas reserves, not to mention a great many other resources; annual consumption of energy and resources was far below what it later became, and though a great many factories were shuttered in the sharp recessions of the 1970s, there were still millions of capable laborers who could have been put to work retooling the economy for a new and frugal age.

The steps necessary to make that transition were discussed during that time in any number of periodicals, some of them surprisingly mainstream. The United States would have had to step back from its self-appointed role as global policeman; it would have had to pass on a fair share of the cost of deterring the Soviet Union to its comparatively more prosperous allies in western Europe and the west Pacific, and accept a less expansive notion of its own national interests. Government subsidies for nuclear power and other nonrenewable energy sources would have been phased out, and the money – along with savings from a less gargantuan military – shifted into grants for conservation, renewable energy retrofits, and research programs aimed at repositioning American industry to lead the world in green energy technologies.

Changes in tax policy, zoning regulations and building codes would reshape the built environment to decrease energy use, while funds formerly wasted on highways would go instead to build high-speed rail between urban cores and rapid transit systems that would make commuting by car all but obsolete. All this would have cost plenty, and would have required Americans to tighten their belts and accept a diminished standard of living and some formal or informal rationing for a time. Down the road a quarter century or so, though, a prosperous nation getting by comfortably on a fraction of its previous energy needs, and thus able to ignore the Middle East as an irrelevance, would have the lion’s share of global trade in new energy technologies, high-speed rail, and a dozen other fields, while other nations burdened with high energy costs were left scrambling to catch up.

That was the vision. Again, it’s comforting to the collective conscience of today’s America to insist that it couldn’t have happened, but "comforting" is rarely a synonyn for "true." Myself, I think that it could have been done, or that there was at least a very real chance of doing it. The uncomfortable silence that falls whenever anyone brings up the subject of conservation in most circles in America today is one of the reasons I’ve come to that belief. When people set aside an obvious impossibility, they don’t remain brittle and angry about it for decades afterwards. It’s only when the road not taken was a real option, and the goal at the end of it noticeably better than the endpoint looming up ahead, that those who chose otherwise get shrill in defense of their decision.

That shrill tone is hard to miss these days, and it’s grown in volume and intensity over the course of the thirty-year vacation from reality America took in the aftermath of the Seventies. We’ll talk more about that in next week’s post.


john said...
Dear JMG,

While I agree it could have been done and would have had a better outcome with the value of hindsight,I'd say that it was never on the cards,even in the seventies.Look what happened to Jimmy Carter when he suggested even a tenth of it.The car and oil companies would never have allowed it,not 'enough' profit involved(and yes,I do realise that that sounds exactly like (is?)the conspiracy theories that you were excoriating).

I love yourJungian take on the \reasons for the cynicism too,I've noticed that the denial of responsibility which is undeniable,often brings with it mild hostility if not passive aggresion.

Anyway thanks for this post,truly food for thought.Now if only I could get my conservative American friends to read your stuff,I think it could make a difference to the way they view things,instead of just labelling me an environmental wacko!Off to plant some spuds!!

4/13/11, 7:31 PM

John Michael Greer said...
John, notice that your very first response was an effort to push away the idea that a better outcome might have been possible. I'd encourage you to set that aside, just for a moment, and allow the possibility that we could have done it, and didn't. Yes, I know it's acutely uncomfortable; it's the attempt to avoid that discomfort that's behind a great deal of the shrillness of our time.

4/13/11, 8:07 PM

Richard said...
This post is definitely one of my favorites of yours. I am younger than most readers of your blog, being 25, so I wasn't born yet in the seventies, and although I've known for a while a lot of the interesting things that got started then, I guess I didn't realize just how much they actually got into the mainstream back then until some of your recent posts and people's replies.

Being immersed in a culture that defines itself as alternative and against the mainstream, but really shares more of the same problems as mainstream America then most of them would ever admit, the same cynicism is rampant. I've dealt with some of it myself but always had an inner drive so it would rarely overwhelm me, and it's been in the last couple of years that I've realized how pervasive and counterproductive it really is. I've argued recently that in America at least, apathy is an even worse problem at the current time than fundamentalism. People take more notice of the issues with fundamentalism because it leads to more dramatic events, but apathy is a slow, insidious killer.

I have also found that most of people who say they want to be hopeful or have optimism really just want someone or something else to improve their situation and aren't willing to try to do so themselves. I'm pretty sure I'm going to face some rough times, but I see enough purpose in what I'm doing to make it fulfilling, and many who are in close to the exact same outward situation as myself, and have a much more smiley cheery appearance than I do can't find the drive or don't have enough values to follow through on them with action.

The modern obsession is with changing the outside conditions to make life as easy as possible. I'm thinking that's an unhealthy attitude, as you mentioned a while back in the post about Jack Lalanne, it's pretty obvious that Americans are growing weaker in body and mind, and a lack of natural limits such as peak oil would likely lead to further degeneration. What's the alternative? The word that pops into my mind is resilience. The book "The Resilient Gardener" by carol Deppe got me thinking about resilience not just in our gardens but in ourselves too, the internal motivation we have, the less likely we are to be brought down by outside events.

4/13/11, 8:08 PM

Remonster said...
Sweet Jeebus I wish I had been around in the 70's.

4/13/11, 8:22 PM

Matt and Jess said...
I was born well after the 70s, so I don't really understand much of the motivation for the shift in change from the AT/conservation movements towards the more material/growth-at-all-costs movements. Was it a lack of clear vision? I don't understand the Big Oil greed and profit explanation because, well, from what I understand currently the oil companies are actually the ones producing solar panels and so on, at least one that I know of. You would think that there would have been plenty of profit in building alternative transport and energy systems.

4/13/11, 8:40 PM

Matthew Heins said...
On the one hand, it is tough for me reading this post because -having been born in 1979- it gives me such a powerful "missed the bus that I didn't even know was passing" feeling.

But on the other hand, I am left with a real sense of, well, maybe not "hope", since that word has been much abused lately, but perhaps "not despair" describes it.

If we can honestly admit that there was a real road that was not taken back there in the seventies, then we are not forced to slash a wholly new path in the face of the current impasse. Rather what we face is an arduous but limited journey between the road taken and the road not.

In other words, its gonna feel like Christian Hell, but actually be like Buddhist Hell.;)

Somewhere in the distance we can find the farthest part of that untaken road our map ever depicted -the ecotechnic future. It'll just be like we skipped all the good bits on the way.

Speaking merely as a hiker, that sounds a lot better than a plunge off a cliff to me!


4/13/11, 8:57 PM

John Michael Greer said...
Richard, excellent! You get tonight's gold star for perceptiveness. You're quite right that most of what calls itself alternative culture these days shares the values of the mainstream it pretends to despise -- and also quite right that there's a better way, for those willing to replace the pose of opposition with the actual embrace of a real alternative.

Remonster, you're around now. The tools of the Seventies -- right down to a spare bandanna or two for dogs -- are still available. Are you willing to do something with them?

Matt and Jess, thank you. You may just have restored my faith in the younger generation. Of course the big corporations could have made ample profits selling insulation and solar panels, building high speed trains, etc., etc., and you're quite right; blaming what happened on them doesn't make sense. I'll be discussing my ideas about what happened later on in this series of posts.

4/13/11, 9:04 PM

Bill Pulliam said...
I expect I am not the only one here who has never quite fully assimilated this tectonic shift of the mass psyche into my own day-to-day awareness. I still frequently forget that the defining concepts of the youth of my generation are considered distant abstractions at present. They still seem just as true and obvious to me as they did then; it feels as it would if people had entirely ceased to notice that the sky is blue, and had difficulty seeing it even when you pointed it out to them on a glorious sunny day (never mind the ones who argue vehemently that it is in fact pink). I suppose this is a common experience of we who have passed that critical point in mid-life at which we realize that historical change is something we have lived though, not just read about.

History always seems inevitable in hindsight; but as it is happening it is much more volatile and unstable. The election of Ronald Reagan was described as a "landslide," as it was exceedingly lopsided in the electoral college. But in the bulk percentages it was indeed rather narrow; many capricious and turbulent winds combined to create the outcome of that day. They could have perhaps almost as easily blown slightly differently and lead to a different path. When we woke up that morning, we were all very uncertain what the day would hold. I personally was utterly shocked by how the numbers fell out that evening; it had not seemed inevitable at all.

I have of course been sensing the creep, first of exhuberant materialism, then evolving into the strange nihilistic materialistic of the present, over all this time. But it has been hard to say to what extent I was experiencing the passing of history versus my own passage out of youth and into mid-life. Middle-aged men, traditionally, are always convinced that the world is going to hades in a wicker container, that the kids these days are useless, that values and morals have gone down the toilet. But, statistics seem to bear out that JMG and I and the rest of us are not just curmudgeons. So many social and economic metrics are doing things they have not done since before we were born, and doing them steadily in the long-term. And it seems very hard to argue that our political dialogue has not come profoundly unglued -- sheesh, Reagan would be a centrist now, Nixon a liberal, Eisenhower a socialist!

What comes next in the world...? I have even less idea now than I usually do. The collapse of the 90s bubbles and their almost 10-year overshoot was not hard to foresee; now that we are past that point, the future is murky indeed. Maybe, JMG, you have some special green wizard lightning bugs in the post next week that might shed a little light?

4/13/11, 9:05 PM

John Michael Greer said...
Matthew, thank you also. You've heard what I'm trying to say -- what I've been trying to say, in fact, since The Archdruid Report started.

4/13/11, 9:09 PM

John Michael Greer said...
Bill, nicely put. For all the Stewart Brands of the world who went from promoting appropriate tech to shilling for the nuclear industry, there are still a certain number of us who never bought into the nonsense.

4/13/11, 9:13 PM said...
Now now, just because a paranoid person says they're being followed doesn't mean they're not....just sayin'. :)

The bible might not be my holy book of choice, but I do think it has something to say about our culture in that it specifically talks about keeping one's eyes cast down to avoid temptation and sin. Our culture no longer knows how to avoid the sin of lustfulness -- lust for money, lust for things, lust for convenience, lust for *fill in the blank*. Not only do people not keep their eyes cast down, they are actively encouraged to keep looking even when they should be satiated. People who are conditioned to be never satisfied are definitely not going to be happy with less!


4/13/11, 9:32 PM

Dan said...
I too was born at the very end of the 70's and grew up not hearing about or understanding limit's to growth and thought getting good grades in school,college and landing a good career was all I needed to do for a good life. Now years after thinking I was done with school which I didn't like, I'm taking workshops on useful skills and feel better and more useful about myself then with all the years in school and college trying to make the grades, I was preparing for the wrong future.

I realize, I won't have it as good as my parents or any other Baby Boomer but being glad for what I have and making do with less and adapting to less resources is a better attitude and much needed. Since the way it is, is the way it is and you can't change the past from missed opportunties.

4/13/11, 9:45 PM

Archivist/Cultural Liaison said...
The real point here is that we have work to do and we better get to it. I remember when people dismissed the work of Paolo Soleri, as early as the 80's as something from the 70's. He might not have had the answers, but he did and does have a working citylike location as a lab to address the very issues that got put on hold.
I wonder what Jung would see in the return to mother nature syndrome. a return and surrendering to the womb, it regressiveness that borders on what even Freud saw in Oedipus.We don't need a mother that takes us away from what has been achieved on a positive nature back to a time that just wasn't that good. Better to have a mother that throws one out its last 30 year old children and demands they solve what needs to be solved. Perhaps in this economical climate she at least demands their participating in the present as best as one can as it is not up to her either to solve our problems.

4/13/11, 10:08 PM

Robo said...
Americans used to be treated like ‘citizens’. Now they are simply regarded as ‘consumers’. The former are active and independent; the latter are passive and controlled.

Citizens participate in the public business of their nation, while consumers are compliant and isolated captives of the corporate marketplace. These two roles are very different.

Through decades of marketing indoctrination and mass media diversion, individual Americans have gradually relinquished the powers and responsibilities of citizenship to a new race of corporate ‘super citizens’. These giants are not going to yield any of their immense gains back to the ‘little people’ without a terrible fight..or a terrible catastrophe.

4/13/11, 10:40 PM

Kevin said...
A great post. Your perception is subtle. I'm over fifty, so I know from experience that during the period of which you write many Americans possessed the will, desire and downright enthusiasm for conservation and for responsible resource use, about which they evinced a palpable "can-do" attitude. I'm sure we could have implemented the agenda you've sketched out, or something like it.

Your remarks about the gradual creep of cynicism are spot on. I've seen it in my contemporaries - I'm thinking of one old friend in particular, a formerly visionary artist who went from embracing the optimistic idealism of the time to thinking that Donald Trump is a really cool guy to work for, and dismissing his own former enthusiasms as hopelessly naive, silly, even contemptible.

Recently I've begun to drop the word "conservation" into my speech from time to time, mainly in connection with energy. On these few occasions I've been acutely aware of how socially awkward it now is to use the term - as though the idea were slightly indecent, an outmoded erroneous notion that one wouldn't think of asking serious people to consider putting into practice. In light of what you've said here, I think I'll start using it more often. It'll be interesting to see whether I start getting some defensive denialist pushback on it - somehow I rather fancy so.

Stewart Brand is shilling for nukes? Disgusting. That marks him as hipoisie in my book. And I don't mean that in a good way.

4/13/11, 10:45 PM

john said...
Dear JMG,

I think maybe I expressed myself clumsily or you read it too quick,because that`s exactly what I said!

`While I agree it could have been done and would have had a better outcome`

Is that not exactly what I said?
I said it was possible and would have had a much better result than is now evident.It should have been done but wasnt due to extreme short-sightedness and lack of a profit margin big enough to satisfy corporate greed.

If you still think I`m disagreeing with you(because I don`t)please could you enlighten me.

4/13/11, 11:37 PM

Jason Heppenstall said...
I once read that people born in the early 1970s were most likely to suffer from a particular type of melancholic despondency caused by a shift in the cultural paradigm just at the time when they were entering adolescence.

Put simply, just as you're told that one set of values is 'right', they are replaced by another set which looks suspiciously like what you were told NOT to do ('Greed is good', 'The customer is always right', 'Speculate to accumulate' etc).

Having myself been born in April 1971 (yes, don't remind me ...) I can certainly attest to this but, luckily, I worked out my nihilsim by the time I went to college. I'm not sure if optimism (if that's the right word) is a genetic trait, but I think that those who (to a greater or lesser extent) stuck to their principles over the last 30 or so years are much better placed, psychologically speaking, to deal with the challenges of our looming low energy situation. It's sobering to refelect on the damaging effect so much cheap energy has had on our societies.

I know the Tao Te Ching is always welcome on this blog, so here's a snippet from one of the poems that could be relevant to this post ('Wanting Less' from my Ursula Le Guin translation):

The greatest evil: wanting more.
The worst luck: discontent.
Greed's the curse of life.

To know enough's enough
is enough to know.

Thanks for your post - truly chicken soup for the mind.

4/13/11, 11:42 PM

Adam Streed said...
This post brought two things to mind. (And, having written these comments, I see they're rather long. They're going somewhere, I promise!)

The first is a moment in Neal Stephenson's Cryptonomicon (which I can only remember the gist of, sorry). In the late '90s, one protagonist, Randy, is struck when he realizes that his grandfather would not have recognized something as hokey, and indeed didn't even have the concept of hokiness. Finding something hokey requires an ironic distance that, Randy believes, Americans in the 1940s didn't or couldn't adopt. (Stephenson doesn't, if I recall correctly, offer any candidate explanation of this shift in consciousness.)

The second thing is my experience teaching philosophy, and in particular ethics. I've taught a few different types of ethics class to undergrads, and by and large the students walk into the room at the beginning of the term holding some kind of relativism or subjectivism about morality. Even in upper-division philosophy classes, the complaint gets aired early on in the term: "but isn't right and wrong just subjective?"

That's probably no surprise to anyone reading, but what might be less well-known is that philosophy professors---almost to the man and woman, as far as I can tell---devote a chunk of their ethics classes specifically to fighting this reaction, and they often do it right away. (One of my colleagues calls it the "So You Think You're a Relativist" portion of the syllabus.) One thing we point out is that, although broad principles of tolerance might seem to push for relativism/subjectivism (after all, shouldn't we respect everyone?), relativism in fact leads toward complete isolation and intolerance of other views: if what's right is so only relative to my attitudes or yours, then I've got no reason to engage in dialogue. I can rest comfortably knowing that I'm right (relative to my attitudes), and so are you (relative to your attitudes), and neither of us needs to listen to critical voices.

Although we teachers of ethics present this as a reductio of relativism, it doesn't always come off that way---the fact that relativism entails the impotence of critical discourse can look like a benefit rather than a cost. Indeed, that "benefit," dimly grasped, might be one reason among many why students begin college as relativists in the first place. (Fortunately there are many other arguments against relativism, for those students who are willing to engage arguments.)

But what strikes me about this sort of relativism---I'm right, you're right, we're all right because we all have our own special beliefs and attitudes---is that it's effectively a sort of nihilism. In The Incredibles, Dash complains (or does Syndrome gloat?) that "if everyone's special, then nobody is," and the point here is analogous: if everyone is morally good, then there are no moral failures, and the idea of morality as a standard which separates the right from the wrong is as good as dead. The argument generalizes for any standard about which one is a relativist---true belief, rational inference, beautiful experience, and so on.

So this could be (after the two outlined in JMG's post) a third sort of nihilism, which doesn't necessarily delight in failure or humiliation, and which doesn't set out looking for scapegoats, but which nonetheless counsels apathy and inactivity. If everyone's right, why bother trying to change minds or behaviors? Or, to put the point conversely, the motivation to get out and make things better requires a judgment that doing X rather than Y really is---independently of anyone's attitudes---better. And making that kind of commitment is something that people (or, to stick to my sample, California undergrads) seem loath to do.

4/14/11, 12:11 AM

Nathan said...

From what I can see, there is growing slice of us in the younger generation (especially Reagan babies - an ironic counterbalance) with the same attitude as Richard's. As you suggested in the post, a challenge can be an adventure instead of just an opportunity to complain, stamp the feet, and bemoan God(s) for all the pain to come.

For example: I gave a talk about Peak Oil at the college I graduated from last year, expecting a small & hostile crowd. But I was wrong on both counts as the students and faculty who showed up were interested, thoughtful and engaged with the topic. I saw very little despair in the audience.

4/14/11, 1:17 AM

Andrew said...
Mr. Greer, I wonder if you are acquainted with Adam Curtis' view on the course of history in the 20th century, for example "Century of the Self" (Part 1, 2, 3 and 4).

Obviously he puts much less emphasis on personal responsibility than you do, and maybe too little. But it can be argued that the notion of personal responsibility and the psyche that makes choises is formed by culture and history as well, limiting the absoluteness of free choice. Adam Curtis' other documentarys are worthwhile as well, notably " The Trap (What Happened to Our Dreams of Freedom)".

4/14/11, 1:50 AM

Justin said...
Thanks from another person born in the late 70s for a thought-provoking post!

You've written about a kind of nihilism which comes from a betrayal of one's own ideals - but maybe another form of nihilism comes from a belief that having ideals itself is pointless. Maybe this relates to Richard's point about apathy.

My own experience of nihilism comes from the thought that, because no one can tell you that there's one right way to live because no one has come back from the dead to give us a report, then we have less right to judge other routes through life as any route is as good as another. Therefore what is the point of having convictions? And, to me, this is sometimes a bit of a downer, it makes it easy to just say 'what's the point' and then to do nothing. Also because someone could justify all sorts of terrible things.

I often say fine, to each his/her own, as long as what he/she is doing is somehow supporting the conditions through which the many forms and members of life can do their thing.

If every route one can take through existence is good as another, then wonderful, one is free to adapt without being locked in any one set of ideals or ideology. But I often get into circular arguments with myself about this; where does one draw a line between 'to each their own' and some kind of absolute value… I guess I'm writing all this in response to your post because in the past this circular thought process certainly did make cynical, frustrated and indeed, shrill when speaking about certain topics with others!

I'm reminded by Bill's post above of 'shifting baselines' (a term I've come across while doing research into overfishing). In a nutshell: when I was born and started to grow up my first impressions of this new world around me was the only world I ever knew, and so this world was 'normal' to me. As I grew older, I compared every change in the state of the world to this 'normal world' of my youth. But my parents and my children will have very different ideas of what a normal world is to them because of course they were born at different times. Put more succinctly, 'technology is everything that happens after you were born' (I forget where I heard that quote).

The key thing is that people unaware of this would, as they grow older, compare changes only to their own idea of a 'normal world' rather than comparing their 'normal' with other what people of different generations think is normal (what a scientist would do by plotting data).

I would venture that there are two effects of this; the first is the obvious effect where people who aren't aware of this phenomenon would have trouble seeing changes which happen very slowly over many lifetimes but which are happening rapidly on a planetary timescale. The second effect is that one's own ideals formed in youth are to some extent locked to a fixed idea of a world from their past which they believe was normal, while the world continues to change as it does. If one's ideals stay fixed they can become heavy, preventing one from adapting along with the world. And perhaps one effect of this gap is cynicism.

By restating the obvious this way, I thought that perhaps this might illustrate that nihilism, which is of course a mental state, is not only shaped by what is actually happening in the world (which is what we think we're reacting to) but also just as much by what we perceive to be happening in the world along with our own perceptual limitations (which we may not often consider). Nihilism, and the beliefs which must exist in order to create it, starts to become less 'solid' and more of a matter of choice.

I'm sorry - this is a long response, and probably quite muddled. I've been rewriting it quite a bit over the past couple of hours, your original post touches on something I think about quite often.

4/14/11, 2:42 AM

Cherokee Organics said...

Nice work and very interesting too. I reckon you have the sound of truth about your writings which seems to be a rare thing in these days of rhetoric.

The thought that's been bugging me though, is where are we going? I've been wondering lately if the best way to defuse the impending future situation is to simply stand back and let the cornucopians etc. have their day in the sun (not that anyone has any say about it really). My reasons for this is that they will simply prove to be ineffective. They don't seem to be going away and their claims are becoming more shrill, so it's probably best they are diffused through their own ineptitude. People will listen to anything to reduce their own personal responsibilities. Anyway, I'm probably off track, but you never know.

We're paying around $1.50 litre for fuel this week (there's 3.8 litres to a gallon and the Aussie dollar now buys more than the US dollar - stop printing money, please), so I wonder also why there is such aggression from people about alternative energy and energy conservation. It should be obvious that at this point all other alternatives should be on the table and assessed.

In my writings about solar energy, I find the strangest responses from people who set out to discredit for their own insecure reasons and they sometimes also make very large and untrue / untested claims.

Their howling and yelping reassures me that I'm heading down the right track. My fuel and food bills are pretty small and insignificant!

Get your house in order while you can.

Good luck!


4/14/11, 2:46 AM

Phil Knight said...
In case anyone is interested, we run a collective blog dedicated to the politics and culture of the 1970's here:

The role of energy conservation in that era's politics is a reasonably frequent topic. Anyone who wishes to contribute is invited to do so.

4/14/11, 3:16 AM

Alexander Ac said...
Hello JMG,

it is quite interesting that Limits to growth publication quite nicely co-incidented with US peak oil and start of the catabolic collapse you identified... and with the abandonment of the gold standard as well :-)

The recent interview with Dmitry Orlov is also interesting and I should probably visit him in his boat ;-)

continue doing great job!


4/14/11, 4:22 AM

hawlkeye said...
I was a junior in high school during our nation's Buy-Centennial, and now looking back can see the schizophrenic fork in the road between patriotic consumerism and the authentic nascent green impulses of the time.

Like millions, I positively inhaled Kerouac’s On the Road, but when it led to following the Grateful Dead around the country, I wondered why didn’t everyone just stay home on the commune and make it work? But the road to Reagan and the road to Jerry was the same road all along…

Regret is a dark teacher; learning to make choices to avoid potential regret is a mark of maturity. American culture is too juvenile to appreciate the gravy train we've been riding; living memory hasn't experienced much of the hardship that might teach the difference between indulgent entitlement and a more moderate lifestyle. “Live simply so that others may simply live” – is a bumper-sticker, right? Sheesh.

So of course even the prefix “appropriate” will echo chastisement, because even to ponder inappropriate is to anticipate punishment. You’re grounded, son, just hand over your keys, and there goes our precious freedom which is red-white-and-blue-speak for all the goodies we deserve for being…well, Americans; isn’t that enough? Aren’t we special? Embarrassing.

And all this talk about the road not taken sounds like warnings of the spanking we’re still due to receive when daddy gets home. Or to scramble another metaphor, it’s hard to look forward to the chickens coming home to roost, and it’s small consolation to admit, well, at least we’ll have eggs.

Game on!

4/14/11, 4:35 AM

GeoWend said...
(chuckles) I was born in 1970, and I do actually recall that hopeful flow that was there. My parents bought the land they live on now back when I was 6 or so, where there was an old farmhouse (still has the horsehair behind/in the old plaster and boards). One of my fond memories is reading the World Magazine by lamplight (no electicity there), and seeing what folks were doing with alternative building (the folks turning old opal digs into underground houses was nifty)

The culture really did shift pretty hard in the 1980's. I think it is partially due to folks seeing that results "had happened", and decided that they really did not have to do the "hardship" anymore. Short term relaxation turning into a drinking binge, you could say.

4/14/11, 4:45 AM

Thijs Goverde said...
I'm going to be completely irrelevant here, but I can't let it pass by... pet peeve of mine... so sorry, so sorry!
Cynicism happens to be my favourite philosophical school, you see.
A third kind of cynicism, if you will, or rather the first kind - the original, Diogenes-style cynicism. The cynisism that, yes, is amused, weary, jeering, all that - and yet it never gives up striving to get rid of all the BS we fool ourselves with every day. Never gives up trying to do the right thing, even though it is not humanly possible to objectively know what exactly the right thing. The kind that laughs at its own failings and then cheerfully tries again.

Diogenes famously lived in a tub which, even in the Mediterranean, is a quite spectacular way of 'making do with less', no?

mutter mutter... does not mean what you think it means... mutter mutter...

4/14/11, 4:45 AM

GeoWend said...
What is interesting is that it seems that the folks that did conservation/ecology and such as an aspect of what they were, rather than as a total immersion/identity, are the ones that kept up with it. My parents deciding to invest in their land (while living outside DC for employment/schools) was because they wanted to make sure we experienced what nature was. They added aspects of conservation, but it was not central to their identity.

When the shifting occurred, folks first thought it was cool that I would be away on weekends at our place in the woods...later on it was something that was more negatively commented on. (shrugs)

It may be that part of the shift was due to identity exhaustion...

4/14/11, 4:56 AM

RainbowShadow said...
Greetings, JMG.

This is my very first post on your blog, and I want to thank you very, very much for all of the non-partisan contributions you've made to discussing our national situation.

The reason I am posting is that I think we need more than an alternative to nihilism.

We also need an alternative to America's pervasive "lack of empathy" problem.

You're probably going to assume that I mean "empathy" as in "constantly doing things for other people."

That's not what I mean at all.

What I mean is the sort of empathy that allows you to look at someone with a broken leg laying on the side of the road, and to respond to what you see by playing the part of the Good Samaritan rather than the useless Levite priest in that story.

You write on your blog, repeatedly, that we're all going to have to accept being poor in the future.

But we live in a country that equates morality with wealth. I'm not sure to what extent you understand this, but we do; check out the works of Morris Berman. And we have a vicious "cry me a river" attitude to the homeless, to the poor, and to the working class.

I've attempted to explain some of your ideas to modern conservatives (not real conservatives, I mean the pseudoconservatives you were talking about in your previous post), but they cite Horatio Alger and tell me that anyone can get rich (really rich) if they really wanted to.

When I attempt to explain to them, using information I learned from you, that riches as we currently think of them are built on cheap oil and that this nation will be experiencing economic contraction in the future and formal employment will be scarce and homelessness will be common not due to malice but simply to dwindling resources and energy supplies, they call me a hippie.

They insist that there's nothing wrong with our system, that American prosperity will continue forever, and that I sounded like a typical Marxist.

How are we going to convince people that maybe poverty isn't a vice deserving of condemnation, and that as a general rule our response to the misfortune of others shouldn't be anger and rage, especially in a time when we simply are NOT going to be wealthy (as we currently conceive of wealth) anymore and therefore insisting that "lack of wealth = failure as a human being" is not a productive manner in which we should approach our lives and the lives of the communities (and country) in which we live?

If you have any ideas on that particular component of the issue, I would be very grateful.

Thank you in advance at least for reading this!

4/14/11, 5:50 AM

Don Plummer said...
I believe I interpret pulltheweeds' comment differently. I didn't think he/she was saying the age of energy conservation was over; I thought he/she was saying the age of cheap energy, the age of "another tank of gas and then back on the road again" is over. In other words, I thought pulltheweeds was agreeing with you.

Regardless, thanks for another thoughtful post. Your analysis of America's psyche is right on, as far as I can see.

4/14/11, 6:03 AM

Loveandlight said...
This post about the seventies really dredges up a lot of memories for me. Because I was such a young kid back then, my impression of that era is pretty much exclusively colored by my personal experiences. And my experience was being a very spoiled, ignorant, and dysfunctional kid who was shaped that way by a very spoiled, ignorant, and dysfunctional society. I was blessed enough to have lifelines to growth and self-improvement. But remembering that and also the ubiquitously pervasive moral rot I encountered in society and in myself (and from which I attempted to shelter myself through various ego-fantasies and True Believer-isms) makes me doubt we were spiritually capable of making the better choice back then. It may have been possible on a practical level, but what I remember makes it difficult for me to envision the idealized "might-have-been" alternative past you describe here.

BTW, I recommend that commentors save their comments to their clipboards (CTRL A and then CTRL C), because the first time I tried to submit my comment, I had to log into G-Mail, and when I didn't jump through the hoops in exactly the way the brain-trust at Google wanted me to do (I'm still not sure what I did incorrectly), my comment was summarily nuked.

4/14/11, 6:22 AM

Brad K. said...

I am probably invested in a 'cast of villains', but I think one of the forces that changed America is still very active, in public school systems.

Public schools have taught generations of youngsters that fund raising is a substantive act. That raising money is the definition of 'help'. At the same time, public schools engage in fundraising as a deliberate means to defeat the limits imposed by local taxing authorities.

Back in Iowa, we occasionally got together when a farmer was hurt, or desperately ill, and lent a hand - most often, planting or harvesting the crop for the farm. Today I cannot walk into the local store without seeing a collection jar on the counter.

I recall the day my foster 8-year old told me I was killing the earth by throwing away a 2-liter coke bottle - instead of making a terrarium from it. That begs so many questions for me, I doubt I can list them all. I mean, the issue isn't throwing away the bottle - it is packaging in plastic. Or buying soda beverages instead of preparing fresh fruit juice, occasionally, or even mixing Kool-Aid. Or drinking water. Recycling plastics is a problem for me, when the amount of energy consumed in gathering, in processing, and re-fielding the substance consumes more energy and petroleum than making a new item. And shipping the process over the border because it is cheaper without EPA regulations on toxic emissions (still goes into the same air on the same planet, folks). And I understand that glass is still the only material that is cost-effective (thus, possibly energy-effective) to recycle, barring government subsidies.

The other major driver that changed America since WWII was, I think, the 60 and 30 second advertisement on broadcast media. I think ads have programmed Americans to believe that all *real* problems are solved by choosing well at the nearest store. Minor issues like intolerance, bigotry, and exploitation don't begin to bother those that watch NCIS and Oprah on a regular basis.

Even a certain amount of 'crime' is enjoyable. On "Cops". Grr.

One of the important outcomes of the 1970's might well have been turning away from broadcast media (remember the folk music of the time?) and guarding children from the insidious social engineering of the public schools - which has gotten much more pointed since then.

All growing and learning is about indoctrination. If we hope for the future, we need to take ownership of how our children are being indoctrinated today.

4/14/11, 6:26 AM

Rashakor said...
I would like to add another piece in the puzzle of the american psyche:
As a foreigner in the USA for more than 10 years I came to ponder about what really makes up the american identity. USA's people are defined by the successes of their empire, the greatness of their past up to WWII. It is commonly refered as the american exceptionalist. However the new global order is sending subtle reminder that success is just fleeting and USA is far from exceptional. The average american becomes very defensive when such aspect is mentionned. Mentally americans have locked themselves into that cul-de-sac and only when they will decide to back up from that one-way street they will be able to resume their journey.
Note that other empires have precede the USA into that one-way street and still think of themselves as great and exceptional without recognizing that they have become irrelevant. The best example is France.
French people still live mentally in Napoleon's time and it is taking them 200 years to wake up to the fact that they are no longer great or relevant. Note that, cynicism is a national sport in France. USA's zeitgest seem to be following a similar mental evolution.

4/14/11, 6:33 AM

gregorach said...
"Then there’s the other kind – sullen, jeering, brittle, and defensive – that comes just as naturally to those who betray their own ideals, and makes them lash out angrily whenever anything too reminiscent of that betrayal flicks them on the raw."

I had a long comment about my own selling-out, but Blogger ate it... To cut to the chase: any advice for those of us who, for whatever reason, betrayed our ideals and now find ourselves trapped by that betrayal?

4/14/11, 6:43 AM

Michael said...
Isn’t the nihilism and cynicism you discern in our modern culture closely related to the general selfishness and materialism also rampant among us? And isn’t that why any mention of things spiritual is often met with polite dismissal or open disdain, even among those expressing some concern for the state of our world? Notwithstanding the widespread debasement of real spiritual values and realities by the popular religions and wacko new age cults, maybe the absence of higher purpose in our lives plays a crucial but unappreciated role in our steadily accelerating unraveling.

It is so unpopular for anyone to seem to play the role of old testament prophet, that I can understand why even an Archdruid would choose to avoid this prickly subject, lest he lose a large segment of his audience forthwith. Nevertheless, my own analysis of our world dilemmas is that they are at root caused by a lack of true spiritual development. Therefore, the real solutions lie in the direction of a deep spiritual transformation in hearts and minds, leading to a new way of sharing our lives on Earth.

I could say more about how this might possibly be accomplished, but my question to you, John, is do you discount or despair of this kind of inner revolution as a key factor in reversing our nearly certain path of self-destruction?

4/14/11, 6:55 AM

Bill Pulliam said...
blogger eating comments:

Depending on your browser, your O/S, and your luck... If after being sent to the login screen you seem to have lost the comment, try clicking the browser's back button a time or two and see if it will return you to the comment window. You may find your comment still there and intact; at this point if you type in the new verification word (it will have changed) and then publish, it will probably go through.

Definitely a good idea to highlight and copy the text of a comment before submitting. Even better to compose long comments offline and then just paste them into the browser when you are ready.

4/14/11, 6:57 AM

x said...
I know these posts are more directly atuned to an American audience but, as someone on the periphery of the nascent pan-European Empire, I've got to say we've a highly developed sense of cynicism that flows across and within the jumbled currents of European and American interaction. It is almost an art form which has within in it its own seeds of destruction. During the good economic times, we took cynical pleasure in the discomfort of US 'intervention' in Iraq and basked in stilted opposition but have gone strangely quiet during the last 3 or 4 years as our own economic sitution deteriorates across Europe. And, lo and behold, we suddendly find that we've identified our own bad guy in Libya. We now need to arm democracy loving rebels and bomb the bejesus out of the bad guys. Oil fields, what oil fields would those be? It seems oil and irony don't mix.

Ireland in the 1970's was a country of communities and low tech solutions to ordinary problems because that was all we could afford. We had few homeless and even those in dire straights could rely friends, family and sometimes a shaky public system to barely scape through. We even had laughter occassionally. However, these times are always portrayed in the MSM as the bad times with soaring unemployment when we were naive and backward. Today we have soaring unemployment but plenty of shiny cars, tax shelters (avoidance) for mega multinational corporations and loads of unoccupied buildings, but alas no communities and a fast destruction of self reliance and services so that we can payoff loans to Germany, France, and others accrued by private sector financiers of the empires. A sense irony, indeed perspective in itself, seems to be a casulty of deeply cultivated negative cynacism.

4/14/11, 7:07 AM

Wandering Sage said...
One thing you didn't mention is the potential of our exploration into space in the 70's. We had a moment where the human race was reaching for the stars.
Now, as we mothball the space shuttles and turn back to our ipads, that window has closed. The human race no longer has the ability to get off this planet.
wishing you much peace,

4/14/11, 7:19 AM

Don Plummer said...
@RainbowShadow: Welcome to the online discussion! It's good to have you here.

I think we've witnessed your "vicious 'cry me a river' attitude to the homeless, to the poor, and to the working class" in many of our recent political discussions over things like budget priorities, public employee unions, etc.

And I would add another group to your list: immigrants, most especially "undocumented" immigrants. I don't know a group toward which some Americans' attitudes are more vicious than that one.

@BradK, re. public education: have you seen this article?

4/14/11, 7:43 AM

Diotima said...
A fascinating and thoughtful post, and I can't disagree that it could have been done, we could have made a turn-around in the 70s and 80s, but the fact remains that it didn't happen, and I question whether it was a failure of the collective, or a failure of leadership. Despite our happy illusion of government by and for the people, the fact remains that Ike's warning about the military-industrial complex as a major threat to democracy was prescient.

To quote Eisenhower: "In the councils of government, we must guard against the acquisition of unwarranted influence, whether sought or unsought, by the military-industrial complex. The potential for the disastrous rise of misplaced power exists, and will persist."

Social changes of the kind that were required back when we could still do something about the environmental and other disasters facing us would have required a level of both leadership and intellectual honesty in our elected officials that apparently wasn't there, because in the years since, government has become increasingly by and for business, with "the people" an asset that must be managed.

While I agree that some – even most – of the so-called "conspiracy theories" floating around are risible, just because you are paranoid doesn't mean they aren't out to get you. Pointing the finger back at ourselves in blame for our current social predicament is not, in my opinion, a cure for the projection of the shadow you mention. Yes, that projection exists, and is made clear in the highly emotional content of the accusations, but we must not lose sight of the fact that our elected officials have considerable power – much more than the "average American". By virtue of the fact that they ran for office, those officials have taken responsibility for structuring and managing the government. Therefore, failures of government, leadership and vision should be dumped right in the laps of those who said they would do the job. This is not scapegoating – this is accountability, a necessary first step for change.

I turned 20 in 1972. I remember those days well. I spent years in college and grad school studying soil science, and have been growing at least some of my own food almost every year since the late 70s. I supported various environmental causes and organizations over the years. I recycled, hung clothes on the clothesline, educated myself, voted carefully, and did all those things that good, environmentally-responsible citizens were "supposed" to do. Now, finally, for the last 11 years I have lived on 2 rural acres, something I'd been planning since the 70s. I work at home, no commute. I don't see a villain when I look in the mirror, because I'm not one. But I sure as hell can point to some, and I don't believe I am projecting or scapegoating.

That said, I do think you are right on track when you say that the nihilistic mindset is a major cultural problem; one that holds us back from making necessary changes. The level of psychological and psychic illness that pervades our culture is so extreme that "what happened" will only be really understood after those who are alive now are long gone.

I also agree wholeheartedly that we need to bring back the low-tech, energy-conservative methods of living, and thank you for freely sharing your thoughts and ideas. They are much needed.

4/14/11, 8:07 AM

K said...
I was too young to remember the 1973-74 oil embargo, but I certainly do remember the 1979 oil shock that followed the Iranian Revolution. At the time, to my eight-year-old mind, the long lines of cars at gas stations seemed just one piece of the perception I had that a preparation for imminent scarcity and a focus on ecology were commonplace societal norms.

Granted, I lived in liberal Northern California, but as a previous commenter said, your own normal is what you first grew up with, and I first grew up with "Save Mono Lake" bumperstickers on compact Datsuns and the "Energy Blues" clip from Schoolhouse Rock that I posted last week. But when I look back on what felt societally important during my high-school years of the mid-late 1980s, that earlier mindset does not seem to play any part.

You make an excellent point, JMG, that in the 1970s lots of people were around who well remembered the Great Depression; the teenagers of the early 1930s were still only in their fifties, and in control of the country, in 1973. As you say, that meant the generation in power viscerally understood what scarcity and pulling together for a common purpose (think WW2) entailed. Combine those historical memories and the resulting learned discipline of the older generation with the conservation fervor of many Baby Boomers, and you had what might have been a rather winning combination for lasting change.

Fear is perhaps the ultimate motivator, and the fear of scarcity engendered by the 1970s oil shocks had their effects—until the oil glut (I'm using Wikipedia's term) of the 1980s made the previous concerns seem (note: emphasis on "seem") overblown. People desperate for predictability and stability (which is most people, frankly) were all too happy to cling to the belief that the '70s scarcity fears were but small rips in the fabric of continual progress, and that such fears had been "solved" (they weren't, of course) by the combination of factors that led, and quickly, to complacency once oil seemed again "cheap enough" in the 1980s and '90s.

Nothing too revelatory in my comment here, I'm afraid, except again to consider, oh, what we might have been able to do, back when we still had a chance.

4/14/11, 8:31 AM

K said...
I also meant to say this, and didn't: what meaning is there, if any, that recycling is the one bit of the '70s ecological agenda that has survived to flourish and become mainstream? I suppose it's just that it's easy to do and gives one a false that it's OK to buy 18-packs of plastic water bottles as long as one recycles them, thereby helping to "save the planet." (Sorry, that's my 2011 cynicism talking.)

4/14/11, 8:49 AM

GHung said...
Dammit, Greer....Here I am, the last killing frost has hopefully come and gone, and I should be in the garden. Once again you've roped me into considering things yet unresolved, though I question my own worthiness to respond.

1974 was the coming-of-age year for me in many ways. I had started the previous fall in a new, essentially "white flight", upper middle class highschool, coming from 4 years as a non-catholic in a Catholic-Military boy's prep-school (jeez). Girls, Sports, lots of freedom and weed ....plenty of distractions, though it wasn't to last. After a summer of study in Europe and the USSR, I returned to highschool. It wasn't long before I was in the hot seat of an evangelical public school principal, a bible close at hand, his idea of 'corrective detention', so I wrote my parents a note, donned my pack and left; a Hobo at sixteen.

Until that day, nothing of the '70s made any sense. What I had been taught to that point clearly didn't jive with my vision of things. The pipe-dream hopes of the '60s, those brief flashes of sanity, had devolved into, as you describe, a society with no honest sense of self. It was on the cold highways and filthy boxcars of America that I found sanity, hope and honor,, among the social outcast tribe; Kristofferson's version of freedom. The view from the bottom can be enlightening indeed.

This was my 'walkabout', the first of several actually. I apologise for perhaps being self-indulgent so far. While most of the comments here indicate an awareness of the 'what', regarding our society's collective disfunctionalities, I'm trying to get a handle on the 'why' aspect. To blame the causes and effects of the industrial age and to say that fossil fuels have spoiled us goes more to the how we've arrived at this age of conundrums and predicaments. As I type, yet another generation of babies are drowning in our bathwater. Why?

Joseph Cambell touched on the idea of a 'coming of age' event in the lives of the young people of many primitive cultures. He discussed the Australian Aboriginal walkabout, when young men were expected to go into the wilderness, fend for themselves, cleansing themselves of youthful expectations and opening themselves to the wisdom and responsibilities of adulthood. His concern was that this transition ritual, this metamorphosis of individuals has been discarded for the most part. (His take was that a girl's transition into womanhood was more self-evident.)

Question: For me it is evident that our society, perhaps our species as a whole, requires a walkabout event, far longer than the Jews' 40 years, a multi-generational reset of expectation and responsibility, some time in the wilderness to consider its future. Is this even possible? I believe it is inevitable, though, as with the tribal walkabouts of the Australian outback, as with Moses, many will not survive, and there is no guarantee of a promised land.

This site, especially, seems about imparting the qualities and skills worthy of being passed on to the next generation, not just physical skills, but the courage to face the mirror as our time in the wilderness approaches. It is encouraging that so many excellent comments are from younger generations. Good on all of you!

Again, to the garden I go...

4/14/11, 9:03 AM

Tom said...
John, I look forward to your columns every week. This one echoes much of what you have written about the 1970s as being a halcyon time when we actually had a chance as a nation to change directions; in the economy and in the way we lived our lives.

Back then I had my Whole Earth Catalog and was reading Scott Nearing's books, had the garden thing going, wore bib overalls and did everything all hippie chic.

But, I got smiles from my Dad for aspiring to live as he had been living all along as a small farmer and paper mill worker in northern Wisconsin, by economic necessity, not by choice. He came out of WWII with an 8th grade education but many skills with hand tools, gardening, and animal husbandry having grown up poor on a small farm during the last depression. We had a big garden, an orchard, chickens, goats, a couple of cows, and bought most of what we couldn't produce ourselves locally. And, we took the train to Chicago to visit my aunt on a regular basis.

Hopefully, we will look to good examples from the past and somehow muddle through the coming calamity.

4/14/11, 9:11 AM

John Michael Greer said...
Susan, it's not just the Bible; just about every spiritual tradition has useful things to say about the problems that come from obsessively chasing short-term cravings, and yes, it's highly relevant to the history of the last half century.

Dan, bingo. We can't change the past, but we can learn from its mistakes and do something different this time.

Archivist, it's only people who live lives insulated from nature who can afford to daydream about nature as an all-nurturing momma.

Robo, now explain to me why you find this insistence on your own powerlessness so compelling.

Kevin, excellent. By all means keep speaking the unspeakable; with your permission, I'll use your comment in a future post.

John, yes, and then you said "it was never in the cards" and "the car and oil companies would never have allowed it." That's simply another way of claiming that it couldn't have happened. What if it could have happened, and we as a nation wimped out?

Jason, that makes a lot of sense -- and yes, Lao Tsu is always welcome company here.

Adam, that's an excellent point. I went through a relativist period in my undergraduate days, too, before classical philosophy and a sizable dash of virtue ethics taught me otherwise. You're right that relativism is a form of nihilism, but as I see it, the connection's much more direct: relativism is a way of denying that anything you want to do can be blameworthy, and when you live in a society that's committed itself to a blameworthy course, that sort of thinking becomes very, very popular.

Nathan, that's excellent news!

Andrew, I haven't owned a television since 1984, so haven't followed Curtis' career and can't really comment on his ideas.

Justin, no, it's not particularly muddled, and you're tackling some serious issues here. I'd suggest that nihilism is always a matter of choice; the Existentialists pointed out correctly that the world does not provide us with meaning, but they tended to miss the point that the world also doesn't provide us with a denial of meaning: we choose to experience the world as meaningful or meaningless. That being the case, which of these two choices produces the most creative, fulfilling, and compassionate life?

Chris, there's no way to force the cornucopians to come to their senses; all we can do is to craft a working alternative in our own lives and communities. The increasingly strident yelps from the cornucopian camp when they're confronted with that alternative is evidence enough that we're on the right track!

4/14/11, 9:13 AM

Adrian Ayres Fisher said...
Hello JMG and greetings to all,

Oh my, such perceptive comments, and JMG, I second your appreciation of the younger persons who read and comment.

Regarding cynicism, nihilism and cultural change: I do not think or write very abstractly, so will tell my story instead. As a younger boomer watching what the older ones were up to, I embraced and tried to live the ideals and 70s lifeways discussed in this post. Like Bill P. I'm one of those that never really participated in the cultural shift of the 80s and 90s. Our land became strange to me and I felt I was in the wilderness.

As my husband and I raised our children according to anti-materialistic, frugal, conservationist ideas, they, having been born in the late 80s, sometimes had a hard time at school, since we were raising them counter to the prevailing ethos. However, they turned out well: neither owns a car, they are not "relativists" of the sort described by Adam S. above, nor are they cynical.

I gradually found other, like-minded people, where I live and online, so no longer feel alienated. Yet I, too, see this creeping nihilism and cynicism and agree with your (JMG's) assessment.

I think there's a distinction to be made between nihilism and going through a period of grief and despair (which I have done) because conscious that the sort of alternative history you describe was possible, and realizing that it wasn't going to happen. And because of feeling, on a very deep level, the level of being, the damage humanity has done/continues to do to itself and the living earth.

Somehow, having traveled through what St. John of the Cross calls "the dark night of the soul," I emerged, and, as I've remarked here and elsewhere, have joined the great upwelling--as exemplified by green wizards and many others--of people who, one way or another, are choosing reality-based, life-affirming, resilient thinking and doing as opposed to soul-sucking nihilism. This is a profoundly moral, and willed, stance.

Perhaps it is not only betrayal of one sort or another that leads to the collective cynicism/nihilism. Perhaps it is also that making it through that dark night truly is difficult. Rather than, as St. John counsels, enduring it patiently through to the end, to new, chastened light, some might take prozac, though what they suffer isn't really depression, but a spiritual crises about their relation to the world. Some might get stuck halfway, and cynicism becomes a form of self "medication" that allows them to keep functioning in the world, somehow, and even to take a perverse pleasure in their hopelessness. But touchy withal, as you point out.

More and more I'm understanding how complicated the world is, how one can never have full information about anything, fully control outcomes, or fully understand the ramifications and effects of what one chooses to do or not do.

Yet we do think and act, guided by our beliefs, whether we admit to having any or not. It's easier to choose to do nothing or to destroy. Choosing to build and heal, as so many commenters here seem to be doing, is hard work that is inconsistent with, and impossible to do while embracing cynicism and nihilism.

What is the old saying? "Don't tell me what you're against, tell me what you are for." And if you've made it this far, thanks for your patience. ;)

4/14/11, 9:17 AM

John Michael Greer said...
Phil, thank you for the link.

Alex, that was our wake-up call. Unfortunately most of America ended up rolling over and going to sleep.

Hawlkeye, good. Very good. "The road to Reagan and the road to Jerry were the same road all along..." That one in particular is a keeper.

GeoWend, that's a good metaphor.

Thijs, of course you're quite correct. It's all the more interesting because the Cynic philosopers of ancient Greece were about as far from today's "cynics" as you can get; they argued, as I recall, that nothing other than moral excellence was worth thinking about at all, and their complete disregard for public opinion and material goods came from that strong stance. It's telling that the Stoic philosophy emerged as a more moderate, less hard-edged offshoot of the Cynics!

GeoWend, or the fact that the "identity" in question, too often, was a matter of following the latest fashion.

RainbowShadow, to my mind it's part and parcel of the same thing. The refusal of empathy you're describing is the response of people who know they got theirs by no virtue of their own, and feel sufficiently troubled by that fact that they end up crafting ever more elaborate justifications for why they deserve what they have and those who don't have the same thing don't deserve it. Think of Gollum making up lies in the dark about the Ring, trying to convince himself that it was a birthday present rather than the thing for which he murdered his closest friend, and you've got a very good model for that kind of thinking.

The end of the artificial prosperity of the last few decades means the end of that set of excuses, though it will take a while; exactly the same sort of Horatio Alger nonsense was highly popular in the 1920s, before the experiences of the 1930s beat the stuffing out of it.

Don, that seems unlikely to me, both because my post wasn't talking about "back on the road again" attitudes, and because of the consistently snarky tone of other comments by "pulltheweeds." Still, I'm perfectly capable of being wrong.

Loveandlight, if it had been done, it would have been subject to all the moral ambiguities and mixed motives of any human activity; the decreased standard of living would have been very unevenly shared out, and there would have been plenty of problems and embarrassments along the way. Even so, I think it could have been done, and could have landed us in a much better future than the one we're now facing.

Brad, the public schools are certainly part of the problem -- or the predicament -- rather than any sort of solution; they were wretched enough when I attended them in the 70s, though I understand they're much worse today. It may be worth noting that the homeschool movement had one of its major seedtimes during the Seventies, and alternative schools were also very much in favor; that's another dimension of the road not taken.

Rashakor, that's an excellent point. The thing about France, though, is that it was a major world power from the seventeenth century straight through to 1940, so the French can be forgiven a bit of megalomania. America's world empire really took off in 1945 and will be a thing of the past by 2045 at the latest; committing to an imperial identity when your empire is basically a flash in the pan is not a useful habit!

4/14/11, 9:38 AM

Bill Pulliam said...
Pondering more about the timing of all this...

Is it just coincidental that the rise of nihilism in culture has happened in close concert with the rise of personalized media and virtual experience? Up through the 1970s, entertainment, culture, news, art, etc. were shared community experiences. Sure, books and music were individualized, but nearly everyone still got a very large part of their music off broadcast radio and bought their books at a local bookshop (we didn't call them "independent booksellers" because there was no other kind) and their music at a local record shop (a what?). TV was broadcast on the networks, great masses all watched the same shows at the same time and talked about them at school and work the next day. Movies were in the theater and everyone went to see them there, old movies still went on revival tours. Video games came on the scene late in the decade, but were played in the pinball arcades. Owning a video game (not counting "Pong") in your rec room was a status symbol comparable to having a large, heated pool in the backyard and a BMW in the garage. Even if your tastes were alternative, you still pursued these interests with other people. Clubs and groups and bars existed where these minority interests could find each other, and pursue them together, as social activities and in communities.

In the 1980s came the videocasette recorder and widespread affordable urban cable TV (previously Community Antenna TV, for remote areas with poor broadcast reception, one high-powered tower to receive broadcasts from the distant cities which was then cabled into surrounding homes). Satellite TV spread through rural areas, and the Sony Walkman suddenly made it possible for private, personalized music listening to happen all day, anywhere.

These were of course just the warm-up acts (though we didn't know it at the time). The internet burst free of its .gov/.mil/.edu cage in the 1990s, and we all know where that has lead. Now media, arts, and culture are personal, private, individual activities. even sex has moved this way. With each passing innovation we have become psychologically and culturally more atomic and autonomous, living in our own created personalized world. I have my word, you really are not relevant to it. Indeed you are just an interruption, or another piece of media for me to be amused by, to ridicule, to abuse.

Ironically, initially it looked like the internet was going to be the great uniter of people. Suddenly all these cultural minorities who had previously lived in intellectual and social isolation could find each other! If you were a homosexual zoophile, you could actually find other homosexual zoophiles and arrange to meet them in person. MANY social networks were forged during the 1990s this way (most not quite that fringe...), frequently leading to long-lasting ties when these groups arranged to get together in person. But then, gradually, that second part faded away. The online world became not an enhancement to the real world, but a replacement for it. Now folks just swap pictures and post to discussion forums, and leave it at that. And this is counted as being "friends."

It's really hard for me to think that this has not been a major influence on the phenomenon we're talking about here.

4/14/11, 9:42 AM

John Michael Greer said...
Gregorach, it's hard to respond to that question in abstract terms, since every case varies. Still, you're only trapped by your past choices if you choose to be. Every day, each of us decides whether to reaffirm the life choices we've made or to do something different. If you decide to do something different, it's going to cost you, and it's going to hurt, but if your conscience won't let you rest, don't try to bargain with it; do the right thing and make the changes you need to make to get your life back on track toward your ideals from here on out, whatever it costs you and however much it hurts. That's actually the easiest as well as the best way to do it, though it won't seem that way at the time.

Michael, the inner revolution you're describing can only be achieved one person at a time, and then only when that person is ready and willing to undertake the very hard work involved. Yes, it's a crucial factor, but there's no way to do it on a mass scale; every past attempt to do so, and of course there have been any number of those, has ended up turning into yet another ideology, and usually killing a lot of people sooner or later.

Bill, true enough.

X, since I don't have any experience living outside the US, I've tried not to generalize -- among other things, the US has very tightly (though "unofficially") censored media these days, and I have no way of knowing whether the information that comes across the borders gets here in useful form. Still, I'm not surprised that the same phenomenon is at work in Europe. What was it Yeats said about the prospects of European unity? "Only dead or dying sticks can be tied into a bundle..."

Sage, I'll be discussing that in a later series of posts. Expect them around the time the last space shuttle flight touches down.

Dio, I'll be addressing this in more detail in the next two posts. Still, the problem with identifying some iteration of "them" as the cause of our current situation is that it feeds the fantasy of powerlessness -- "they" stopped us from doing whatever, and will continue to do so, so why try? Eldridge Cleaver was exactly wrong; it's only by acknowleding that we're part of the problem that we can become part of the solution, because if we recognize our own participation in the problem, we identify the places where we can exert our own power to make things different.

K, granted, we had a chance then and blew it. We have a chance now. It won't accomplish as much or be anything like as easy -- and it wasn't going to be easy even then -- but the future we can have now, given a willingness to act, beats the bejesus out of the future we're going to get if we sit on our hind ends bemoaning the situation. That being the case, what are you prepared to do about the opportunities we've got right now?

4/14/11, 9:51 AM

Kieran O'Neill said...
I'm also a child of the 80s, so much of this happened before my time. And I did also grow up (as anyone born after 1980) in a purely consumerist society. And yes, there is a lot of hopelessness and nihilism when people think about the future. The signs are many, and pretty hard to ignore -- from climate change and peak oil to mass species extinctions, depleted natural resources and increasing levels of contaminants in our food chain. As you have said, people get uncomfortable and prefer to stick their heads in the sand rather than confront these issues.

And when those among my generation and younger ones do confront the problem, there is a certain current of resentment and blame aimed at the baby boomer generation. I can only see this getting worse with each subsequent generation, until things start to stabilise out.

But I think that is also where projects like Green Wizardry or Transition Towns come in. They give people, to use your words, an "alternative to nihilism". It's much easier to confront the grim state of the world when you have a list of feasible things you can do about it.

I'd also add that there are currents in the current adolescent generation that give me hope. In the context of the US, on the one hand you have the far-left associated modern hipsters, who seem to be already practising for the scavenger-tech stage of our culture. On the other hand, you have the far-right associated borderline survivalist types who embrace such philosophies as the "every day carry (EDC) -- that of keeping a set of high-quality tools on one's person on a daily basis to confront situations as they arise. This philosophy, while it does overlap with the carrying of weapons (which I find questionable) is highly practical and tends to be associated with a rejection of consumerism for the alternative of buying fewer, better-made items.

In both these groups I see some hope for the future, although in the US they are diametrically opposed to one another politically.

I also see some hope in gradual shifts in the consumption of electronics. I don't have figures, but I get the impression that for every early adopter with several dozen obsolete devices in their basement, there are several people who simply buy a computer to fulfil their basic needs of web browsing and word processing, and use it for five years or more. It's still far from the ideal of, say, buying an appliance that lasts a lifetime, but it's a shift towards where we need to be longer term.

4/14/11, 10:08 AM

Twilight said...
Yes, I think it could have worked, could have become the direction we went. I recall working with my parents in the large garden we had, helping my Dad with installing the woodstove and gathering firewood, all of us trying to learn how to grow hay on our fields and run the ancient baler our neighbor had bought so feed the steers he was raising. Yeah, we were clueless, but I daresay we would be fairly proficient by now if those efforts had continued. But I loved that lifestyle and mindset, even though I was not overtly aware of all the forces that were driving these changes. That understanding did not begin to dawn until I was in collage and took a course on the limits to growth, but by that time it was the Reagan era and I was one of the few longhairs at an engineering & business school. No one seemed to care and I fell for the “someone will think of something” line. Mostly I thought it was a political problem, as at that time I still believed the two party distraction was meaningful.

I suspect that what happened is akin to the topics you've been discussing the last few weeks. Too many people with essentially free and unlimited energy for too long. All those energy slaves allowed people to live with little social interaction, destroyed cultural institutions and with them the acceptance of limits. The message of “no, you cannot have all the energy you want” was rejected in a national temper tantrum.

But why societies choose to succeed or fail is the question Diamond asked in the subtitle, and you and Tainter and others have explored. Maybe there was a time some decades before the Maya fell into terminal decline that another path could have been taken by some who saw what was happening (or maybe for all we know they did and succeeded). Isn’t that one of the basic ideas, that too many people are stuck on a particular set of responses, and when changing circumstances and external events require new courses of action not enough are able to change direction?

4/14/11, 10:10 AM

Robert C. Guy said...
Thijs, thank you for mentioning that interesting old dog Diogenes; if I had a rubber chicken, all featherless and foolish, I would put a name-tag on it and name it "human" and I would set him next to the likeness of a dog and his name tag would read "man."
John, I am curious, do you have any estimate how many druids read your posts regularly and follow these comment threads as silently as they might watch a stream in the forest or the way the living things in a garden interact with each other?

4/14/11, 11:15 AM

Joy Clough said...
Humanity grows more and more intelligent, yet there is clearly more trouble and less happiness daily. How can this be so? It is because intelligence is not the same thing as wisdom. When a society misuses partial intelligence and ignores holistic wisdom, its people forget the benefits of a plan and natural life. Seduced by their desires, emotions, and egos, they become slaves to the bodily demands, to luxuries, to power and unbalanced religion and psychological excuses. Then the reign of calamity and confusion begins. Nonetheless, superior people can awaken during times of turmoil to lead others out of the mire. But how can one liberate the many? By first liberating his own being. He does this not by elevating himself, but by lowering himself. He lowers himself to that which is simple and modest and truthful, and by integrating it into himself, he becomes a master of simplicity, modesty and truth. Completely emancipated from his former false life, he discovers his original pure nature, which is the nature of the universe.

Loa Tzu
from the Hua Hu Ching

JMG, thank you for your giving back to the rest of us. You are a Master and help me to stay on the way.

4/14/11, 11:39 AM

Eric Thurston said...
A really good column. Touches home for me, as I am a 'child of the 60's'

The acceptance of blame, or, more appropriately, responsibility, comes hard for folks. I think it is a difficult thing for people to learn to distinguish between personal blame and societal blame. One can maintain a sense of one's own integrity and morality while accepting blame on a broad group level and, I believe in doing so, become more empowered to help bring about the changes in the group that we desire.

I don't know if I've articulated this in a way that makes sense, but I feel this personal vs social distinction is a really important one to make.

4/14/11, 11:52 AM

Karyn said...
Coming of age in the mid seventies I always felt that I was playing catch up to the pioneering folks of the sixties. I worked furiously to understand and implement low tech living, thinking this was the wave of the future. As time went on, I felt more and more isolated as most of my peers pursued material wealth and "status". You can't imagine how thankful I feel, reading the archdruid report, that I wasn't indeed a nut back then, that my astonishment at the evaporation of that movement was right on. It makes me cry. -shosh

4/14/11, 12:02 PM

John Michael Greer said...
K, recycling's not quite the only aspect. A lot of otherwise ordinary people are still into organic gardening, for example, and earth-friendly products of various kinds still have steady sales. From one perspective, those are the scraps of what could have been, but they're also things we won't have to reinvent this time.

GHung, the "how" is complex enough; the "why" reaches into some very deep and obscure places. As for our culture's approaching time in the wilderness, that's a good metaphor; trying not to face that may be a good part of the reason why so many people are praying that the world will end soon.

Tom, I don't know that I'd call the Seventies a halcyon time; it had a lot of problems of its own. The one thing it had going for it was at least some willingness to confront those problems, rather than insisting that they were virtues.

Adrian, the distinction between nihilism and grief is crucial; thanks for bringing it up. It's precisely the attempt to avoid the grief, the inevitable mourning that comes from accepting a loss, that drives the nihilism; it's the pretense that what you lost wasn't worth having anyway.

Bill, I think you're right that the two phenomena are intertwined, but tracing which is cause and which effect is a fascinating question. A less nihilistic society might have applied the basic technologies in a very different way, for example.

Kieran, the boomer generation has worked overtime to earn the wrath of its descendants, though there's plenty of responsibility to go around. I hope the rising generations can find productive uses for their rejection of the boomers' values.

Twilight, exactly. I'll be touching on those issues in the next couple of posts.

Robert, it's anybody's guess; Druids are notoriously difficult to track. Also, of course, Druids make up only a small fraction of the people I do hear from now and then who are reading this and similar blogs, and doing the work that needs to be done, either for the first time or as part of a continuing path.

Joy, thank you, but that's a title I don't wish to use for a variety of reasons.

Eric, that's true. Still, there's another point to consider, which is that blame and responsibiity are not the same things. Passing blame isn't really useful; accepting responsibility is, and especially in a situation like this, all of us need to recognize our own participation in what's happened.

I'm as good an example as any. Though my lifestyle choices are very strongly influenced by my sense of resource limits and the needs of the planet, there are plenty of things I could have done but didn't; there's also the fact that as a US citizen, I benefit directly and indirectly in any number of ways from the vast wealth of this nation, essentially all of which is propped up by unsustainable energy and resource use. Accepting my own participation in that system, it seems to me, is crucial to figuring out what I can do to change the system for the better, starting with my own life.

Karyn, you were right on target then, and now. If you've preserved the skills and knowledge you learned at that time, or can recover them, you'll be in a position to help a lot of people catch up; my sense is that's one thing those of us who never sold out can usefully do.

4/14/11, 12:36 PM

rakesprogress said...
Michael, your notion of the "world's dilemmas caused by a lack of true spiritual development" gnawed at me for many years. My present understanding of that takes the form of a question: where does one expect to find "true spiritual development," if not in the process of diligently taking care of practical matters such as growing food and keeping warm, understanding the world we live in and making some concrete positive contribution?

The visualization of spiritual development as some magic force from an alternate reality is one of the many handicaps that afflict our collective consciousness. To me, the great revelation of writers like JMG and Wendell Berry is that the key to a healthy spirit is—literally—at our fingertips. It's something we build, not something we find.

Perhaps what makes a revelation great is that it's camouflaged by its obviousness?

4/14/11, 12:40 PM

Bill Pulliam said...
JMG -- I agree completely about the intertwining of the two and the futility of trying to precisely sort out chickens and eggs in any cultural phenomenon. However we got here, Homo nihilisticus autonomotivus is the dominant species in American society at this historical juncture, and that is what we have to live with at the present.

You are certainly also correct that technology is what we make of it, and people with different societal concepts would (will, do) use the internet differently. In my own personal case, as all this virtual social networking evolved away from a way to enhance real social networks and instead began to displace them, my interest and participation in it dropped dramatically. I had a personal website way back in 1995, was all over the usenet, started my first blog in 2004, yet I have not even bothered to get a Facebook account.

About the convergence of events in the 1970s that gave us a national "wake-up call"... I was hopeful that the events surrounding the second term of Bush II might have the same effect. The magnitude of the shocks was comparable -- revelations of lawlessness and inhumanity in our military, incompetence at conducting military operations, a massive natural disaster which we were inexcusably unprepared to respond to, resulting oil shocks that highlighted the frailty of our gasoline-based economy, the second round of oil shocks that could not be blamed on some simple short-term supply interruption, the collapse of the financial system pulling the curtain back on the freak show that we were trying to pass off as an economy, on and on. The initial reaction indicated that indeed there might be a sea change beginning -- people actually started buying smaller cars, and the Party in Power was swept out en masse in two rounds of elections. Never mind whether or not the Opposition Party was any better, an electoral purge is a strong show that the electorate has come to suspect that "business as usual" is a crock of manure and they are ready for real change.

But it looks like instead of waking up, we may have just smacked the snooze alarm. Somehow we seem to have collectively decided that everything troubled and shaky in our society is simply a matter of how the Federal Budget is shuffled. The anxiety of the late Aughts seems to have been funneled into conspiracy theories and political polarization, two of the least productive responses imaginable. Sigh.

A few months ago, we watched "The Day After Tomorrow" and "2012" back-to-back. I had avoided both of them initially, but decided it might be fun to watch them just for the visual effects. One very interesting contrast -- in the former (and older) film, the End of the World is brought about by our own actions and refusal to come to terms with their inevitable consequences. In the latter (and more recent) film, the End of the World just happens (via laughably convoluted Solar physics), we have nothing to do with it, we are just left to react to it. Both involve government corruption, but in the first case this corruption helps lead to the catastrophe, in the second case it just interferes with the response to the catastrophe that is Nobody's Fault.

Both movies also seem to think we have a vastly greater knowledge of what is happening on our planet, moment to moment and square mile by square mile, than we actually do.

4/14/11, 1:08 PM

Robert C. Guy said...
It is interesting. I only thought of that question because I wonder how many take your words to heart and have or are or will put their energy into the advice found here or something else good in their lives but never come out and say it in words here. I appreciate the words that you share. Also, I think if I had known about him sooner, that Diogenes would have been a sort of a hero to me in younger years. Not a solitary lone hero but certainly a member of my hero-pantheon. I would have made up stories about him in my head and kept myself tirelessly amused. I'm not sure a 29 year old has heroes like a 9 year old would but I know I would have sucked up every thing I could find about Diogenes if anyone had told me the tales of him that I've read these last few days.

4/14/11, 1:54 PM

Michael said...
John, you wrote: “Michael, the inner revolution you're describing can only be achieved one person at a time, and then only when that person is ready and willing to undertake the very hard work involved.” I agree 100%. However, on that difficult path of self change, the right kind of help can be very helpful, sometimes essential. I have been a Skeptic (of the healthy kind) all my life. Yet, I am constantly amazed and gratified by the profound spiritual changes taking place in participants of the AA program. I have been part of this for over fifty years now, and feel that the principals of small group mutual help central to AA could be easily extended to embrace the need for deep changes in our addictive society.

I have been part of many groups over the years: Sufis, Yogis, Aikido, Zen, Quakers….the list is a long one. AA is unique in that it explicitly has no leaders, accepts no money, accepts anyone who is interested, abjures organization, does not advertise or proselytize, and has almost no rules -- and yet has been successful in transforming the lives of millions around the world. The twelve steps are perhaps the most generic and complete spiritual path ever devised.

To me, AA exemplifies the possibilities of small groups for changing our world. I agree that mass movements miss the point of what people really need: a world of responsible spiritually motivated people capable of walking away from the false premises of our moribund culture. And yet AA is an example of a mass movement based on small groups of independent agents helping each other to grow beyond the need of leader/follower movements. We have a lot to learn from each other, and it can be done outside the stultifying confines of traditional groups.

If anyone who reads this is interested in further exploring these possibilities, my email is [email protected]

4/14/11, 2:05 PM

Kevin said...
Quote permission gladly granted, JMG.

I concur with RainbowShadow's remarks on a certain self-justifying callousness that has crept into large elements of our culture, especially as regards homelessness. I feel that this to some extent converges with the Jungian phenomenon of shadow-projection you've referred to, producing a notable punitive cruelty reminiscent of Pre-Dickensian England.

I never saw a homeless person in my life until around the time that Reagan became President.

4/14/11, 2:09 PM

Doctor Westchester said...

You are addressing one of the core issues of our culture – current western culture with an emphasis on the extreme American version of it.

You quite correctly say that we have a have a massive desire to blame others for problems. But we must also acknowledge the currents in which we swim. The problem of overproduction that the unthinking use of fossil fuel leads to were “solved” by massive propaganda campaigns to over consume starting in the middle of the last century as you have noted. The campaigns have continued to this day in ever more debased form, leading to a point where our elite can’t let go of them even when there are great advantages to doing so, even for a short while. Had we done so after the 9/11 incident and had a year or more of “sacrifice for the war effort”, we would have a much better economy right now – not a healthy, i.e. “old normal”, one as the transition to a post-fossil fuel one has begun, but one perhaps slightly better suited to that transition.

I think in bitter amusement of the attacks on the French and other Europeans for their (weakening) resistance to some of worst features of American culture like McDonald’s bad food. The amazing amount of anger that this generated just confirms your thesis about fears that our choices have not been the best. It also shows that strong cultural inheritance can fight the propaganda.

I am also bitterly amused as a scientist, that training in science, engineering and similar hard disciplines are mostly now done by foreign students, or first/second generation Americans. I suspect this lack of elites in these areas is one reason that they are disengaged from any thing that smacks of realist thinking. I went and got an MBA a decade after I received my Ph.D. I noticed that except for accounting, business statistics and other business math, there was not much else there, and this was from a top-ten school. Economics was especially amusing and in its way frustrating.

This first/second generation thing also speaks of the influence on weakening the will that our culture on people over the generations. Just as the big bad wolf said to Red Riding Hood, “The better to eat you, my dear.”, our culture says “The better to sell you plastic crap you don’t need and reduce you to a willing debt serf.”

One result of influence can be seen in observation that first generation Italians had a low incidence of alcoholism, but the rate is closed to the mainstream one for third and higher generations.

Yes, these currents are very strong, but a major waterfall is now directly ahead. I agree with you that many of our elite will regret the propaganda of ease and abundance that they profited from so greatly. And I think that is one of the keys to why they choose the particular road that we decided to follow them on. Yes, one could have made more railroads and solar panels, but there was greater (short-term) profit in autos and planes and centralized power systems, especially if one can play games to keep the cost of oil down. There was more profit in getting people to move to the suburbs, rather than renovating the existing cities.
There is of course the question of why our top elite are so short sighted. I wonder if it is because they are basically merchants. I say this thinking of the Japanese in much of their history. While their top merchants were rich and certainly an elite, I understand that the top elite in their country were their military. And a military should understand the concepts of discipline and sacrifice.

4/14/11, 2:10 PM

Michael Tweiten said...
Thanks JMG!
Re: The many references to paths in this great discussion...

More wisdom from the seventies:

"yes there are two paths you can go by
but in the long run
there's still time to change the road you're on."

Hoping for a little redemption for Zeppelin fans.

4/14/11, 2:14 PM

Rev. TaiPing Monkey said...
This is the fourth time I have read this blog (four weeks in a row) and the first time I have posted here. I just wanted to say thanks to JMG and the rest of you for such powerful insights and commentary. Cheers!

4/14/11, 2:29 PM

dennis said...
I remember. Seventeen and in Highschool. I was doing an independent study on the book, The Limits To Growth. Working with the anti nuclear prop 15 group in California. My folks were headed to Idaho to "homestead". I had my own subscription to Mother Earth News, a pair of rainbow suspenders, and an actual ear ring. Left ear mind you.
It could have happened with just a bit of encouragement.
Instead we got Disco and MTV. I walked away. I was following a skirt rather than my spirit. Ended up a drunk in the construction business. Every time I put a cheap set of cabinets into your run of the mill McMansion I had this voice in my head saying. "It's just not right."
I got to see my buddy's family lose their house cause his dad wanted to build solar panels for a world that didn't want them. I watched as my parents quit raising animals and having a garden. Instead getting real jobs just so they could keep the farm. I watched an entire generation of folks lose their small business and farms.
I took this blog very personal, because I know we could have. I know I could have and I didn't.

4/14/11, 2:46 PM

Robo said...

Just because we are encouraged to think of ourselves as powerless and dependent doesn't mean that all of us believe it.

Many do, unfortunately. None of them want to know the things that you write about every week. They want to be safe and secure. The future will be neither.

4/14/11, 3:47 PM

sofistek said...
Perhaps it is just as well that that vision wasn't enacted, a quarter of a century ago. It sounds "better" but still unsustainable. High speed rail links, global technology leaders? It would have been a different unsustainable society and maybe could have lasted longer than the one you got but it doesn't sound sustainable. And if other countries didn't follow suit, it would have made even less difference.

4/14/11, 4:00 PM

Malcolm Smith said...
"I was born well after the 70s so I don't really understand much of the motivation for the shift in change from the AT/conservation movements towards the more material/growth-at-all-costs movements. Was it a lack of clear vision?"

One word: Reagan.

4/14/11, 4:20 PM

John Michael Greer said...
Progress, I'd say that spiritual development has to take place in a context of dealing with realities -- "chop wood, carry water" -- but there's more to it than that; plenty of people spend their lives doing the day to day work and never shake themselves out of their mental rut.

Bill, I haven't seen either movie but none of that surprises me. As for conspiracy theories and political polarization, I'll be addressing that next week. I expect to see quite a bit of unproductive responses.

Robert, that's good to hear. Too few people have heroes these days; it's one of the reasons we so often fall short of our own potentials for heroism.

Michael, some people have good experiences with AA and its equivalents, others don't, and a lot of people on both sides have their teeth set on edge by its adherents' tendency to proselytise. I put your post through this time, but recruitment pitches normally aren't in good taste here.

Kevin, that's because the Reagan administration gutted the mental health system and turned hundreds of thousands of mentally ill people out onto the streets. That's where the first great rush of homeless people came from, though of course there were plenty from other sources later on.

Doctor, note the questions you're begging by insisting that what happened was largely the result of those elites; they have to be at one and the same time clever enough to manipulate the rest of us and stupid enough to do so in such a massively self-defeating cause. I don't buy it. I think that a very large fraction of the "blame the elites" verbiage we hear these days is an attempt to evade personal responsibility. More on this next week.

Michael T., here's hoping that "a new day will dawn for those who stay long, and the forest will echo with laughter." (I think I wore straight through a copy of that track...)

Monkey, thank you.

Dennis, I remember too. My thought is that it's time for those of us who were there to dust off the old books and old skills, and try to get something moving again.

Robo, what I'm suggesting is that trying to claim that it's all a function of manipulation by the elites is an argument in favor of powerlessness.

Sofistek, it wasn't sustainable over the long run, but it would have bought us a great deal of time with which to tackle the next steps in the transition down from industrialism. As for other countries, without the flood of cheap oil from the North Slope and North Sea, they'd have spent the last thirty years struggling with sky-high oil prices, you know.

Malcolm, that's a huge oversimplification. Reagan was a mascot -- a worn-out actor who had the chance to play one final big role to cap his career. If most of the Americans who'd gotten aboard the sustainability bandwagon in the previous decade had refused to follow his lead, the last thirty years would have been very different. It's the way that so many people bailed out on sustainability and rushed to drink Reagan's koolaid that deserves our attention.

4/14/11, 5:54 PM

beneaththesurface said...
Well said! :

"There’s the kind [of cynicism]– variously weary, amused, hurt, or icily dangerous – that comes naturally to those who have too often seen others betray their ideals. Then there’s the other kind – sullen, jeering, brittle, and defensive – that comes just as naturally to those who betray their own ideals, and makes them lash out angrily whenever anything too reminiscent of that betrayal flicks them on the raw."

I find I have often had the experience of listening to leftist friends/acquaintances of mine rant about corporate dominance of our society and the corruption of political elites. But then I oftentimes find that often those same people are supporting the corporations they rant about (though their buying habits, bank accounts, investments, etc.). Their actions (or lack of certain action) implicitly communicate that they feel powerless.

While I too definitely share some of the same cynicism about most politicians and the corporate takeover of our society, at the same time, I find myself critical of an extreme leftist worldview that blames problems only on corporations and elites, and denies the importance of any personal responsibility.

I sometimes wonder if all the people out there who rant about all the ills of our economic system would actually withdraw their support from corporations in their daily lives (to the extent possible at least), how much less power corporations would actually have?

It bothers me the number of people who have come to the belief that their choices don't matter because "the world is already doomed." While I am not optimistic at this point of some voluntary cultural shift towards 'sustainability' I still think it's important to live one's values. If only, to know when you die that you lived a life that was truly you and not to have let outside forces change who you are deep down.

4/14/11, 7:55 PM

Bill Pulliam said...
Reagan, like Bush II, Clinton, and all the rest of them, was much more of a symptom than a cause. Successful politicians are those who know how to catch a wave and ride it so skillfully that they give the illusion of leading it. They don't make the waves. If they try to go against the wave they wipe out. Obama is furiously trying to read the current waves and figure out how to get back on top of them (supposed pro-environmentalist who just agreed to de-list the Gray Wolf); the Tea Party actually believe they are creating the wave and thus have a very high risk of crashing in a heap of political foam rather soon.

What was so horrifying on Election night 1980, and again in 2004, was not so much the realization that Ronald Ray-Gun was going to be president, or that we were going to have to endure 4 more years if Shrub. It was the realization that the American people had en masse voted for these people, that the collective had repudiated (refutiated?) the values I cared about at a very profound level. Screw the name at the top of the ticket, they would have found someone else to do their dirty work (they being, actually, We, as in We the People).

In 2012 if we vote in someone like Sarah Palin, that will not per se be The End of The World. It will be a clear sign that The World already Ended and anything we might have thought of as real fundamental American values are no more. But it sure will be a field day for the comedians.

4/14/11, 8:04 PM

John Michael Greer said...
Beneath, well put. Of course the political system is corrupt; as Spengler pointed out, democratic political systems always are. Still, there's a crucial difference between an ordinarily corrupt government and the pervasive fantasy -- found on both sides of the spectrum, by the way -- that if you don't have the power to get your way, somebody else must have that power and be deliberately using it to stop you.

Bill, exactly. The fact that power is unevenly distributed in America (like every other human society, past, present, and future) does not mean that a handful of people can make the country do whatever they want. A politician like Reagan succeeds by figuring out what a large number of people want to hear, and telling it to them; the issue that's dodged so often is why so many people, a great many of whom claimed to be moderates, wanted to hear that particular line.

4/14/11, 8:34 PM

Bill Pulliam said...
You know, I was just thinking that these little sidebars about Reagan etc, and the political events at the opening of the 1980s. We really have overlooked the more important and significant side of the story: what Jimmy Carter did after he was drummed out of Washington and the political system said "No thanks and good riddance!" to everything he stood for.

I have heard it said that Carter was the only person to have ever used the Presidency as a stepping stone to higher goals. When he returned to Georgia he did not settle back into bitterness, scapegoating, resentment, or resignation to the hopeless fate of the world. He marched right ahead and pursued his work directly, without expecting the political system to do it for him. In addition to being a leader, organizer, and fundraiser, he also went out and swung the dang hammer himself. And he continues to walk the walk today, more than three decades later.

We individuals don't have the resources or status to found the Carter Center. But we can do the equivalent on our own scales -- swing our own dang hammers, do the work ourselves, don't expect (or wait for) the political system to do it for us. Isn't that the whole point here?

And this comment isn't just because I am a Georgia native, where I have heard him referred to as Saint Jimmy!

4/14/11, 10:11 PM

Petr said...

I've didn't read all the posts, it's quite alot of text which is sometimes idiomatic and difficult to read for me(don't you like to learn esperanto? ;)).
But I'd like to mention one thing which seems interesting to me, it touches the nihility problem.
Here in Czech republic we were self-sufficient to a hight extent until the collapse of eastern block and so-called "real socialism" which was established in seventies and eigthies.
I was born in the beginning of eighties, so my perception is not direct, but as far as I know, there was real enthusiasm and spirit of building a better future in sixties(here it was a communistic one, but the sixtites were leftist in USA too I think - leftist in the meaning of prefering cooperative patterns over concurrention, as I perceive the term). In the 1968 the Soviet union intervented and began occupation of ČR which lasted until 1987-9's collapse. In that time the regime was being internally "normalized", as the sixties liberation movement was presumably a big danger to the "Eastern block", but it was probably so perceived also by the west, which didn't perform any, nor formal, action to "save our freedom". I think it was also due to big seductiveness of free democratic and cooperative system, which was as I think arising here(and to a lesser extent in US).
The flower was smothered before it could flower. In ninethies, the most of our state was sold off underprice to various, mostly western, subjects and speculants(we were one of the most industrialized countries throughout the 20th century, even through socialistic era). The corrupted totalitarian government with socialistic rhetoric was replaced by similary or even more corrupted "democratic" government with neoliberal "conservative" rhetoric, maybe partly driven from outside(if there were a real democratic shift, the new regime probably wouldn't be capitallist at all).
After this historical development, the whole spirit, ideology and enthusiasm is away, only relativism, delusion and bare concurrention at all costs remained. The "conservative" dissolution of state infrastructure continues (the pension funds and public healthcare are the few things which remained serving and a big fight about their future now becomes, "right" parties trying to privatize it all using mostly false arguments and extensive "mass communication").
Well, what I originally wanted to point out is that at least here, and in USA, and I think in bigger part of world, the spirit of sixties and maybe seventies(here cutted in 1968) was really diferent than that of eighties.
I'm sorry for longer than indended and partly offtopic post. :)



4/15/11, 1:16 AM

Cherokee Organics said...
Hi JMG and all,

I'm reading much angst and belly button gazing in all the comments here - and I'm not poking fun at anyone saying this either.

There's a simple path to jumping off the carousel.

Stop buying stuff you don't need. Buy second hand stuff instead if you have to. Grow your own fruit and vegies. Reduce you motor vehicle usage. Turn down the heating or cooling in your home. Don't feel you have to have the latest and greatest phone or whatever. Turn off all those appliances on standby. Turn off that second fridge in the garage. Sell the second motor vehicle. Get your partner and kids on board and make it fun. Survive the inevitable peer group pressure that you are all obviously under. Try some art or music. Get your hands dirty.

Trying producing something rather than passively consuming.

It's not hard, just hard work.

Good luck!


4/15/11, 2:15 AM

Cherokee Organics said...
Hey Bill P,

I must say that I find your writing quite insightful, and sometimes, just sometimes, you write the most outrageous things. I must also note that the majority of commenters tend to politely skip over these comments. Well, as we say here, "Good onya", because I'm troubled by the sameness of our culture - it's scary. It could use a bit of eccentricity and shaking up. It hasn't always been this way.



4/15/11, 2:56 AM

Cherokee Organics said...
Hi Doctor Westchester,

As to sacrifice have you looked at the US national debt or even the Japanese national debt (which runs at around 200% of GDP)?

I don't see much in the way of sacrifice there. I see subsidies and tax breaks to those who shouldn't get them. Please re-examine from this perspective.



4/15/11, 3:24 AM

phil harris said...
Inspiring to read a bit of youthful vision and insight, and reminders of our own youth.

I am reading a very recent book just now, "Fleeing Vesuvius". One of the contributors, David Korowicz, says in the context of our societies having adapted to global economic growth over 200 years:
"The self-organisation [he has sketched and illustrated the nature of complex civilisation] reminds us that governments do not control their economies. Nor does civil society. The corporate or financial sectors do not control the economies within which they operate. That they can destroy the economy should not be taken as evidence that they can control it."

I am reminded, however, of what hubris can do at critical junctures; Stalin and Mao's attempts at forced modernisation and industrialisation, for example.

Then we came to that tipping point, Reagan stimulants and the road to la-la land; BAU to its logical conclusion.(Probably not a co-incidence that we had Margaret Thatcher here in Britain, though she injected more than a modicum of hubris into historical process.)

If you all can help find the antidotes to injections of hubris, or to doses of fanciful Reagan-type assumptions, then we might with luck keep on the right side of future tipping points. Our personal consciousness probably has some small leverage within the developing national or wider modern consciousness.

Having said that, I tend to think that most of "The Future" is evolving elsewhere than in the USA. And I do not regard that as cynical.

4/15/11, 3:58 AM

Don Plummer said...
John: since pulltheweeds commented on Energy Bulletin's repost of this week's column and didn't raise any objection to your interpretation of his/her "dog named Boo" comment, I will defer to that interpretation. :)

(I always thought they were singing "dog named Blue". I'm not sure why, but then again I never saw the title of the song in print.)

In your response to Malcolm, you wrote, "It's the way that so many people bailed out on sustainability and rushed to drink Reagan's koolaid that deserves our attention." I've been trying, with limited success, to come up with an answer to that question, and I will be interested in your thoughts. In the meantime, I'm trying to remember the historical background to what might have been the turning point of the 1970's conservation effort: President Jimmy Carter's "crisis of confidence" speech, delivered July 15, 1979.

In a comment to last week's Archdruid Report, I noted that speech was initially well-received by the public. (The speech reads like prophecy today, 32 years later.) But only two days after delivering the speech, Carter fired his cabinet, destroying this momentum and public favor before it had any chance of achieving critical mass. That political and leadership blunder, plus Carter's other leadership errors, most particularly the fumbling of the Iran hostage rescue attempt, made him look incompetent. This appearance of incompetent leadership opened the door for his political opponents--not just Ronald Reagan. You will no doubt recall that Ted Kennedy challenged Carter for the 1980 Democratic nomination, believing that Carter was a fumbling, weak leader. Kennedy thus divided the Democratic party and aided the Republicans and Ronald Reagan.

While Reagan, like Kennedy, attacked Carter for his alleged incompetence, he also assailed Carter for promoting the notion that we Americans had to do with less. Yes, the American people drank his Kool-aid, but the notion that we would never have to do with less seemed to be confirmed by the opening of the Prudhoe Bay and North Sea oil fields and the subsequent crash of petroleum prices.

Ever since then, "sacrifice" and "conservation" have become dirty words, as several commenters here have noted.

Why did we Americans accept Reagan's consumptive notion of the "good life"? Well, isn't it sort of hard-wired into our national psyche? Hasn't it been that way ever since the colonial period, when the first English-speaking Americans initially beheld this seemingly empty continent full of seemingly unlimited resources and equally unlimited possibilities? Would Reagan's attacks on frugality have had such political effect if he hadn't been tapping into something already there, something that resonated deeply with the American people? I don't think so.

Yes, Reagan rode a wave; we have to give him credit for perceiving it and being ready for it. Many Americans today who are old enough to remember the Carter years still cannot think of him without a greater or lesser degree of contempt. (The speech has derisively become known as the "malaise" speech, even though Carter never used that word--it initially was a label the media attached to it). In other words, the public's perception of the Carter years is colored by the attacks his opponents made on him in 1980, not peoples' recollections of the actual events of Carter's presidency.

Maybe in retrospect, the debasing of Carter and his ideas was part of the first round of catabolic collapse that you have noted began around that time. I don't know. Maybe I'm just playing with my reminiscences. What do you all think?

4/15/11, 5:46 AM

hawlkeye said...
A number of times while savoring this juicy thread, I've been reminded of the current work of Carolyn Baker, who posits that our culture is missing its initiation experience, and thus stuck in a juvenile bearing toward our predicaments. She suggests that the collapses we are all contemplating here are forming up to become the Mother of All Initiation Experiences, and that developing our inner resiliency is as important as anything in our Wizardry Satchel. I find her take on the spiritual dimensions of all this to be accurate and profound.

But am I detecting a little binary-mind creep? Just because responsibility-deniers often point to elaborate conspiracy excuses for their non-culpability, that doesn't mean there is NOT a layer of vast manipulation beyond what is commonly understood.

At this point of cultural absurdity, I'm seeing Both/And: yes, The People have shirked, individually and collectively, AND there are genuinely highly-organized, rule-whacking flagrants camouflaged among the kooks, that are not yet even recognized, much less taken seriously. No, they’re not all powerful, but they sure weren’t elected, even with all the fraudulent voting machines.

As the director of Inside Job said when he accepted the top award for his documentary film, "There have been no arrests". How much proof do we need to admit there is far more going on beneath the surface than your Average American has the slightest clue about?

There's no-one breathing who doesn't benefit somehow from the oil bubble, and reclaiming personal responsibility for the common mess is an essential key to everyone's own industrial extraction adventure.

Yet, must someone be standing blameless in the woods for their warnings to count more than the Wolf-Crying Boy? Yes, he was foolish, but there really was a wolf after all.

Does this mean I’m claiming there really are Space Lizards after all? To echo a favorite quote: "Gah!"

True, I tend to grant more respect to the opinions of those walking their talk, but what I don’t know is vast, compared to what small certainty rests within my tender little grasp.

4/15/11, 5:58 AM

Richard Larson said...
Methinks using less of a diminishing resource will result in a higher standard of future living.

Boo! Please make a note of it.

4/15/11, 6:55 AM

Bill Pulliam said...
Don -- "Many Americans today who are old enough to remember the Carter years still cannot think of him without a greater or lesser degree of contempt."

According to a 2009 CNN poll of current approval ratings of former presidents:

Jimmy Carter 64%
George H. W. Bush 61%
Bill Clinton 69%

Not a whole lot of support there for the idea that Carter is particularly despised. Of course, "many" Americans also have contempt for Nelson Mandella and Mother Theresa.

An interesting side note -- Obama's approval ratings now are higher than Reagan's were at the same point in his presidency.

I think this whole idea of "conservation is a dirty word" also needs revisiting. I live in hard-core red state country, and my neighbors are becoming quite interested in conservation for basic pocketbook reasons. What they dislike is being told what to do, by anyone, about anything. They are NOT closed to new ideas, if they are presented as options not mandates.

Cherokee -- thanks for the complement. I long ago discovered that really alternative ideas are often not particularly welcome in "alternative" communities. Everyone has their own mindset, and responds negatively to things that don't jibe with it.

4/15/11, 7:37 AM

Adrian Ayres Fisher said...
I try not to comment more than once, but came across this Wordsworth sonnet that seems germane.

From the late-empire Romans mourning the loss of the old virtues, to Yeats and his "rough beast slouching towards Bethleham," to Nick Cave's "Go Tell the Women," it seems to me the poets see clearly and tell true.

And so many on this excellent thread are advocating and exemplifying "plain living and high thinking" of one sort or another.

WRITTEN IN LONDON, September, 1802.

O Friend! I know not which way I must look
For comfort, being, as I am, opprest,
To think that now our Life is only drest
For shew; mean handywork of craftsman, cook,
Or groom! We must run glittering like a Brook
In the open sunshine, or we are unblest:
The wealthiest man among us is the best:
No grandeur now in nature or in book
Delights us. Rapine, avarice, expence,
This is idolatry; and these we adore:
Plain living and high thinking are no more:
The homely beauty of the good old cause
Is gone; our peace, our fearful innocence,
And pure religion breathing household laws.

4/15/11, 8:55 AM

John Michael Greer said...
Bill, that's exactly the point here.

Petr, many thanks for the view from your side of the pond! I'm sorry to hear you're being treated to the same sort of pseudoconservative nonsense we've got over here. That set of ideas is well past its pull date.

Chris, exactly. I'll be talking more about that way off the carousel, in your phrase, when we get back to green wizardry after this extended tangent.

Phil, it's not cynical at all. The US, as a failing empire, isn't likely to have much to say to the form the future takes outside of its own borders; it's too deeply committed to preserving its own hegemony to be willing to risk substantive change. It's when the hegemony implodes -- and we're within decades of that at the outside -- that the real window for change here will open. In the meantime, those of us who aren't interested in maintaining that hegemony, and are willing to do without its benefits -- a major point, this latter -- can get to work crafting alternative and transitional structures to help fill the vacuum when American empire collapses and a dazed and probably traumatized nation has to deal with the consequences of its collective actions.

Don, there's no more challenging task for any historian than trying to tease out the causes of the major inflection points in history -- the moments when changes in public mood intersect with the usually improvised actions of those who hold power, those who want it, and those who happen to stumble into the crucial places at the crucial times, to send history careening down a new path. The shift we're talking about right now isn't one of the really big examples of that, but it's an example.

Hawlkeye, it never fails to amaze me how often I can say something and still be understood as saying something different. In any society, ours very much included, there are a number of power centers with a disproportionate amount of influence over the political process, all of them competing to push their own agendas on a largely but not entirely passive public using whatever means come to hand, many of them underhanded and manipulative.

Our society differs from a dictatorship in that there are a lot of power centers of various levels of influence, and thus decisionmaking in the US is largely a matter of cobbling together an alliance of convenience between a large enough collection of power centers, and then trying to talk enough of the public into backing it to avoid a backlash that could give a competing alliance its entering wedge. All this involves a lot of horse trading and bribery, and again, a lot of it is pretty seamy.

That's the context in which each of us live our lives and make our decisions. In that context, it remains possible for individuals to make their own choices, and even to help build new power centers with a different agenda -- that's what protest and activism are about, when they're not simply a matter of playacting. Thus we each bear responsibility for our own choices, and we share in the responsibility for what our society has become; of course it's not hard to find people whose responsibility for a given change is greater than others, but the point I'd like to make is that this is a lot less useful just now than facing our own troubled conscience and making the changes we know we need to make.

Richard, nicely summarized.

Bill, it does need to be revisited. It's primarily among the well-to-do that conservation is a dirty word, and maybe it's time to talk about that.

4/15/11, 9:01 AM

Don Plummer said...
@Bill--is it possible that Carter's currently positive ratings are due primarily to his "swinging the dang hammer" and those other things he's done since leaving Washington than it is to the things he did while president?

In my experience, and this is admittedly unscientific and therefore possibly wrong, the Carter presidency is regarded with more or less contempt by many Americans--and especially by those Americans who voted for Reagan (twice) and still think positively of the Reagan presidency. This has been true among people I have spoken with, even among those who think positively of the things Carter's been doing since he was president.

While I have the chance, I believe I should clarify my earlier post--it's the failure of the "Crisis of Confidence" speech to sustain and enhance the conservation momentum and the consequent ammunition that failure gave to Carter's political opponents that I see as a possible turning point away from our attempt to build a more sustainable direction at that time.

4/15/11, 9:37 AM

Kevin said...
That's the odd thing Bill: those to whom I've spoken so far are left-leaning liberals. What I've heard back to this point is (A) what a good idea nuclear energy is and (B) how our automobile fuel problems can easily be solved by turning yard trimmings into alcohol.

These aren't bad people mind you, but very kind and generous people who have been wonderful friends to me. They just don't have any realistic way to reconcile conservation with the mode of living to which they've become adapted. For that is difficult when the geography of your job causes you to occupy a condo in Silicon Valley, or the like.

4/15/11, 1:45 PM

Matthew Heins said...

Wow. That's quite a few comments!

In regards to the bit of the conversation between you and hawkleye and you and Bill on democracy and power, I have two thoughts that may not be entirely useless:

1. I often get the sense that what many people who have become cynics on the the subject of liberal democracy TRULY object to is how WELL democracy works! Whatever one thinks of Reagan or W. Bush, they were, in their moment, quite genuinely popular. Their policies- "Let's close our eyes and imagine prosperity" (Reagan) and "We Americans! We Strong! We no afraid! We smash you for making us afraid!" (W. Bush)- were also truly popular and actually remain so today. What many liberal democracy cynics want is a different demos.

2. It never ceases to surprise me a bit when people insist on imagining the Oligarchs (to put it into a word) as "hidden". They are as visible as the Medicis! They found large organisations, that occupy big office buildings around the capital, that release "policy papers" and newsletters, that have websites, that host press-attended dinners and events, that sponsor books and articles in the popular press, and that provide pundits for radio and television. All of this to espouse, publicly and repeatedly their particular vision, mission, and modus operandi.

The man on television with the dull tie and the shrill voice, and the words "The Heritage Foundation" floating beneath his head is "hidden" how, again?

Note to hawkleye:

Please don't take this as shot at you specifically. I understand what you are saying is a bit different and I generally agree. But many DO take the position I mention and your post prompted this response to THEM.


4/15/11, 3:00 PM

DrJanet said...
I recently read both "The Long Descent" and "The Ecotechnic Future" and thought both were absolutely outstanding.

I especially agree with your "technology won't save us" position. However, I just read "The Age of Deleveraging" by Gary Shilling, and he trashes--not once but twice--that position (as well as "peak oilers" themselves), and he argues that technology will indeed save us. On pages 283-285 of his book, Shilling says that "recent oil field discoveries and the prospect of more finds are discrediting the peak theory."

Then on pages 390-391, he says we know technology can save us, because it already has—-at least twice. He cites as evidence how (1) the production of coke (from coal) solved the shortage of hardwood that was crippling the glass industry in the early 1700s, and (2) the production of cheap kerosene solved the shortage of whale oil for lighting in the mid-1800s.

I'd love to hear your response to Dr. Shilling's claims.

4/15/11, 3:06 PM

sofistek said...

"it wasn't sustainable over the long run, but it would have bought us a great deal of time with which to tackle the next steps in the transition down from industrialism"

I think this is more a "could have" than a "would have". I support less wasteful ways, of course, and I would even tentatively, support nuclear power, if it's part of a transition not only to deindustrialism but also to a sustainable way of living. I don't think that there was any chance of a truly sustainable initiative in the 70s, so any simplification would have held false promise that some kind of sustainable society would emerge. And I can't, for the life of me, see how a high speed rail network would enhance a sustainable strategy. What kind of society needs to have large numbers of people (and small numbers of people would surely not justify the expense) whizzing around the country? It doesn't seem to me that a sustainable society would need such a thing though, if it were, somehow, part of a strategy that had sustainability as its target, then I'd say we should have gone for it (not just in the US).

I think it bears repeating that the essentials of sustainability are not consuming resources beyond their renewal rates and not damaging our habitat. Neither is sufficient on its own, both are required.

4/15/11, 3:41 PM

Cherokee Organics said...
Hi all,

Here's another shameless plug for a series of articles I'm writing about all things solar power. It's pretty easy reading and hopefully also quite informative. The end point of the series will show Green Wizards and everyone else how to wire up an emergency solar power supply - which is a pretty useful thing.

Please read it and feel free to drop in a comment especially of support.



4/15/11, 4:49 PM

Robin Datta said...
@Loveandlight (& everyone else): if the comment is longer than a line or two, I use notepad - and then copy & paste).

4/15/11, 8:44 PM

John Michael Greer said...
Adrian, thank you! Wordsworth is another welcome guest here.

Don, I think it was certainly part of what happened. More on this later.

Kevin, I've seen that again and again. A lot of people on the left want to have their planet and eat it too.

Matthew, true enough. Especially when the people who want a new demos are looking for one that will accept the limits they themselves aren't willing to tolerate.

Dr. Janet, the short version is that he's shoveling smoke. Recent finds -- yes, even counting the massively overhyped one in North Dakota -- are barely keeping up with the rapid depletion of existing fields, and the number of new finds under development is not enough to keep that up much longer -- see this article from the Oil Drum for some of the hard numbers. As for his comments about how technology has already saved us, notice that his examples involved figuring out how to use a much more abundant energy source (coal, oil) to replace a very specialized use of one in shorter supply. The problem was simply how to use an abundant resource in a different way. That's not the kind of problem we're facing, and so his examples are irrelevant; if you'd like better examples, Clive Ponting's A Green History of the World will give you several.

Sofistek, well, we'll never know at this point, so it's probably not worth arguing over.

4/15/11, 9:31 PM

Matthew Heins said...
To Sofistek,

Don't forget the stair-step model for the path to truly long-term sustainability.

High-speed rail competes well with airlines -up to a certain geographic area-today. But it also has infrastructure consequences that will/would benefit a "powering down" society in many ways from encouraging a nodal urban layout that can localize more easily all the way down to salvaging the rails for horseshoes. Compare this to the sprawl encouraged by airlines -and their needed counterpart, interurban highways- and their relative lack of usable salvage, and the picture becomes clearer.

It's all water under the bridge in the U.S. now. But in those few countries that did pursue high-speed and higher-speed (meaning 70-90ish, not 200 or 30, MPH) rail when the time was right -France, Japan, Germany, and the UK- it will be interesting to see the effects those systems have on the local "Long Descent".

High-speed allowed rail transport networks to survive the age of the airline and the freeway interchange more or less intact. Because it could compete directly with the airlines. Because EVERY society that has had the chance to becomes the "kind of society needs to have large numbers of people... whizzing around the country".

That is how it would have fit in a path to sustainability in the U.S. and that's how it may yet in those countries mentioned above, as I see it.


4/16/11, 2:09 PM

Doctor Westchester said...

I had hoped that my comment had indicated the issues we are discussing are cultural. I am as fed up with the current attitude of cynical helplessness as you are. I don’t tell people who say that the government is the problem to shut up, but sometimes it’s close. I’m amazed that people, especially those having memories predating the eighties, haven’t noticed that the more one elects people who say that that the government is bad and they don’t believe in it, the more problematic government becomes.

I’m disturbed by your comment that it is difficult to believe that there can be the elites in society that can simultaneously clever enough to manipulate others into an supporting a cause that they can’t recognize as being ultimately self-defeating. My understanding of history is that is often par for the course. The manipulation I speak of didn’t come fully formed out of nothing. Take for example the housing meltdown. This didn’t happen because all-powerful banks were able to sell the idea of sub-prime, alt-A, etc mortgages to debt-adverse Americans, like the ones that lived through the Great Depression. Getting Americans to do this took generational turn-over and long-term propaganda campaigns that built up over time. Financial leverage is like a drug. It can be wonderful in small, controlled, doses, like drinking wine with dinner in a family setting. Convince people to lose the control can lead to a greater high for the user and greater sales for the supplier. Each small step led to the next. Please note that eventually the propaganda campaigns affect the perceptions of the elites themselves. A member of our banking elite in sixties would consider the idea of offering option-ARM’s on a mass scale to Americans to be the madness that it is. That was no longer the case in the previous decade.

4/16/11, 2:49 PM

sofistek said...

I don't see why high speed rail would have encouraged a nodal urban layout. Wouldn't just old fashioned reasonable speed rail have done that? But "encouraged" appears to imply a nudging of the free market into that direction. I don't think the kind of notional free market that we've had is the least bit interested in sustainability. So, if high speed rail could do some of the things you claim, I'd support it, as I wrote, as part of a true sustainable strategy. Eventually cannibalising the rail tracks for horseshoes sounds like an excellent end game but I very much doubt that it would have worked out that way.

As JMG says, we'll never know how things might have turned out but I raise the issue of high speed rail and the notion of global leadership in some technology (however simple) because I keep coming across these ideas and, for the life of me, I can't figure out where they fit in a sustainable society. Maybe they can, but it's never made clear. Prior to JMG mentioning them, I'd previously read it by Chris Martenson (in terms of rail) and by a Green party member (in terms of green exports). In trying to imagine what a sustainable society might look like, I just can't see where these things fit in, at all. I'm prepared to be enlightened because I've drawn a blank, so far.

4/16/11, 3:49 PM

KL Cooke said...
Re: "I never saw a homeless person in my life until around the time that Reagan became President."

My memory goes back to the 50's, and there were always plenty of them, but they were called "winos." The were less visible, because the police had greater license then to keep them contained in certain areas, like West Madison St. in Chicago, or Third and Mission in San Francisco. So, the pre-Dickensian cruelty you mention is not newly visited here.

Here's my free on-line novel concerning the homeless.

4/16/11, 7:53 PM

Jason said...
Well Rob Hopkins certainly agrees with you. Have a look 15 mins into this video:

All that stuff that is now the cornerstone of green building and sustainable agriculture flowered in that period of about 6 years... when we got to 1979 we had everything we needed in place...

Etc. Maybe you'd expect him to say that, but unlike you JMG he wasn't there at the time, so it's a nice synchronicity for him to mention it in parallel with you.

I hope Epicurus isn't unwelcome on a Stoic blog? :) I like the way he expresses the same thought as the Lao-Tzu one posted by the other Jason:

Nothing is enough to someone for whom what is enough is little.

-- Vatican Sayings, 68.

4/17/11, 6:12 AM

JP said...
JMG, what you are noticing is the social mood of a Post-Unraveling era. The nihlism is self-liquidating.

[Note: I am taking this argument from the writings of William Strauss, Neil Howe, Mike Alexander, and John Xenakis]

That is to day, we are approaching the point when the individual-material impulse of a cultural unit (shared general thougts and ideas) reaches exhaustion. The ability of Gordon Gecko and the Material Girl to shape (or deform) society are ending.

This leads to either regenerancy or some form of dissolution.

Since the Boomers "won" the Awakening political crisis, we aren't facing civil war. So that's a positive. However, we still have the fraud from the bottomost to the toppermost infesting the system, so that's a big minus.

What will occur over the next several years is the development toward collective-materialist action. We aren't there yet, although the board is set.

At the moment, globally, the U.S. is facing standard-issue hegemonic deligetimation. It's normal and will go on for some time until the next macro-decision point circa 2040.

It's helpful to realize that the U.S. *should* have stepped into the role of Global Hegemon (or Western World Leader) after WWI, but didn't. So, things are kind of funny, geopolitically. The U.S. really only had open hegemonic power since 1989. It's over now. See Lybia for further details.

4/17/11, 8:26 AM

Jeffrey said...
I was born in 1957 and studied Environmental Science in the 70's so I relate well to the main points of this post. I have to also admit that in the heyday of the environmental movement back then I felt we were exceptional in our vision for the future. That all those suburban sheeples were doomed. This got me thinking today after reading this that a deeper common denominator as a source of the nihilism and cynicism is this sense of exceptionalism Americans tend to have regardless of their political or ideological beliefs.

That whatever it is we are doing that we are a member of the exceptional tribe. I think the cynicism and nihilism comes from being unable to accept not being exceptional and the center of attention.

You can see how insidious this is by asking yourself what are your expectations regarding this latest emergence of green wizardry and sustainability?

Does this have to be an exceptional movement or simply the humble act of living within the limits of the planet and building communities accordingly? Do you still remain committed if you strip out the ideological fireworks of being a pioneer and wizard and at the exceptional forefront of a new movement? This question is not meant to be accusatory but rather a mirror to hold up and explore the reflection that this question provokes.

I think nihilism and cynicism will be replaced with genuine optimism and the hard work of building a new paradigm only when what we do no longer has to be framed within the American pathology of grandeur and glamor.

If it aint sexy it aint worth doing so to speak.

I remember how the environmental movement of the 70's was crushed when it went from being viewed as cutting edge to being viewed (Reagan era) as a bunch of losers wearing burlap bags for clothes.

So the moment it lost its glamour it became replaced with a meme that preserved exceptionalism.

Have we learned our lesson from the 70's ?

I don't know the answer to that question!

4/17/11, 3:16 PM

Matthew Heins said...

Truly high-speed rail would be pointless to build NOW. It is no longer necessary to compete with the airlines because they are being held up by subsidies like a boxer in a rigged match. And the temporary bounty of fossil energy enjoyed by Europe and the U.S. in the period when true high-speed was up-and-coming is over.

This talk of high-speed rail is really more of an intellectual exercise than plan for action. The exercise has two parts:

1. Contemplate "what if?" scenarios in relation to the past.

2. Speculate as to how the actual choices of the past will effect the future of power down in various countries who made various differences.

Actual projects for truly high-speed rail transport a la Japan or the TGV in France should certainly NOT be undertaken at this time. Rather, actual projects for "regular"-speed transport of goods and "higher"-speed transport of passengers are what is needed. Nothing new or grandiose, merely an attempt to combine a make-work program with the rebuilding of a lower-energy (but not truly long-term sustainable) transportation network.

As far as high-speed encouraging a nodal urban fabric:

1. Compare German or French urban layouts to U.S. one's for some direct evidence.

2. As I wrote before, true high-speed rail allowed entire rail networks to survive because they could compete with the airlines directly. Keeping the rail infrastructure in general kept the nodal layout, because the pressure to build automobile dominated systems was less. Think of high-speed as a temporary augmentation to keep whole systems alive through the fossil energy glut of the Post War Period.

Lastly, you seem to always attempt to imagine "A sustainable society", when -as I thought JMG had demonstrated already- we should be imagining a series of transitions to ever more low-energy societies until we achieve a generally stable state he names "ecotechnic societies."

Its apples and oranges. ;)


4/17/11, 3:55 PM

dharmagaian said...
Thanks, JMG. I agree w/ another poster that this is one of your best. I'm so glad that you've opened up this subject. I think you're spot on re: cynicism/nihilism being a cover for a guilty collective conscience.

I find the following esoteric calculus of the evolutionary condition of souls useful for understanding the stupidity of the majority. That calculus says that 75% of humanity at any given time exists in a herd state, concerned w/ security, afraid to think for themselves, and easily led by manipulators. Only 20% of humanity at any given time are individuated and seek the freedom to think for themselves.

I was born in 1944, and left the herd at an early age, so I've watched things unfold in the US and world during my lifetime with dismay. I was in college in California beginning in 1961 - a time when herd mentality was challenged by the champions of individuation (Uranus & Pluto). I was in New York City in the early years of the age of greed (early 1980s) and watched people go into a zombie-like trance over money, which has continued to this day.

The crises of this century have all been brought on by the ignorance of the masses, the herd falling for the false promises of the capitalist manipulators or whatever you want to call them. Some people have been lying and the majority have fallen for the lies. And now the herd people hate to be told that they are responsible for the collective suffering that is the result of their ignorance/stupidity. Nihilism is just another abdication of responsibility.

But maybe the crises of this century will result in collective learning of essential lessons - to stop believing in parental saviors, grow up and think for ourselves, and establish our own direct, unmediated relationship with the natural world - which will enable a few members of our species (20% ?) to survive and establish, at last (or again!), a mature human presence on Mother Earth.

4/18/11, 5:25 AM

LynnHarding said...
@Matt and high-speed rail enthusiasts everywhere:
My favorite (popular) philosophers in the 1960's and 1970's were Ivan Illich and Paul Goodman. The latter is enjoying a renaissance through someone who is producing a video called "Paul Goodman changed my life." No one seems to talk much about Ivan Illich but he was a prolific writer who lived long enough to see the potential of the 'web' in some form. He though that it might allow the de-schooling of society. He also said "Tell me how fast you go and I'll tell you who you are." Here is a bit from an abstract of his work, "Energy and Equity." I have that book around somewhere but cant find it..

"In this essay, (Energy and Equity) Illich examines the question of whether or not humans need any more energy than is their natural birthright. Along the way he gives a startling analysis of the marginal disutility of tools. After a certain point, that is, more energy gives negative returns. For example, moving around causes loss of time proportional to the amount of energy which is poured into the transport system, so that the speed of the fastest traveller correlates inversely to the equality as well as freedom of the median traveller."

4/18/11, 9:20 AM

Michael said...
John -- This was my response to a friend who enquired about my sharing about the potential of small groups.

Hello Andrew. Thanks for your comment. I only used AA as an example of what small groups can accomplish on a large scale. What I had in mind was friends, neighbors, and any interested folks getting together to share and learn about our escalating world problems, and come up with some useful ideas about addressing them. I'm sorry JMG was so cool to the idea, but I think he was seeing it as a larger group activity. Heck, his own ideas could use some small group sharing and implementation! I recall that he had some problems with the transition towns movement a ways back. That was not at all what I had in mind. I could see small groups starting on the basis of studying his books. Lots of people are in the dark about peak oil, old-time conservation measures, etc.

4/18/11, 4:04 PM

Brad K. said...
Rather than high-speed rail, I would like to see attention paid to mule-powered rail. Or even people-pushed rail. Rather than envision connecting the coasts more quickly, I would rather see local transportation making a transition to something that uses an appropriate technology, responsible energy source, and connects to the high capacity, high energy, long distance transport system. Today's private fleets of trucks don't look so efficient if fuel and energy become significantly more expensive and also only available intermittently. Just one for-instance - the number of individual delivery trucks - Budweiser, Pepsi, Coca-Cola, Ralph's Meats, Syscom, etc. that make nearly-daily deliveries to a local 6 table convenience store/(excellent!) fried chicken and deli store.

How about some city planning that puts businesses on a common modest rail line or even canal for moving bulk stuff? Maybe multitask, with bulk movement at night, and passenger traffic during the day. Horse drawn and early electric trolleys made sense to communities not that long ago.

Besides, horse and mule droppings, or even oxen (cow) droppings, can be used to fertilize fields and gardens, or even cook the food. I haven't been tempted to try cooking with diesel exhaust - gathering it would be a pain, and preparing it for use would be material and energy intensive, I think.

4/18/11, 5:51 PM

sofistek said...
Thanks for the reply Matt. You make some fair points and I agree that high speed rail is not a project that should be undertaken now.

As for always imagining a sustainable society; the reason I do that is because I know that unsustainable societies cannot continue indefinitely (I know there is ultimately no such thing as sustainable but I'm talking of sustainable in terms of human behaviour not being our own downfall). It's possible that sustainability can never be reached though if that is the case, I'm not sure what our goal should be. A lower rate of resource consumption or a lower rate of damage to our habitat simply means that the problem might be put off for some future generation to deal with (if there is a future generation). So would the goal become one of avoiding our having to deal with the predicament, rather than aiming for true sustainability? If so, it doesn't sound like much of a goal.

4/18/11, 7:26 PM

Matthew Heins said...

Have you read JMG's "The Ecotechnic Future"?

To put my way of thinking about sustainability as basically as possible, I have been persuaded by Greer's notion of a truly sustainable/ecotechnic society being maladapted for the current global situation, and the upcoming likely one, and for several more after that.

I'd like true, long-term sustainability in our technics as soon as possible. But how would it work? Could we really expect to convince everyone to make a switch that would involve a fairly serious drop in living standards overnight? But could we force them either?

(for more please see a much better way of putting it in "The Ecotechnic Future")

I do see the potential for a network of voluntary "simple-living" communties, however. I can imagine these as both technically resembling and serving some similar social functions as post-Imperial Roman Catholic monastaries.

The problem of capital generation to get the land and set things up could be solved by collection of donations. The problem of how to socially organize the daily life of the community would be more difficult to work out.

Perhaps cultural preservation a la Greer's "Conservers" and the monastaries could be a main goal/activity? Perhaps experimentation with knowledge-heavy-but-machinery-light techniques such as Permaculture? Perhaps also research into or production of salvage age style machinery? And why not even scientific investigation, social-political theory debate and refinement, and creative works like novels or plays or artwork?

Likely some religious/philosophical glue is going to be needed to hold the community -and network- together. What could it be? Perhaps most communitarians could be only rotating temporary residents, thus mitigating the pain of the "quality of life" drop and lowering the need for spiritual commitment?

Anyway, such a network of communities is about as far as I can imagine "sustainable society" getting before the oil and coal and gas have really dwindled to next to nothing and the scraps of the Fossil Fuel Age have been utilised as long as the can be.

And even THAT is probably dreaming! ;)

So I tend to focus on a "guided fall" scenario from Peak Oil to Ecotechnic Society, instead of advocating sustainable society now or in my lifetime.


4/18/11, 8:42 PM

Joseph said...
I have been reading your blog for awhile and find your writing about energy and cultural transitions and survival skills for the future all to be insightful and well argued.
I'm troubled, however, in this article with the statement about Pentagon mismanagement of the Vietnam war. The problem was never one of tactics The problem was taking a military approach to what was really an opportunity to use real diplomacy to enlarge the influence of Democratic ideals. To take up the military colonial intervention of the French on the behalf of a minority of Vietnamese who had benefitted from the French rule was folly. We should have started building friendly bridges to socialists committed to the betterment of their people.
Intervening in complex civil conflicts where our soldiers can't even speak the language has been disastrous again and again. No tactical magic can make this plan work.

4/18/11, 9:11 PM

Lloyd Lincoln Clark said...
Whew!! A particularly engaging read this week, with so many thoughtful contributions. I'm looking forward to part two already.

Bill, your portrayal of snooze alarm habituated Homo nihilisticus autonomotivus has had me thinking about the pervasiveness of the reset button in our culture.

Handmaiden to the Horatio Alger meme the popular second chance narrative allows denial of the possible finality of failure. When something goes wrong, just reboot; causal analysis is optional and generally not recommended as complex systems are perceived to be beyond the grasp of individual ability, the realm only of experts. But whether adoption of this do-over mentality has helped to occasion or is merely symptomatic of the exhibited cult of disengagement that ranges from affectation of indifference, to cynical skepticism, to the absolutist denialist, is sort of that old chicken or egg quandary.

Come twilight, the imperative for chickens is the roost. There is no reset button for dusk and a chicken without a roost is dinner.

In my estimation the only thing we should be doing at high speed - is slowing down - so that we might have a chance to learn a thing or two from our chickens.

4/18/11, 9:44 PM

nuku said...
Dear JMG (and other posters), Theodore Roszak, the brilliant commentator who, at the beginning of the 70’s, gave us “The Making of a Counterculture” (and coined the term itself), wrote a few years later another insightful book called “Where The Wasteland Ends,” which addresses many of the deeper issues raised in this blog. I recommend it to all.

4/19/11, 12:35 AM

buzzard said...
I respectfully suggest to all those who have not read The Fourth Turning by William Strauss and Neil Howe to please read it. After I read it in 1997 it started me on my journey.

John, you are a needed voice in the chaos surrounding us. It is always humbling when we find that we must change our view to fit the facts.

4/19/11, 3:20 AM

Jim Brewster said...
Once the smoke cleared from Watergate, there was tension between those who would do whatever was needed to build a peaceful sustainable future and those who would do whatever was needed to maintain the status quo. In the end the status quo won out.

Part of Carter's problem was that he was caught in the middle, not really committed to either side.

More interesting to me than the general election of 1980 is the Democratic primary campaign of 1976. Carter won by playing the delegate game better than anyone else in a crowded field. So many "what if's" to ponder there! Like what if Jerry Brown had won the nomination? Would he have been trounced by Ford in the name of BAU, or would we have had a POTUS who really believed in an ecological agenda?

4/19/11, 3:29 AM

Edde said...
Good morning John Michael,

Hope you enjoyed Full Moon, "Pink Moon" yesterday morning;-)

Off topic, a historic lodge that may be of interest:


4/19/11, 6:28 AM

Cathy McGuire said...
Okay, now I got that song stuck in my head! ;-}

It's hard not to be cynical when these kinds of articles are popping up:

"Eco-luxe is about getting back to basics without forsaking quality, but doing that in a conscious way," says Shannon Dunn, director of Conscious Life Media of New Zealand, which produces Ecoluxe magazine. It's "really a return to nature, but also about living a comfortable, fulfilling, abundant life."

Yeah, right - if that's not a "have my cake and eat it too" attitude, I don't know what is...

But I agree about personal responsibility. I've stopped preaching to others and now I'm focused on doing everything I can to withdraw from, and not support the current consumer culture. The more I do, the more I see can be done... so I just keep on learning and doing...

@Adam Streed: Or, to put the point conversely, the motivation to get out and make things better requires a judgment that doing X rather than Y really is---independently of anyone's attitudes---better. And making that kind of commitment is something that people (or, to stick to my sample, California undergrads) seem loath to do.

I encountered that in a cohousing community – the “unwillingness to judge” and the “equality of point of view; no hierarchies” – which I tried to point out was a false front, because 1) so many of the members were acting on judgments they were unwilling to admit and 2)pushing that point of view as “best” actually creates the hierarchy they were decrying. But deaf ears… I suppose they’re still struggling; I left 5 years ago.

@BradK: All growing and learning is about indoctrination. If we hope for the future, we need to take ownership of how our children are being indoctrinated today.

Out in Oregon, we have a statewide “Green Schools Association” that encourages and supports schools to develop reducing, reusing and recycle technique and also to have a school garden where they use the compost generated from the school lunches, for example. It’s fun and it seems to be developing a generation of more-aware Oregonians.

4/19/11, 7:27 AM

Alexander said...
My first thought while reading through this post was "Well I wasn't even born yet, its not MY fault."

Then I realized that thought is essentially just another excuse to not do anything.

4/20/11, 2:03 AM

sofistek said...
Hi Matt,

No, I haven't read The Ecotechnic Future but it's one I've been thinking about getting.

Yeah, loose knit communities sounds about right, but I'm not sure about what those societies would look like, in terms of how people live their daily lives. However, I've recently fancied the notion that each community would have a forest garden at its centre with many such communities surrounding an even larger food forest. There would be fairly frequent links between such communities but rarer links further out.


4/20/11, 2:05 AM

Matthew Heins said...

You should check it out.

I'd say most regular posters here have read it, and it always helps to have a common language.

Forest Gardens are the future, for sure.

And in some places the past?

Another book I highly recommend is "1491: New Revelations on the Americas before Columbus" by Charles C. Mann. There is a whole section on the Natives use of land, one chapter of which gives an excellent gloss of recent research on the ancient Amazonian practice of silviculture for food, fuel, and materiel. According to archeologists much of the Amazon Forest is an old forest garden gone feral!

Now I'll stop hijacking JMG's thread (because he's gonna post a new one today) ;)


4/20/11, 10:31 AM